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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?


This would be an INCREDIBLE addition to the National Park System!!


My travels through the National Park System:

This is obviously an important part of American history and should be preserved within the National Park System. Perhaps one of the abovementioned sites could be used as the main historical site.

This is very interesting, thanks for sharing it with us. There seems to be little mention of the Trinity Site in this document. I wonder who out there might recall a proposal for Atomic Bomb National Monument (or Historic Site)? Some years back while leading an NPS underwater team to survey the nuked ships at Bikini Atoll (1989) I became fascinated with the whole atomic testing issue and wrote a feature story for Natural History magazine in (7/95). While researching for that piece, I ran across a bunch of old files in the Santa Fe office that were generated by NPS Historians for the above mentioned park. Bill Brown was I believe the chief researcher. I personally believe some sort of unit would be most appropriate for the National Park System. I mean, this event had significance on the level of the lever, the wheel, the steam engine and the internet. Does anyone else recall this proposal? I believe the work took place in the 1960s. Dick Sellars? John Cook?

thanks, Dan

I would really like to see this. This played a very important part of American history and should not be overlooked. Even if access limited (e.g., Port Chicago or Minuteman) it would be very worthwhile. EBR-1 in Idaho would serve as a good example of a facility that once was a functioning nuclear facility could be converted to allow public access. I would like to see Argonne National Lab (near Chicago) included in this since once the Chicago Pile work was completed it was moved out far away from Chicago (and selfishly I have always wanted to have a National Park unit near to where I live).

Regardless of how one feels about the development of the atomic bombs, few things in the 20th century had such a major impact on the entire world and this history should be preserved and made available to the masses.

I would love to see this addition to our National Parks!

Question... is the Trinity Site not already part of the NPS as it is located on the White Sands Missile Range (and White Sands is obviously a National site)

The study mentioned would be most valuable, if it can be located. I believe the history of the Manhattan Project, THE most significant industrial/military accomplishment in the 20th Century and maybe the single most significant scientific development in the history of the world, must be preserved for coming generations. The two atomic bombs dropped to end World War II served to drive the project, but the results of the introduction and uses of atomic energy go far beyond the bombs. The birth of nuclear medicine, nuclear reactors for power production and many more scientific achievements that even today are expontentially growing from that one project literally are so numbersome that they cannot be counted.

The National Park Service is best equipped the tell the story, the Department of Energy MUST retain ownership of the facilities, thus the cost to the National Park Service will be subsidized by the Department of Energy as they are required to interpret the history, but are ill equipped to do so...the National Park Service can and should do so, at no cost to them. The sunken ships should also be included in the overall National Park Services, as well as the other more minor players in this monumental accomplishment. The local folks would be glad to help the National Park Service as would the Department of Energy. This is too important an historical event to be subjected to political or petty arguments about "who pays." The taxpayers will do that and rightly so.

Our children and grandchildren deserve to know the story and to have it presented by the best at doing so, the National Park Service.


Anonymous -

Good question about the Trinity Site. You're correct that the site is located on the White Sands Missile Range, but that property is owned and operated by the U. S. Army. It's adjacent to, but separate from the White Sands National Monument, which is operated by the NPS.

Public tours to the Trinity Site are offered twice a year. More information about the Trinity Site is available at this link.

Thanks for the clarification. I was just confused when we visited the Trinity Site last April and found that they had a NP passport stamp. The stamp was for the Trinity Site - White Sands or something along those lines. We got the stamp but were confused by it.

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