LOS ALAMOS – Tasked with creating a new national park before the year is out, a working group made up of National Park Service and Department of Energy employees met this week with local officials in Los Alamos, one of a trinity of cities that are a part of what will become the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
Creating such a park – one that tells the story of arguably one of the most significant events in world history, the development of the atomic bomb – won’t be easy.
The park’s boundaries will be drawn in three different states, thousands of miles apart. Some of the individual sites that make up the park are “behind the fence” at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Hanford (Wash.) Nuclear Reservation and Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory, in secured technical areas now off limits to the public. And currently there’s no approved funding to help make it all happen.
Yet there’s optimism that this ambitious endeavor can be successfully achieved. “The U.S. government never did anything like the atomic bomb before either, but they figured it out,” said Sue Masica, director of the National Park Services’ Intermountain Region, said Tuesday during the group’s visit to “The Atomic City.”
There’s a lot to figure out. And realistically it’ll take longer to achieve than the Dec. 19 deadline for a memorandum of agreement between the NPS and the DOE that formally creates the park.
“How to tell the stories, how we get the funding – all of that will evolve over time,” said Laurie Morman, a high-ranking DOE official who was part of the contingent.
Morman said the DOE is just beginning to put together a budget for fiscal year 2017 that will cover operating and maintenance costs for park facilities it will continue to own after the park is created.
While many of the buildings within the park remain the property of DOE, the NPS will manage the park and is tasked with telling the story of the Manhattan Project. Victor Knox, associate director with the NPS, said 2016 will be a transition year for the new park, as the Park Service assumes management.
Saving the best for last
The process to create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park formally began in February, two months after President Obama signed the Manhattan Project National Park into law – as part of the same legislation that shifted management of the nearby Valles Caldera National Preserve to the NPS.
About two dozen representatives of the parks service and DOE met in Washington, D.C., to discuss how to make it happen and begin work on the required interagency agreement, which will define the roles and responsibilities each agency will play.
Then, the group began a tour of the three locations to make initial assessments, visiting Oak Ridge in March, Hanford in April and Los Alamos this week.
“It’s clear we saved the best for last,” Knox told a gathering of close to 200 people at a public gathering at the historic Fuller Lodge on Tuesday night.
The act authorizing creation of the park identifies unspecified sites within secured areas at LANL and two buildings in the downtown historic district: the former East Cafeteria on Nectar Street that currently serves as the “Little Theater” and the former Women’s Army Corps dormitory on 17th Street that’s now the Christian Science Church.
There are roughly 15 sites “behind the fence” at LANL that are being considered for inclusion in the park. Among them are the Pond Cabin and Slotin Building, where plutonium research was done; the Gun Site and the Quonset Hut, where the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were assembled; and the V-site, where the bombs’ prototypes were put together.
The biggest challenge will be how to allow public access to these buildings in Los Alamos and other publicly off-limits locations in Hanford and Oak Ridge. The DOE’s Morman said coordinating access will be “tricky.”
“There are a number of sites that still have an active mission, so we’re still working through those challenges to how adjustments can be made,” she said. “So that piece is part of this whole process to figure out how to comprehensively tell the story and not impact those missions.”
Morman said there is already limited public access to some DOE sites in Hanover and Oak Ridge. They generally involve escorted bus tours and, in some cases, like the Trinity Site south of Socorro where the first atomic bomb was tested, are only opened to the public once or twice a year.
Similar escorted bus tours are likely to occur behind the gates at LANL once the park is open. To what extent, whether visitors would be subject to security checks, when the park will officially open for visitors, where the park headquarters will be located and entrance fees are among the many issues that need to be worked out.
The legislation calls for a management plan to be developed within three years of funding being made available.
Partners in telling the story
Knox said during his remarks to the assembly at Fuller Lodge that the NPS serves as “America’s storyteller.” At more than 400 parks nationwide, it tells the stories of the country’s triumphs and sometimes “things we’re not so proud of,” such as Indian massacres, slavery and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
The Manhattan Project is a delicate subject matter. Developing the bomb led to the end of World War II, but at the expense of hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives when bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Those are the only instances such devices has been used in warfare, though the threat of countries obtaining and using such weapons remains 70 years later.
“The debate of the benefits and risks still goes on today,” Knox said in his address, which was covered by a crew from the Tokyo Broadcasting System.
Knox said the NPS is committed to telling the story in all its complexity and nuances, and leaving it to people to draw their own conclusions.
He said cooperation between the NPS, DOE, the local communities and preservation groups is key. “That’s how this park will be successful,” he said.
Though they won’t technically be part of the park, the Bradbury Science Museum on Central Avenue and properties held by the Los Alamos Historical Society will serve to complement it.
“I think we can be great partners in telling the story of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project,” said Heather McClenahan, the historical society’s executive director. “We’re excited because, with the coming of the national park, there will be more integration of Los Alamos, Hanford and Oak Ridge – and Japan – and bring it all into the big picture.”
McClenahan led the working group on a walking tour of the downtown historic district Tuesday afternoon. Among the stops were the Los Alamos Historical Museum and Shop, which served as guest quarters during the Manhattan Project and for the Los Alamos Ranch School prior to that; Fuller Lodge, the former Ranch School dining hall now a community cultural center; and Bathtub Row, so named because the homes along that street were once the only ones in town equipped with bathtubs in the lab’s early years.
Two homes along Bathtub Row will eventually be open to the public, including one where Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer lived. Under a trust agreement, that home will one day be deeded to the historical society. “It may become a museum that talks about Oppenheimer’s intellectual legacy,” McClenahan said, adding that one can only imagine the conversations that took place in the home’s living room. “The intent would to be to inspire discussion like ‘What does it mean to be a patriot?’ or ‘What would it have been like to live in a secret city?’ ”
Next door is the Hans Bethe House – named for the German-born physicist who won the 1967 Nobel prize. It’s expected to open as soon as this year and earmarked to display Cold War exhibits.
During the walking tour, the group got a glimpse into how new technology could be used to enhance the park experience.
A couple of LANL employees accompanying the group circulated iPads that, together with application software still in development, offered looks into the past. By holding the iPad at eye level, viewers could see a computer-generated three-dimensional image of Oppenheimer puffing a cigarette and standing in front of buildings that were there in 1945, but no longer exist. By turning around in a circle, viewers could get a 360-degree view of how the surroundings appeared back then.
“A team at the lab is developing it,” McClenahan said of the app. “We hope to have it in use this summer, or later this year.”
Putting the park in perspective
While the legislation to authorize the new national park was signed seven months ago, the effort began about 15 years ago, according to Cindy Kelly, president and founder of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, which is credited with leading the charge.
In the 1990s, Kelly was working for the DOE’s environmental management office. “In that role, I got to know all of the sites, and was privy to plans for demolition and cleanup,” she said. “I learned that, at LANL, they had planned to destroy all of the Manhattan Project property, particularly at the V site.”
Kelly thought that was a shame so, when she retired in 2000, she formed the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit group that set out to raise money to preserve Manhattan Project-related sites at Los Alamos and elsewhere.
Kelly is quick to say that it took a collaborative effort between numerous government and non-government entities interested in the same thing, and a bipartisan effort in Congress to get the legislation passed.
She said creating the park is more than just about the Manhattan Project.
“It’s more than just about building the bomb,” she said. “Though it commemorates the Manhattan Project, it’s also about harnessing atomic energy for the first time. It being used as a weapon overshadows other uses that are derivatives of that discovery and have been transformative of world history, economics, societies and culture ever since.”
Kelly said the Japanese are particularly interested in how the story of the Manhattan Project will be presented, concerned that the interpretation will glorify the development of the bomb and downplay the deaths that resulted. She’s confident the NPS will present a balanced picture.
“I think it’s so important that we de-mystify these events and look at them in the context of history. Putting it in that larger context is important and makes the story that much more compelling,” she said.
While there are many who wholeheartedly support the creation of the park, there are others less enthused, including some who worked on the project.
Roger Rassmussen was sent to Los Alamos as part of a U.S. Army special engineering detachment in 1945. Now 94, he’s had 70 years to reflect on the aftermath of the project – not only the deaths and devastation that resulted from dropping the bombs, but also what he calls the “pure, unadulterated fear” that permeates the world today.
“It’s a history that’s not going away. As is so often said, ‘Once you uncork the bottle, you can’t put it back,’ ” said Rasmussen, who attended Tuesday evening’s public gathering about the park.
Rasmussen considers the creation of the park “out of step.” While he and others who worked on the project were enthusiastic about it and felt the work they were doing was important at that time, now “I’m not sure it’s something to be prideful about,” he said.
“I think they should be more silent about it, instead of promoting it all over the whole country. The less we say about it, the better.”