Preserving the Manhattan Project Sites for Future Generations
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Preserving the Manhattan Project Sites for Future Generations

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On Friday, March 15, 2013, Representatives Doc Hastings (R-WA), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), and Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) introduced legislation (H.R. 1208) to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. This follows the Senate bill (S. 507) which was introduced on March 7 by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

We are guardedly optimistic that the 113th Congress will pass the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) takes over from Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) as Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has pledged his support for the legislation, explaining that Manhattan Project sites in Washington, Tennessee, and New Mexico "needs to be preserved so future generations understand what went on here." Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Tom Udall (D-NM) are cosponsors of the Senate bill. Representative Doc Hastings (R-WA) returns as Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. Hastings is a vigorous champion and vowed to enact the legislation this Congress. 

With their leadership and the continued support of the Departments of Interior and Energy, the Manhattan Project communities and many others around the country, the prognosis is very good that the 113th Congress will enact the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.


Preservation Takes Hold 


At Los Alamos, the original technical buildings around Ashley Pond were torn down more than forty years ago. By 1997, only fifty Manhattan Project properties scattered in remote parts of the laboratory were left. Most were built to last the duration of the war and had been abandoned in mid-1950s. By the mid-1990s, nature had begun its own process of demolition. While the laboratory was required to mitigate the loss of historic properties, preservation was not considered an option. Isolated in space and time, few people even knew these buildings existed.

A cluster of humble wooden buildings called "V Site" are surrounded by ponderosa pines as occasional herds of mule deer trot across the surrounding meadows. The central building has high-bay doors that once swung open for the "Gadget," the world's first atomic device tested on July 16, 1945.

In its report to New Mexico's environmental authorities on the V Site buildings, the laboratory condemned the buildings, citing contamination with asbestos shingles and possible residues of high explosive materials. Fortunately, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), a small Federal agency, agreed to take an independent look at the V Site properties.

The Council members were struck by the contrast between the simplicity of structures and the complexity of what took place inside them. Subsequently, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) management agreed to remove all of the V Site buildings from the demolition list. After the Department of Energy applied for one of the first "Save America's Treasures" grants for Federal properties in danger of being lost, the National Park Service awarded the V site a $700,000 matching grant for restoration and preservation efforts. 

Inspired by the restoration of the V Site, in 2000 the Department of Energy listed eight properties as Signature Facilities of the Manhattan Project. The list included the V Site and Gun Site at Los Alamos, the X-10 Graphite Reactor, Beta-3 Calutrons and K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant at Oak Ridge, and the B Reactor and T Plant at Hanford. 

Congress Steps In 

In 2003, Congress required DOE to develop a plan for preserving its Manhattan Project history. Under a cooperative agreement with DOE, the Atomic Heritage Foundation took on the task, beginning with a series of public meetings at Oak Ridge, TN, Los Alamos, NM, and Richland, WA. The Foundation's report released in 2004 recommended a Manhattan Project national historical park at the three major sites. 

In September 2004, Congress passed the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Study Act [PL 108-340] that authorized the National Park Service to study whether to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park.  In early 2011, the National Park Service is expected to submit its recommendations to Congress for a park with units at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford. Assuming that Congress enacts legislation for the park, the National Park Service will undertake a general management study to assess how to best interpret each site and make it available for tourists and the general public. 

Related AHF Efforts 

In the meantime, the Atomic Heritage Foundation is continuing its work to preserve key Manhattan Project properties. A top priority is to ensure that at least a portion of the mile-long K-25 plant in Oak Ridge is preserved. In May 2010, the Tennessee Trust for Historic Preservation named the K-25 plant as one of the state's ten most endangered historic sites. The Department recently released an expert evaluation that suggests that saving a piece can be done in a cost-effective and safe manner. A decision is anticipated by June 2011.

gunsiteA second preservation priority is the Gun Site at Los Alamos (above). The Gun Site (TA-8-1) was where Manhattan Project scientists and engineers developed and tested the uranium-based weapon design. Here the "Little Boy" bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was assembled. We hope that restoration of the bunker-like buildings and a 45-foot periscope tower will be completed in time for New Mexico's Centennial in 2012.

When future generations look back on the 20th century, few events will rival the harnessing of nuclear energy as a turning point in world history. Having some of the authentic properties where the Manhattan Project scientists and engineers achieved this is essential. As Richard Rhodes has said, "When we lose parts of our physical past, we lose parts of our common social past as well." With the prospective Manhattan Project National Historical Park, our vision of having some tangible remains from the Manhattan Project to educate and inspire future generations may become a reality.


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