Posted: Monday, July 8, 2013 9:00 pm
By Roger Snodgrass
For The New Mexican
Proponents of a national park dedicated to preserving and interpreting the legacy of the Manhattan Project and the dawn of the atomic age found themselves closer than ever to their goal in recent weeks. The Manhattan Project was a massive national effort that employed hundreds of thousands of people in a top-secret mission to create the world’s first atomic weapons. Two of the bombs were used against large populations of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
A measure in the U.S. House of Representatives that bundled legislation approving a Manhattan Project park into the high-priority $552 billion National Defense Authorization Act led was approved on June 14. The measure also authorized the $21 million estimated to cover the new park’s start-up costs.
On the same day, a Senate committee recommended a version of the bill, which now moves forward in the Senate and would then need approval from President Barack Obama.
“It’s a race to the finish,” said Cynthia N. Kelly, president and founder of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, who has been working on Manhattan Project preservation since at least 1997, when she asked the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation to take a look at the V-Site, one of the historic buildings in Los Alamos, which was about to be demolished. By then, the V-Site, where the first plutonium weapon nicknamed “Fat Man” was assembled, was a dilapidated shack. “Fat Man” exploded at Trinity Site in Southern New Mexico weeks before the bombing of Hiroshima. Kelly helped preserve V-Site building, which not only typified the work of historical conservation in these locations, but also started the process that led to the threshold of a new national park.
After studying the historic significance and cultural suitability of creating a national park based on the Manhattan Project, the Park Service first recommended locating it exclusively in Los Alamos. Other major sites in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash., were studied, but not considered feasible at first, because of the large distances between them. But by the time legislation was proposed in 2012, all three sites were equally involved, strengthening the coalition’s political clout.
“We are staying on top of it,” said Heather McClanahan, executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Society, who represents Los Alamos County on the project. “We have a lot of allies, and we’re hopeful this will pass, not just in this Congress, but this year.” She said there were some concerns about the fate of the park, when former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman retired.
The loss of Bingaman has been partly made up by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Wyden’s father, the historian Peter Wyden, wrote a book, Day One, Before Hiroshima and After, about the bomb project and its consequences, which has given Sen. Wyden a special interest in the project.
Last year, the bill to start work on the Manhattan Project National Historical Park won a majority of House votes, 237-180, but it failed to obtain an additional 50 votes needed under an expedited procedure that required a two-thirds majority for passage. Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio, led the opposition, warning against the danger of glorifying a morally indefensible act.
“When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, 200,000 people were killed,” Kucinich said at the time. “And to have this discussion in the context of honoring a technology that created a bomb, I think, really raises questions about where we are with country and where we are with the bomb.”
Local nuclear watchdogs also have opposed the park. “The U.S. Government has no business hosting a discussion about or pretending to explain the Manhattan Project because this is such an active and foundational myth in our national identity,” said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group. “There is no way that this going to be an objective interpretation.”
The language of the current legislation calls for the Energy Department and the Interior Department to work out an agreement in the first year after congressional approval, and then the National Park Service will have another three years to come up with a management plan for the three sites.
Ron Wilkins, president of the Los Alamos Historical Society, was appropriately circumspect. “We’ve been at this a long time, so we’re not assuming anything yet,” he said this week. At the same time, he said, it could have “a big economic impact and bring a lot more visitors to town.”