Oak Ridge Meeting Today

Oak Ridge Meeting Today

AHF President Cindy Kelly with Manhattan Project Oak Ridge photographer Ed Westcott

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Monday, January 25 – The National Park Service (NPS) will host the first in its series of public meetings to discuss a draft study on the creation of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Oak Ridge on Tuesday, January 26, 2010. The meetings are from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM at the US Department of Energy Information Center, 475 Oak Ridge Turnpike.

The discussion will focus on Oak Ridge’s role in a future national park. The main issue for Oak Ridge is that the National Park Service’s draft falls short of making Oak Ridge’s Manhattan Project sites a unit of the national park system. We hope that the final report will amend this.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation believes that the National Park Service’s concerns which relate primarily to “feasibility” such as future possible costs and liability can be resolved. Oak Ridge played a unique and indispensible role in the Manhattan Project. Its sites should become a unit of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park along with the Manhattan Project sites at Los Alamos, NM and Hanford, WA. 

Currently, there are no national parks that preserve Manhattan Project resources or tell the story of the top-secret World War II project that created the world’s first atomic bombs. The National Park Service study is the first step in designating a new national park. With bipartisan support, Congress passed the “Manhattan Project National Historical Park Study Act” in 2004 and directed that the study consider the three major Manhattan Project sites at Los Alamos, NM, Oak Ridge, TN and Hanford, WA, as well as Dayton, OH.

The draft study, released in late 2009, presents five alternatives ranging from no action to the creation of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Los Alamos. In this alternative, Hanford and Oak Ridge would be associated with, but not operationally part of, the Los Alamos-based park.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the Manhattan Project and Atomic Age, worked with Congress to get the original legislation passed in 2004. We strongly believe that Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford each deserve to be recognized as a unit of the national park system and designated a unit of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. While Los Alamos was responsible for designing and testing the bombs, Oak Ridge and Hanford were responsible for production of the fissile materials—enriched uranium and plutonium—that are essential ingredients for an atomic explosion. Without the success of their first-of-a-kind production facilities the project would have failed.

Of the 130,000 individuals who were employed by the Project, only 5,000 were based in Los Alamos. Nearly 125,000 others worked to produce fissile material for the bombs at Hanford and Oak Ridge. Roughly sixty percent of the Project’s budget was spent at Oak Ridge. While Dayton played an important role in developing the polonium or the neutron generators for the bombs, the Ohio site lacks the resources of the other three.

The Oak Ridge site remains a material testament to the scientific innovation and extraordinary human collaboration that were essential to the Manhattan Project’s success. The Department of Energy recognizes three of Oak Ridge’s facilities as “Signature Facilities of the Manhattan Project.” The Y-12 Beta-3 calutrons used an electromagnetic process to separate the isotopes of uranium. The Beta-3 calutrons and their control panels look just as they did in 1945. In the basement, wooden crates stamped, “Clinton Engineer Works,” contain spare parts ordered by the Manhattan Project. 

Built in 1943, the X-10 Graphite Reactor is the first full-scale reactor and a prototype for the Hanford plutonium production reactors. After World War II, it became an important source of medical isotopes. Shut down in 1963, the reactor was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and has been available for public tours for decades.

The mile-long K-25 gaseous diffusion plant has been slated for demolition by the Department of Energy and destruction of a major portion has already been completed. However, the recent discovery of technetium contamination has complicated demolition plans and provided an opportunity to reconsider preservation of at least a portion of the original plant. Over the years, preserving some authentic portion of the K-25 facility has been supported by the majority of Oak Ridgers as well as the Tennessee Historical Commission and others who have been part of the Department’s ongoing deliberations under the Section 106 process. Even if just a segment of the K-25 is maintained, it could become a highlight of the visitor's experience and an important component of a Manhattan Project national historical park. 

The study’s arguments against establishing a Manhattan Project National Historical Park relate to “feasibility.” The study cites the management challenges and costs of dealing with sites in dispersed locations, financial liability for future cleanup and maintenance, and visitor and employee safety. Another problem cited is lack of public access to the Department’s facilities “behind the fence” as well as to some privately-owned structures. The study also cites the degradation of historic structures at Oak Ridge such as K-25 plant and the Guest House or Alexander Inn. Finally, the study cites the uncertainty of Congressional funding.

These concerns should not prevent the Park Service from establishing a Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Oak Ridge. NPS currently runs a number of discontiguous parks, including the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which has units in Skagway, AK, and Seattle, WA, almost 1800 miles apart.

The Park Service is no stranger to complex landownership agreements. The Boston National Historical Park is comprised of eight sites, only two of which are owned and operated by the National Park Service. The six non-NPS sites are owned and operated by entities ranging from the City of Boston to a local parish to the 128-year-old Bostonian Society. All eight have been restored and are interpreted by the Park Service and are now open to the public. A similar arrangement could be envisioned at Oak Ridge.

Public access to the Department of Energy’s facilities changes over time. Restrictions put in place in one decade may be lifted the next, especially with plans to shrink the Department’s “footprint.” For example, as the Y-12 plant is modernized, it is likely that the Beta-3 calutrons will become more accessible to the public. Within the community, the Oak Ridge and Woodland-Scarboro Historic Districts, a mix of privately and publicly owned buildings and structures, do not have to be open to the public. Just driving through the neighborhoods of “alphabet houses” brings visitors back to the Manhattan Project.

Finally, precedent suggests that if a park is established, Congressional funding will follow. In the study alternative where a Manhattan Project National Historical Park would be established at all four sites, the Department of Energy would continue to own and operate its historic structures. Special appropriations could be authorized to provide DOE funds for maintenance, safety and security. Separate appropriations would be directed to the National Park Service for educational and interpretive activities.

A Manhattan Project National Historical Park at the three sites could be a prototype for 21st century parks. In September 2009, the National Parks Second Century Commission, co-chaired by Senators Howard Baker, Jr. and Bennett Johnston, Jr., strongly urged Congress to expand the role of the national parks to represent the diversity of our heritage. The Commission’s recommendations reinforce the merits of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park and the need to preserve the few remaining properties. These recommendations include engaging diverse audiences, providing lifelong, place-based learning, strengthening collaboration with partners, and using technologies and media to further these aims.

A Manhattan Project National Historical Park, combining scientific, military, industrial, social and cultural history, could broaden the NPS narrative and reach new, diverse audiences. The use of innovative technologies in the Manhattan Project Park would make this history widely accessible while enhancing the park’s educational capacity. The new NPS Views of the National Parks program is a good example of how the Manhattan Project and its legacy today could be explored through interactive educational programming.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation urges members of the Oak Ridge community to take advantage of the upcoming public forum and the comment period to advocate for the inclusion of the Oak Ridge site in a national historical park. The public comment period will be open through March 1, 2010. 

The Atomic Heritage Foundation is hosting an informal workshop for anyone interested in exchanging ideas and plans with colleagues from different sites and experts in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, February 10, from 9 AM to noon followed by an informal lunch. The meeting will be at Latham & Watkins, 555 11th Street, NW, tenth floor. Please RSVP to Cindy Kelly at ckelly@atomicheritage.org as space is limited. 

Details about the public meetings, the National Park Service’s newsletter summarizing the study’s alternative and link to the full report are available on the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s website at www.atomicheritage.org. A complete copy of the study is available on the National Park Service website at http://parkplanning.nps.gov.