Blog Post Jennifer Errick Nov 19, 2015

From a Top-Secret Mission to a Public Park

A Q&A with Atomic Heritage Foundation founder Cynthia Kelly on her quest to preserve the history of the Manhattan Project as part of America's newest national park.

On November 10, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz officially established America’s newest national park, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. This unique partnership park spans sites in three different states that were significant in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II: the laboratories where the lead scientists worked in Los Alamos, New Mexico; the “secret city” where workers unknowingly enriched uranium in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and the site of the B Reactor, the world’s first industrial-scale plutonium reactor, in Hanford, Washington.

This park required years of research, planning, lobbying, and outreach. Perhaps no one was as committed to seeing it become a reality as Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cynthia Kelly. Cynthia worked as an employee for the Department of Energy in the 1990s and learned that the Manhattan Project sites were slated to be destroyed. She has been enlisting the help of experts and enthusiasts ever since to preserve the structures, artifacts, and stories from this difficult part of American history that had both devastating and revolutionary consequences for the world. NPCA has worked with Cynthia for years to make the new park a top legislative priority for Congress, culminating in a historic bipartisan package of park-related bills which passed last December and laid the groundwork to establish the park last week.

I spoke with Cynthia a few days after the dedication ceremony to learn more about the new park, its significance, and her role in making the stories of the Manhattan Project public. This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Q: The Atomic Heritage Foundation formally recommended making these three sites a national historical park back in 2003. Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recommended creating the park in 2011. What took so long?

A: The process for creating a park starts with Congress. We had a small grant in 2001 to evaluate the cost of preserving the Manhattan Project properties. I had a series of meetings back in 2003 at each of the three sites and called the Park Service in those regions to help educate us on what it would entail. That was a prelude to getting legislation passed requiring the Park Service to do a “special resource study.” [Note: A special resource study is a formal agency assessment that is often the first step for creating a national park site.]

This two-year study actually took seven and a half years. And in January of 2010, the Park Service only recommended a park in Los Alamos. Everyone had read scary reports about how Hanford had hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic waste material. The general sense for Park Service staff was that this was a problematic venture. They had no desire to take over responsibility for the B Reactor, for example—they didn’t want their rangers to be exposed.


Q: But the partnership with the Department of Energy made it possible to preserve all three sites, since the agency knows how to handle that kind of a cleanup.

A: Right. They’re going to be there for decades more, managing the reactors that are just now in a stable state. They haven’t even figured out what the disposal ultimately will entail.


Q: But the B Reactor has been decontaminated?

A: Yes. It’s clean in terms of radioactivity. There’s more radioactivity standing outside in the sunshine than there is if you go inside and tour the reactor. It’s perfectly safe. But there is radioactivity buried in the middle of the reactor that is still cooling down.

The contractor was going to close it off, then put a lock on it and forget it. They finally relented and let us open the B Reactor for tours. The department had a website that opened at midnight, and by six a.m., all the tours for the whole summer were filled.

The B Reactor is an iconic emblem of Hanford. We’re very proud of being able to save it.


Q: Does the park include all of the historic sites that you had hoped it would?

A: We have all the significant sites for the most part, but not everything. Once people see the success of this park and what it means to the community and the country, we should be able to get more sites considered.

For example, it will take a while for the T Plant—the chemical separation plant at Hanford—to be ready for the public. We also want to have public access in Oak Ridge to the calutron building. For some of the properties behind the security fences, it would be easier to take the key equipment and put it in a museum—but it’s far short of experiencing what the three-story building was like, the long corridors of cabinets with gadgetry and gauges, and the little stools where the calutron girls sat and twiddled the dials to maximize the output of enriched uranium without knowing what they were doing. This particular building was operative until 1998.


Q: What were they doing there in 1998?

A: They were making radioisotopes for every purpose. They’re used as pain relievers for people with bone cancer. They’re used to detect proliferation efforts. They’re used in carbon dating. They’re used in 70 to 80 percent of medical diagnostics. They’re used in materials science to find out what structural features of a building are cracked or defective. It’s remarkable.


Q: And none of those things were available before the Manhattan Project brought this technology to the world?

A: Exactly. It was revolutionary.


Q: Can you tell me about how you helped make this park a reality?

A: The best thing about this effort was that it snowballed. I was the instigator, but I realized we needed outside experts. John Fowler was the executive director of the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation and he took a look at the buildings. With him was Carol Shull, the keeper of the National Register for the Department of the Interior. She saw the buildings and there was no question in her mind that they should be preserved.

This endorsement meant they wouldn’t tear the buildings down, but we had to find money to preserve them. We were approaching the new millennium, and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton had led an effort to partner with Congress and set aside $30 million for restoring federal properties significant to our history but in danger of being lost. We put together seven applications including Hanford and Los Alamos and Oak Ridge and were awarded money. We were very fortunate.

The story of this is not just about me. It’s about all of the people who came to this effort and came to embrace it. There is an amazing number of people in this country who understand how significant the Manhattan Project was and how important it is to preserve it.


Q: How do you respond to people who say this park will glorify nuclear warfare?

A: The Park Service is not going to do that any more than they glorify the massacres at Antietam and Gettysburg. They don’t take sides—they just want to tell the story and put it in the context of the history at the time. The Park Service has interpreted a lot of very controversial and ugly parts of American history, from the Sand Creek Massacre to the Japanese internment camps in World War II to the Civil War and other battles. Trust me. They are not going to be glorifying the weapons.


Q: It takes time to establish visitor services at a new park. What’s the timeframe for being able to see these sites?

A: It’s going to be a work in progress. Many parks get a relatively large appropriation from Congress to get things established. We were able to get $180,000, which will support a superintendent and help get the interpretive process and some of the restoration projects started. But it could take a while.

One thing the Atomic Heritage Foundation is trying to do is provide interpretive programs on the web, smartphones, and tablets so visitors can take self-guided “Ranger in Your Pocket” tours. We’ve spent about $2 million over the last 15 years interpreting the B Reactor in Hanford, thanks to the generosity of a couple of foundations. We also have 340 magnificent oral histories, many of which were taken by historians and authors in the decades immediately after the war, from scientific Nobel Prize winners to the people who made 50,000 lunches a day at Hanford. We feel the most compelling way to get a feel for this history is to hear people talk about what it was like. They’re all on our website—the Voices of the Manhattan Project—and it’s all searchable.


Q: What can people see now that you would recommend?

A: There are two museums in Los Alamos. One is the Bradbury Science Museum, run by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It has a wonderful section on the Manhattan Project and what the lab has been involved with since then, so you can see all the different directions its scientific foundation has taken us—from the Human Genome Project to biophysics to the exploration of outer space to nanotechnology.

Go down the street two blocks and you can visit the charming Los Alamos Historical Museum. You can take a tour of Bathtub Row, the seven cottages where the Manhattan Project’s top-echelon scientists lived. One of the most wonderful things a visitor will be able to do is go inside the house where Oppenheimer lived with his family. The woman who lives there now signed a living trust agreement to donate her house to the Los Alamos Historical Society. Next door is another cottage purchased by a donor who restored it for the historical society. Our Ranger in Your Pocket program will have a Bathtub Row tour, so as you walk by the cottages, you can hear the voices of the people who lived there.


Q: These cottages are still privately owned. Have you ever gotten to see inside them?

A: Actually, this all started with a lunch with the woman who owns the Oppenheimer house. I’ve been many, many times now. I’m the one who proposed that she donate it.


Q: So you made it happen!

A: Things don’t just happen, do they? The key to success has been making other people feel like they’re the owners and this is their project, because it is. That’s why I hesitate to put a spotlight on myself. It’s been a true partnership.

I must put a plug in for NPCA. You guys were just fabulous. The Atomic Heritage Foundation is tiny and the only way this could have happened was to leverage our enthusiasm with your expertise—you knew how to help and we had a wonderful time working with you.

The author Richard Rhodes said the Manhattan Project was a great human collaboration—and I’d say that’s what it took to get this park.


Learn more about Cynthia Kelly and her work on the Manhattan Project National Historical Park on the Atomic Heritage Foundation website. NPCA has been working on the ground for more than five years to make the new park a reality. Learn more about NPCA and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

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.

Read more from NPCA