SANTA FE, N.M. — The idea for a new national park dedicated to the World War II-era Manhattan Project – which has been kicking around for much longer than it took Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues to develop an atomic bomb – seems to be on its way to becoming a reality.
The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act passed recently by Congress and awaiting the president’s signature authorizes creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, with sites in Los Alamos, as well as in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash.
Seventeen locations on the Los Alamos National Laboratory campus – including still-standing structures where bombs were built and, perhaps more significantly, where scientists figured out how to make them – are included, as well as 13 properties in Los Alamos itself.
Those include Oppenheimer’s house and the one-time home of Hans Bethe, the 1967 Nobel prize winner in physics, which are under control of the Los Alamos Historical Society, and other “Bathtub Row” homes, originally built for masters at the old Los Alamos Ranch School and prized during the Manhattan Project because they had their own bathtubs.
Just how the public will access the technical sites at the high-security Los Alamos lab hasn’t been spelled out. There could be changes in security perimeters or the sites may be open to visitors only periodically.
Advocates are hoping that some places can be opened generally to visitors by moving LANL’s security fence.
The lab locations include the V Site, where what was called the “Gadget” was built before it was set off as the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico in July 1945. The Gun Site is associated with the design of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
In one incident that took place post-World War II – but still as part of the Manhattan Project – Canadian scientist Louis Slotin was exposed to a fatal amount of radiation in a criticality experiment gone wrong. He died nine days after the May 21, 1946, accident. What’s now called the Slotin Building still stands.
The bill is “the starting gun” on the park project, said Cynthia Kelly, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Atomic Heritage Foundation, which has been pushing for a Manhattan Project national park at least since 2006.
“The national park is long overdue and will provide Americans an important opportunity to understand the Manhattan Project and its complex legacy for the world today,” Kelly said in a prepared statement.
Of course, not everyone is happy about a national park focusing on development of a weapon of mass destruction. LANL watchdog and anti-nuclear activist Greg Mello says a park that “glorifies the ‘achievement’ of incinerating people” and whole cities is “sure to hurt the United States at home and abroad.”
Regarding Los Alamos, nobody is going to plan a vacation around seeing one or two old concrete sheds “on the very few days it will be possible to see them,” Mello wrote in an email. “I have been there. They are boring and ugly.”
For others, a park about the Manhattan Project provides a chance to explore the legacy and questions raised by creation of a weapon that changed the world, for better or worse.
Author is supporter
Richard Rhodes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” is on the board of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
“The new weapon was built in makeshift buildings, laboratories and factories all over the United States,” Rhodes said in a statement. “Now, nearly 70 years later, some of these historic places of the Manhattan Project will at last be preserved as part of the national historical park.
“The Manhattan Project is significant not only for its role in ending World War II but for introducing a major new force in human affairs. Reason enough to be remembered.”
Heather McClenahan, head of the Los Alamos Historical Society, said the society’s goal for its role in the park project is “to tell the complete story of this community – from the ranch school and the homesteaders” through the Manhattan Project and the Cold War, and moving forward.
The society’s plan for the Oppenheimer and Bethe houses is not to create staid “historical houses with velvet ropes and a docent,” she said.
The Bethe house will be about Los Alamos during the Cold War and, for the Oppenheimer home, the plan is for an exploration “of what it means to be a patriot and the creator of the atomic bomb,” including whether a patriot should be building a weapon of mass destruction.
Several of the historic houses will remain private homes. The park project envisions cooperation from local groups like the historical society.
A new unit of NPS
There’s no funding in the new authorization act. But the legislation says the park shall be established as a unit of the National Park Service within a year.
In the same time frame, the Park Service and the U.S. Department of Energy are supposed to come up with an agreement on roles and responsibilities – the Park Service as interpreter of Manhattan Project history and the DOE as owner/manager of many of the locales, overseeing issues such as public access and safety, national security at still-operating facilities like LANL, any necessary environmental cleanup, and preservation of buildings and property.
Also, the legislation says that, within three years of receiving funding, a management plan for the park is to be developed.
Ellen McGehee, historic buildings manager at LANL, explained that buildings still standing at the lab will help tell the story of the brainpower brought to bear during the Manhattan Project from 1943-46 as scientists went through different models and theories to create a viable nuclear weapon.
Some structures are associated with particular bomb models and assembly; others had more to do with the science and experimentation.
“They really tell the science and engineering story,” she said. “The houses and buildings in town tell more of the social history.”