The Big One

The Manhattan Project was the biggest covert operation imaginable, and it changed the outcome of the world's biggest war. Now the Park Service is hoping to tell the story.

By Mark Arsenault

In 1942, the United States began an unprecedented research and manufacturing program at the very edge of theoretical science, in a furious effort to create a weapon capable of ending World War II.

At its peak, the Manhattan Project was as big as the auto industry, employing 130,000 people at remote sites across the country. Hidden from the public, the project’s scientists, engineers, and machinists built massive industrial plants to refine uranium and create plutonium—a new element—as part of a successful effort to create the first atomic bomb.

The story has been told in films, books, museums, and historic sites for years. Now the National Park Service is wrapping up a study with the U.S. Department of Energy that could lead to the establishment of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. This new park would preserve critical 1940s-era facilities and tell a more complete story of a decisive event of the 20th century.

“There are many lessons from the Manhattan Project that are relevant today,” says U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who introduced legislation to begin the park study, authorized in 2004. “We work to preserve our significant historical sites because they are part of our national heritage and because they tell important parts of our national story.”

“Few people understand how special it was,” says Cynthia Kelly, founder and president of the nonprofit Atomic Heritage Foundation, which supports creating a new park. “This effort changed the history of the United States and the history of the world.” Atomic weapons ended the war without an invasion of Japan, which, she says, would have caused incalculable loss of life and may have brought the Soviet Union into the Pacific theater, redrawing the world map for the rest of the century, as it did in Germany.

The Manhattan Project introduced the atomic age and made America a superpower. It also changed the way the United States valued scientific research and discovery. Before World War II, the United States was in the backwaters of science, especially physics, but J. Robert Oppenheimer—the physicist who led the effort to create the atom bomb—had studied in Europe. The program he oversaw left a vast and often controversial legacy. The Manhattan Project launched a nuclear arms race and the decades-long Cold War, but the research that followed also yielded nuclear energy and new tools in the field of nuclear medicine, such as PET scans and radiation therapy for cancer. Behind this effort were communities of people who were essentially sequestered for years to contribute to the broader manufacturing efforts. The creation of these secret cities displaced former residents and brought about cultural clashes that are still remembered decades later.

As for the location and scope of a possible Manhattan Project Park, details are still fuzzy. Los Alamos, New Mexico, is the most famous location due to the scientific advances made there and its location 210 miles north of the Trinity atomic test site, now part of the White Sands Missile Range. But critical parts of the program were based in other states, including major industrial complexes in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, where limited public tours are already being offered. Oak Ridge was an enormous atomic research and manufacturing site that refined uranium for the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. The X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge, built in 1943, produced plutonium samples for the scientists at Los Alamos, and is now a national historic landmark. Hanford is the site of the Manhattan Project’s “B-reactor,” the first industrial-scale nuclear reactor in history, which was designated a national historic landmark in 2008. The B-reactor produced plutonium for the first atomic bomb test explosion at the Trinity site, and for the “Fat Man” atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The war ended within days of the Fat Man explosion.

The Department of Energy owns key parcels in all three locations, but the agency recognizes that tourists aren’t likely to pull off the highway for a Department of Energy sign. Enter the Park Service.

In a draft report of its study released in December, the Park Service proposed several alternatives for preservation short of a national historical park, and one option for a new park that would tell the story of the Manhattan Project from Los Alamos, New Mexico, where Oppenheimer and other top scientists did most of their work. The agency had considered a multi-site park that would include other locations around the country but decided that option was too costly and unmanageable.

The Department of Energy, however, favors the multi-site approach that would include Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford—a proposal that has the backing of leaders in those local communities, as well.

“Both Oak Ridge and Hanford have first-of-a-kind or one-of-a-kind facilities and devices that used some of the century’s most innovative and revolutionary technologies, and remain in essentially the same condition as they did during the Manhattan Project,” noted F.G. Gosling, federal preservation officer and chief historian for the Department of Energy, in comments included in the study report. These “crown jewels of the Manhattan Project… should be recognized as such and accordingly be brought under the protection of the [national parks] arrowhead.”

The Park Service is far better equipped to tell such a vast national story, says Maynard Plahuta, president of the B-Reactor Museum Association in Richland, Washington. A multi-site Manhattan Project National Historical Park would be the bookend, he says, to the USS Arizona Memorial, a national park unit at Pearl Harbor. The sinking of the Arizona in 1941, “started the war, and the Manhattan Project ended it,” he says. “We should tell the whole story.”

Under the Department of Energy’s three-site park proposal, the Park Service would be responsible for exhibits and interpretatio,n and the Department of Energy would handle maintenance, safety, and security at the locations it owns. Given these divisions of duties, the Park Service’s costs would likely be significantly less than those of many traditional large parks, according to Gosling.

Earlier this year, the Park Service collected public comments on its draft report at a series of hearings in the communities near the potential park sites. Local officials around Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos took the opportunity to lobby for a multi-site park in their communities. The agency will review the public comments and aim to come up with a final recommendation as early as this fall. In the end, Congress will decide how to tell the story of the Manhattan Project, by passing legislation that will outline the scope and management of any new historical park.

Plahuta urges Congress to embrace a multi-site park that tells the full story of the Manhattan Project. “This was such a great advance in science and technology,” he says. “It’s like Niagara Falls—I could describe it, but you’ve really got to experience it for yourself to understand.”

Mark Arsenault is a freelance journalist and the author of four mystery novels. He lives in Massachusetts.

This article appears in the Spring 2010 issue.

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September 17, 2013

Hi Mark Arsenault, good post.

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