Manhattan Project sites considered for national park

Claudine Zap
August 29, 2012

Some of the sites of the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, may become a national park. The U.S. government is considering a proposal to turn three labs established in 1942 into a park so visitors can see where the construction and testing of the A-bomb took place.

Both houses introduced a bill in Congress that would designate the sites as a park, and a vote is expected in September. The proposed Manhattan Project National Historical Park would include three locations: Oak Ridge, Tenn., Los Alamos, N.M., and Hanford, Wash.

The scientific achievement, completed in less than three years, is considered one of the greatest of the 20th century—and one of the most destructive. Researchers collaborated across the country to build the atomic bomb, then use it on Japan, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, acts that some argue hastened the war's end. So the effort to turn the project into a national park raises concerns that it celebrates the decision to build destructive weapons, not simply marks the dawn of the nuclear age.

Many national monuments come with controversy. David Barna of the National Park Service told Yahoo News, "The Park Service chronicles American history. That's part of our job, not just scenic parks." He added, "The Park Service has a long history of telling the hard stories of America, good or bad." The locations would add to  the list of U.S. sites that commemorate an event, such as Civil War battlefields.

But there is a difference between celebration and commemoration of a historic moment. Ellen McGehee, archaeologist and historian for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, elaborated in an email to Yahoo News: "I view the proposed Manhattan Project National Historical Park sites as educational but very sober places where Americans can learn about one of the most significant events of the 20th century. The fact that the issue is controversial makes it even more important to get this information to people, to let them reflect for themselves on the issue."

The public does seem interested, or at least drawn to the fear factor. The Manhattan Project B Reactor at Hanford already holds four-hour tours that frequently sell out. (The site is "vigorously inspected" before each tour to ensure a "safe and enjoyable visit.") The plant produced plutonium for the Fat Man bomb that was dropped over Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. According to its website, the National Historic Landmark gives visitors "the chance to walk through the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor."

At Oak Ridge, visitors would view the mile-long building where uranium was enriched. And at Los Alamos, writes McGehee, the area includes "the Gun Site—where the Little Boy bomb was developed and assembled; V-Site—where the Trinity atomic device was assembled before it was taken to southern New Mexico and tested; and the Quonset Hut—where the Fat Man bomb was assembled before it was shipped to the Pacific."