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Is the Country Ready for a Manhattan Project National Historical Park?

The B Reactor at Hanford in operation

The B Reactor plutonium production complex at Hanford during its operational days. Photo courtesy of Hanford's Environmental Restoration Project.

Should factors such as public access, costs, and even public safety be considered when deciding whether to add a new site to the National Park system? Those are some of the issues in the current discussion over a possible Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

In 2004, Congress directed the Secretary of the Interior to “conduct a study on the preservation and interpretation of historic sites of the Manhattan Project" to determine if they should be included in the National Park System. That study has been completed and public comments on the proposed park are being solicited. There's plenty of fodder for discussion.

Lest the name "Manhattan Project" create any confusion about the location of a possible new park, here's a little history refresher, courtesy of the NPS study:

The Manhattan Project was a government-directed top-secret program implemented in the United States during World War II to construct a nuclear weapon ahead of Nazi Germany, which had initiated atomic energy research in the 1930s.

Most Americans are unaware of the enormous scope of this project.

Beginning in 1942, the Manhattan Project grew to a $2.2 billion (1942 dollars) effort that employed some 130,000 workers at its peak. The Manhattan Project, together with similar weaponry development around the globe, resulted in scientific and technological advancements that transformed the world by ushering in the atomic age. Although huge in scope, it was largely kept out of public view and knowledge.

Four widely-separated sites were included in the NPS study: the Los Alamos National Laboratory and town site in New Mexico; the Hanford site in Washington State; the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee; and a site in Dayton, Ohio. Each played a key role in the Manhattan Project.

There's no obvious connection between any of the above locations and that famous high-dollar real estate in New York, so for the benefit of trivia buffs, here's how the Manhattan Project got its name:

By mid-1942, it was obvious that pilot plants, and eventually full-sized factories, would have to be constructed… Because the work was now being done in secrecy and considerable construction was foreseen …the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was given controlling authority.

To manage the project, the … Corps set up the Manhattan Engineer District, so called because the headquarters was initially in New York City. From that District came the name “Manhattan Project” for the nationwide effort.

The Hanford Engineer Works (today known as the Hanford site) covered 560 square miles in a remote area of eastern Washington, and "its construction in less than a year's time turned a hamlet of some 400 people into an atomic boomtown, with the population reaching some 50,000 by the summer of 1944. Among its hundreds of structures was the"B Reactor," the world’s first production-scale nuclear reactor.

The B Reactor was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 and it was designated a National Historic Landmark in August 2008. The B Reactor has "received broad recognition for its historical and engineering importance."

The Oak Ridge Reservation (now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory) included nearly 59,000 acres in a remote rural area west of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Referred to as Site X, the Oak Ridge Reservation had four principal Manhattan Project components: the graphite pile (reactor), code-named X-10; the electromagnetic plant, code-named Y-12; the gaseous diffusion plant, code-named K-25; and the town site or residential portion named Oak Ridge.

X-10, the first plutonium-producing graphite reactor in the world, was a precursor to the massive reactors that were later constructed at the Hanford site in Washington. The X-10 Reactor was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1965 and designated as a national historic landmark in 1966.

The Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (now the Los Alamos National Laboratory) was established in northern New Mexico in 1943 as a research and design laboratory facility. J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the nation’s leading physicists, and other scientists worked there.

…preliminary testing [of plutonium weapons] was conducted in a variety of facilities at Los Alamos, where the first atomic bombs were designed and constructed, before the first detonation of a nuclear device was held at the Trinity Site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.

Structures in Dayton, Ohio, were associated with research and development efforts conducted by the Monsanto Chemical Company. Manhattan Project sites in Dayton are privately owned and are not open for visitation.

The events which occurred at those sites raise some interesting questions: Is the country ready for a park commemorating the birth of the atomic age? If sites associated with the Manhattan Project are "nationally significant," is the NPS the appropriate agency to preserve them?

The National Park System already includes a few sites connected with advances in technology, including Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site and Springfield Armory National Historic Site (both in Massachusetts), and Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey.

The Department of Energy (DOE), which currently manages three of the four sites included in the study, attempted to answer some of those questions several years ago.

During the 1990s, the Department of Energy began a process to preserve and interpret the remaining historically significant physical properties and artifacts associated with the Manhattan Project before they were lost.

In December 1999, the department published a report entitled The Signature Facilities of the Manhattan Project …Eight historic properties were designated Signature Facilities, which “taken together, provide the essential core for successfully interpreting for the American public the Manhattan Project mission of developing an atomic bomb.”

Included on the list were three facilities at Oak Ridge (including the X-10 Graphite Reactor); two at Hanford (including the "B" Reactor); and one at Los Alamos (the V-Site Assembly Building and Gun Site.) The two sites on the DOE list that were not included in the NPS study were the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago and the Trinity Site near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Some might argue that the DOE has a vested interest in promoting the historic value of these facilities, although the agency could be forgiven if it also viewed them as a bottomless pit into which it pours money for clean-up of hazardous materials sites and maintenance of now idle industrial-size structures.

A second opinion seemed to be in order on the value of the sites, so the DOE requested help from the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The Council

convened a panel of distinguished historic preservation experts who visited the Signature Facilities, evaluated their historical significance, and developed recommendations and preservation options for the department’s consideration.

The Advisory Council delivered the panel’s final report to the Secretary of Energy in March 2001. The panel stated that development and use of the atomic bomb during World War II was “the single most significant event of the 20th century.” Moreover, the panel unanimously agreed with the department that the Signature Facilities are of extraordinary historical significance and “deserve commemoration as national treasures.”

That's pretty strong language… and there's more:

…the Advisory Council recommended that the sites associated with the Manhattan Project be formally established as a collective unit and be administered for preservation, commemoration, and public interpretation in cooperation with the National Park Service.

That recommendation helped prompt the recently completed "Manhattan Project Sites Draft Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment," which sought to determine just what form that "cooperation with the National Park Service" should take—if any.

You can download and/or read the entire study at this link, but here's a very brief summary of the NPS recommendation:

The study offers five alternatives:

• Maintain the status quo;
• Create a nationwide nonprofit consortium to work with DOE on preservation and interpretive efforts at the four sites;
• Create a National Heritage Area which would "eventually need to be self-sustaining;"
• Make the sites "Areas Affiliated with the National Park System (no NPS operation or ownership);
• Establish a Manhattan Project National Historical Park, managed by the National Park Service.

If you're interested in a summary of all five alternatives vs. a detailed analysis, the first six pages of the NPS Special Resource Study provide that information.

The last option, described as "Alternative E," is the only one in the study that provides a park under NPS management, so it's clearly the one of greatest interest to Traveler readers. Here's a quick recap of that recommendation:

The proposed park would be limited to "Certain site resources within the existing Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory National Landmark District."

Other Manhattan Project sites—resources and historic districts located in Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Dayton—would be considered associated with, but not operationally part of, the Los Alamos-based National Historical Park. The National Park Service would be encouraged to have formal relationships with these associated sites through written agreements.

The study concludes that Alternative E is "the environmentally preferable alternative," but the key decision—which of the alternatives is the "most effective and efficient management option"—is yet to be reached. It will be determined "following public and agency review of the draft report, and NPS policy determination."

Various groups that have been promoting a more ambitious park have expressed disappointment in the NPS report. The include the B Reactor Museum Association and The Atomic Heritage Foundation].

Media reports from the state of Washington mention the determination of other groups in the Hanford area to continue to push for including Hanford's "B Reactor" in a future NPS site. Those groups include the Tri-City Development Council and the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau.

Is the NPS recommendation limiting a possible future Manhattan Sites park to Los Alamos the right call? Here's a summary of the agency's rationale:

There are a number of factors that make the entire study area [i.e. all four sites] infeasible as a unit of the national park system:

• The size, boundary configurations, distance between sites, and land ownership patterns would create a highly complex management scenario and would likely contribute to an unreasonably high cost of management by the National Park Service.

• Visitor access to DOE sites and privately owned sites in many different locations could be significantly limited; visitor enjoyment across all of these sites could not be assured.

• The Department of Energy has indicated it would continue to bear responsibility for safety, national security, historic preservation, and upkeep of its facilities; however, there are still concerns regarding the National Park Service assuming liability and unforeseen costs in addressing visitor and employee safety, national security, haz mat cleanup, historic preservation, and maintenance of the facilities in the future.

• The study area encompassing widely dispersed sites is not capable of efficient administration by the National Park Service at a reasonable cost. Within the context of the current commitments of the President, Secretary of the Interior, and the Director of the National Park Service to address other national financial priorities, it is unlikely that sufficient funds would be available for the National Park Service to undertake new management responsibilities for such a park.

It's also useful to consider what might happen to the sites in question—and the story of the project—without a NPS role.

What about public access? The NPS study notes,

There is a great deal of interest in public access to the sites and to the overall story of the Manhattan Project. The Department of Energy protects Signature Facilities of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, Hanford, and Oak Ridge, and provides for visitor use where possible. However, public access and use of many of the structures and buildings at Los Alamos, Hanford, and Oak Ridge have been, and likely will continue to be, limited or prohibited due to national security or public health concerns.

DOE currently offers some tours at the Hanford Site, and in past years the available spots have been quickly taken. A virtual tour of Hanford is also available.

Public tours are also offered by DOE at Oak Ridge, and The American Museum of Science and Energy in downtown Oak Ridge "chronicles the World War II Manhattan Project that created the secret city of Oak Ridge" as part of its mission.

The Bradbury Science Museum at Los Alamos includes a history gallery with exhibits and videos that cover the Manhattan Project era in that area.

Proponents of a more ambitious park worry that many of the physical facilities dating back to the 1940's will be lost. Many of the key structures are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so DOE has to follow the same guidelines as the NPS in terms of protecting—or disposing of—those buildings.

Maintaining these aging and enormous industrial facilities is an expensive proposition, and costs will only continue to rise. Can those costs can be justified indefinitely…and can the story of the Project be told without those physical reminders? It's a challenge for DOE, and one the NPS clearly doesn't want to inherit. Pressure from advocacy groups does appear to be having some results.

At Hanford, all of the production reactors and most associated facilities have been shut down, and each is in some stage of cleanup, decommissioning, or rehabilitation. As cleanup efforts continue at Hanford, the B Reactor has been deactivated; however, the Manhattan Project-era equipment and setting are still intact. Although the B Reactor was once scheduled for cocooning, the Department of Energy now plans to maintain the facility as is.

So, what do you think? Is any NPS involvement in these sites appropriate—and affordable?

The NPS is currently accepting public comments on the proposal. The public comment period will be open through March 1, 2010, and you can submit comments on-line via this link. Click on the "Comment on Document" link at the top of that webpage to get to the comments section.

The National Park Service is also holding a series of open houses, where interested individuals can "drop-in and comment" on the study. The first was conducted at Hanford, Washington, on January 20, 2010. Upcoming meetings are scheduled in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on Tuesday, January 26; in Dayton, Ohio, on Thursday, January 28; and in Los Alamos, New Mexico on Tuesday, February 2. Complete details on times and locations of those meetings are available here.

Is this a part of our nation's history the NPS can't afford to ignore—or is the ambitious effort advocated by some groups a park the NPS simply can't afford?


To Dick Sellars --

It would be interesting if you and Bill would read the Gary Wills book, and then comment what the primary nationally significant theme of the Manhattan Project should be. And, then return to the Trinity site, and say if you still agree it best expresses the true national significance of the Project.

Perhaps, it is Cold War thinking -- from as you say the 1960's and 1970's -- that sees the bomb itself, and its first explosion as the really key affect of the Manhattan Project?

Or, would you consider multiple sites, recognizing that the Trinity site puts the focus primarily on the Gadget itself? Is the bomb explosion itself really the key event now, after reflecting on the larger significance? Or, can you really interpret properly the larger significance of the Manhattan Project at that site, recognizing how the power of the site itself would tend to obliterate the other questions for the Visitor?

I have mixed feelings about the device, in the Special Resources Study, of cooperative agreements with other sites to pick up all those key themes that would be missing from Los Alamos or Trinity, and demonstrates a level of rationalization that might be fatal to what really matters. Sometimes it may work. They tried it at New Bedford Whaling via agreements with Barrow, AK; I have my doubts that it really added dimension to the Story.

I found the comments on a Manhattan Project site very interesting. And it seems to me that Dan Lenihan's remarks about Trinity are right on target: I have long thought that the Trinity Test Site easily qualifies for the World Heritage List. A nano-second after the bomb went off, the site had unquestionable worldwide significance---for openers, think of August 1945, nuclear proliferation, and the endless threat of nuclear war. The N.P. of S. first got involved surprisingly early--in the autumn of 1945, and it issued a kind of site study in December of that year. Nothing happened, likely it was just too soon to turn it over to a bunch of preservationists. (Although some government entity authorized the study, and I suspect it was not just the Park Service itself, but higher up, possibly much higher.)

The next involvement that I know of came with a study completed in April 1968. It went nowhere, probably because of the war in Vietnam. Bill Brown, once the sage of Santa Fe, now of Gustavus, AK (and probably the smartest person ever to work for the N.P. of S.), took part in the study. He told me once that this effort failed largely because of the bomb's use on another Asian country, and with the war ongoing it was just not good timing to make it a "park." Bill is surely right on this----I just Googled "Tet Offensive" and it started up in January 1968...... In the mid-1970's, we gave the missile range advice on preservation of the remaining structures. That was my first chance to visit the place--I made the case to Bill that my presence down there was of the greatest possible urgency. and he said "get out of my sight." The preservation treatment at Trinity was, as far as I could tell, pretty much completed when the George Wright Society met in Albuquerque a decade or so ago and set up a field trip down there. I have felt for some time that the people who run the White Sands Missile Range just don't want to give up the Trinity Test Site, probably for a variety of reasons.


All stories of American History, good and bad, the ones we're proud of AND the ones we're ashamed of, should be told.
Sweeping our less savory contributions to world history under the rug serves no one.
To follow your emotions, the NPS should cease interpretation and preservation of the Civil War, The Mexican American War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, WW I and II...
Is that what you are suggesting?

Not at all -- thanks for your clarification.

Regarding D-2's comment about my saying "one is serious about NPS's role in historic preservation or they're not" being dizzily naive--I think it's more 'poorly spoken' than 'naive.' I did not mean to imply one should want to run out and make a park out of the Trinity Site or they're not serious about Historic Preservation, although I can see it being read that way. I mean it needs be taken seriously by the NPS and not blown off as many people do. I don't really argue the point that other means than "place" might suffice. But the Enola Gay aftermath is not enough reason. As a matter of fact I think the Trinity site might be very appropriate for 'place' preservation if the place has not changed in the ten years or so since I last saw it. However, no, I didn't mean it that way, sorry if you or others took it as such.

ypw is right about the Enola Gay 'controversy;' If I am not mistaken, one of the earlier posts is by someone who posted in this thread has written about it, and made it pretty clear the people involved in developing the exhibit originally were pretty clueless about what would happen and how political conversations explode in this country. They not only destroyed the exhibit, but Charleton Heston insisted that the Exhibit Curator be FIRED. When the radical right gets a clear bead on a cultural enemy, they know where the trigger is, and how to fire it.

I definitely remember the controversy. At the time the new Secretary of the Smithsonian was Ira Michael Heyman, who was Chancellor at UC Berkeley while I was a student there. He said it was an interesting way to start his tenure as head of the Smithsonian.

While I suppose there are controversies over the NPS telling of history, that probably pales in comparison to the various interest groups fighting to influence the telling of history at the Smithsonian.

And CAPTCHA for today is "in nitpicks".

ypw is right about the Enola Gay 'controversy;' If I am not mistaken, one of the earlier posts is by someone who posted in this thread has written about it, and made it pretty clear the people involved in developing the exhibit originally were pretty clueless about what would happen and how political conversations explode in this country. They not only destroyed the exhibit, but Charleton Heston insisted that the Exhibit Curator be FIRED. When the radical right gets a clear bead on a cultural enemy, they know where the trigger is, and how to fire it.

I agree with Lenihan's point here, but only up to a point. It is a significant site. But the quote "One is either serious about the NPS role in historic preservation or they're not," seems to me just as dizzily naive as the folks were on Enola Gay, or on the Oklahoma City bombing site.

Just because a place is relates to a preeminent historic event, does not mean that that historic significance can best be expressed by PLACE. There are other ways nationally significant and world-historical events can be addressed. One is: a book. Another is: a museum. Another is: school. Another is: a bulldozer (it was not necessary to preserve the entire ruin of Berlin to commemorate World War II).

Take an obvious example: some Presidential Houses really say something about the person who was the President, and what was significant about that person. The Harry Truman historic site really expresses who Truman was. How does the Woodrow Wilson house in DC, not a national park, get to the heart of Wilson? If Oyster Bay were the only national park commemorating Theodore Roosevelt, would that house really get to the heart of what reflects Roosevelt's significance in American history? That site ignores what he learned when he climbed through the slums in Manhattan and realized he was wrong, and the workers needed to be protected by eliminating garment work at home. That site misses Roosevelt's aggressive projection of American military and diplomatic power around the world. It misses Roosevelt's collision with JP Morgan over the Coal Strike of 1902. And on and on. What it gets, is the youth of the youngest american President and his energetic family; important, but not the real enchilada.

So, what really gets to the heart of the dawn of the Atomic Age and the Manhattan Project? How about John Adams' brilliant opera, "Dr. Atomic"? Gary Wills just wrote a book about how the american security establishment and super-powered Presidency (Wills things unconstitutionally) happened because the Manhattan Project's security process simply stole our democratic freedoms away. How best to address that?? Wills points out there were dozens and dozens of places, many more than considered by the NPS study as a park site, and what the MEANING of the story is would change with each site. Gary Wills speaks about Gen. Groves at Los Alamos as a tyrant, whose tyrannical behavior and security has transformed American openness and political freedom. Would Mr. Lenihan venture a guess if the NPS would tell THAT story?? Obviously, if the Trinity site were chosen, it would be the phenomenology of the Bomb itself. Another new book challenges the well-established revisionist history that the USA never needed to drop the Bomb on Japan, because the Japanese were ready to surrender, and only wanted assurance they could keep their Emperor; but the revisionists say, Truman wanted to drop the Bomb, to scare the Russians; because we could; because how would you explain all the expense without using it; because a Demonstration wouldn't work, and other morally insufficient reasons. The new book rejects that, and insists that the Bomb really did end the war and force a surrender: so, does anyone really think THAT story is best told at Los Alamos? What about University of Chicago, where Szilard worked, and where Fermi demonstrated that a Bomb was practical: Otto Szilard seems to have been at the center of the revisionist thinking, and Chicago or possibly Einstein's Princeton might be the best place to be the center of the park if THAT is the story to be told; on the other hand, the White House and the State Department, not to mention Japan, seem to be the real places when it comes to the other view, that the Bomb was needed. Some people think the people at Los Alamos were primarily motivated to use it on Hitler and Germany: is this the place that best explains why we used it on Japan?

Anyway, the issue really is: what is the Meaning of the Story, and can a PLACE best get to the heart of that Meaning?

Is it possible this NPS study has a pretty shallow sense of the significance of the Manhattan Project, in their alternatives?

It is so easy for the NPS to miss these things. It is human. A recent Director of the NPS, deeply affected by the Oklahoma City Bombing thinking, which included the dogma that no one should be called a "victim," then went around to the African Burial Ground study team, and TOLD them NEVER to refer to the 15,000 dead enslaved Africans in that site in lower manhattan as VICTIMS.

Say what?? Well the constituency behind commemorating the African Burial Ground site couldn't believe it. They absolutely considered those buried there 'victims.' They had no idea why the Director of the NPS thought that what she learned from Oklahoma had anything at all to do with the African Burial Ground. They certainly did not want to avoid an analysis of WHY IT HAPPENED; Oklahoma wanted to avoid that at all costs !

But, it is easy for a planning team to compare what they learned at one place, to what they plan for another. In fact, it is dangerously but necessarily part of the process to do so.

The point is: it is entirely possible that a planning team may entirely miss what is really important about a site, and especially whether a SITE is the best way to reflect on the meaning of an historic event.

I wonder if we learned anything from the naive curators for the Enola Gay exhibit. . .

Of course I remember the controversy over the 1994 display of the Enola Gay at the National Air and Space Museum. Some felt that the display didn't delve into the motivations for the war effort and instead placed too much emphasis on the toll from the bomb. I believe they pretty much cancelled the exhibit, and the current display doesn't delve into the touchy political aspects.

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