Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Podcast: Manhattan Project Historical Park

In 1997, when Cindy Kelly learned of the impending demolition of the V Site at Los Alamos, the cluster of wooden structures in which the plutonium bomb detonated in the first nuclear test was assembled, she acted quickly. Leaving her position at the Department of Energy in 2000, she founded the Atomic Heritage Foundation to raise awareness and gather partners to preserve the Manhattan Project sites.

The partially assembled “Gadget” atop its 100-ft. tower prior to the Trinity Test.
Image Credit: DOE/Public Domain

Fifteen years later, these efforts have paid off, as Congress passed and the President signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on December 19, 2014. The NDAA, which sets the budget for the Department of Defense each year, contained a special provision this time around to authorize a Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

The X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge.
Image Credit: DOE/Public Domain

Key facilities at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first atomic bombs were designed and built, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where uranium-235 was separated from the heavier and more common isotope, and Hanford, Washington, where plutonium was produced, make up the three units of the new park, parts of which may be open to the public as early as next December. By that time, the Department of Energy and the National Park Service will be required to enter their respective roles and responsibilities into the Federal Register.

Many parts of each of the three units are already open to the public to a certain extent, and all three communities have historical organizations of their own that have been working to preserve these facilities. The whole endeavor, Kelly says, “is possible only because of a great collaborative effort…There was a common sense of, ‘This should be saved. This is so important.’”

The B Reactor at Hanford, the first industrial-scale plutonium reactor.
Image Credit: DOE/Public Domain

Dr. Alex Wellerstein, an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology who studies nuclear weapons and nuclear secrecy, agrees. Interpreting the Manhattan Project for the public is no easy task, especially because many people feel strongly (one way or another) about issues of nuclear technology and government secrecy.

“Rational people can come to different points of view on this question of how much it should or shouldn’t be celebrated,” Wellerstein says. “But you have to preserve the stuff in the first place to even have that option.”

Whatever form the tourism aspect ends up taking, the establishment of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park ensures that these important sites will be around to encourage conversation about America’s nuclear legacy for a long time to come.

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