Blog Post Jennifer Errick May 9, 2012

Preserving the Manhattan Project

A new historical park could preserve three separate sites that were instrumental in the making of the atomic bomb during World War II. One woman has spent more than a decade working to preserve the once-secret history of these places.

NPCA expects Congress to introduce legislation soon that would create a new Manhattan Project National Historical Park. This park would encompass three separate sites in Los Alamos, New Mexico; Hanford, Washington; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee that were involved in the top-secret development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Cynthia Kelly, founder and president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, has been working for more than a decade to preserve this complex part of American history. She has played a lead role in the campaign to create the park and has worked closely with NPCA and other advocates for years. Now, her goal is closer than ever.

The historical park would include the laboratories and living quarters of the Manhattan Project scientists in Los Alamos, the site of the first industrial-scale plutonium reactor known as the “B Reactor” in Hanford, and three facilities for enriching uranium at Oak Ridge.

“These are just three of thirty or forty sites that existed,” explains Kelly. “The map of the United States would look like we had the chicken pox with all these little spots all over it where things happened.”

Kelly has been involved in the planning from the beginning. “I was with the Department of Energy, and in 1997 learned that the Los Alamos National Laboratory was going to destroy all of the Manhattan Project properties that remained,” she recalls. “Most people didn’t even know that they existed, because they were all behind security fences.” She got the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation involved, and its members were impressed with not only the significance but the quality of the properties.

Several years later, after significant public outreach, Kelly founded the Atomic Heritage Foundation and involved the National Park Service in the quest to preserve the sites. Congress authorized a study in 2004; however, the two-year project took seven and a half years to complete due to the complexity of the proposed park.

“There were three sites, not just one, as in a usual park study,” explains Kelly. “It involved three different regional administrators of the National Park Service… plus two agencies. It wasn’t just the Interior, but also the Department of Energy, which owns [the properties].”

Initially, the Park Service recommended only preserving the Los Alamos unit, and not the other two units, “where the work took place, that might be contaminated,” recalls Kelly. Fortunately, this recommendation “galvanized a lot of community support,” and eventually the Park Service was able to carve out an agreement that allowed it to co-manage the properties with the Department of Energy, alleviating many of the maintenance concerns. And after a $100 billion cleanup, Kelly posits, “There’s probably less radioactivity inside the reactor than there is outside, in the sunshine.”

Though Kelly is fascinated by the rich history behind the Manhattan Project properties, she describes another unexpected benefit to preserving the Hanford site in particular: “It’s 580 square miles. Only 10 percent of the land was even used for any purpose, and it’s beautiful. There are 50 miles of the Columbia River with no dams. There are flora and fauna that Lewis and Clark encountered in their travels in 1806 that you can’t find anymore… It’s an ecosystem unto itself.”

Although some groups have opposed the park on the grounds that it glorifies nuclear war, Kelly adamantly defends the importance of preserving the sites.

“It’s not to celebrate it, per se. It’s to commemorate it,” Kelly insists. She adds, “The role that the advocates against nuclear weapons played in the policies and the shape of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras is an important one. Their voice will be heard.”

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Don Barger, director of NPCA’s Southeast Regional Office, agrees. “The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nightmares of human experience; they also ended World War II and probably saved thousands of other lives. The death and human suffering as a result of the explosions was so unspeakable that the weapons have not been used since. The entire structure of our thinking, our politics, and our global societal interactions was irrevocably altered by the Manhattan Project,” explains Barger. “If Congress approves this park, the Park Service can help generations of world citizens understand and learn from the significance of that turning point in world history.”

For more on the proposed park and its history, visit the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.

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