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Senators’ tour of park sparks talk of atomic bomb’s place in history

Posted: Tuesday, October 13, 2015 11:00 pm | Updated: 11:20 pm, Tue Oct 13, 2015.

By Justin Horwath
The New Mexican

LOS ALAMOS — Two top-ranking U.S. Senate Democrats on Tuesday got an exclusive peek inside a site at a planned historic park — a modest bungalow in Los Alamos where physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the bomb,” once resided.

Speaking of Oppenheimer, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he had “just worked himself to death, in a way.”

Udall, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., vice chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, were joined by Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Society, for a tour of Los Alamos sites included in the planned Manhattan Project National Historical Park before Congress decides how much taxpayer money will fund it. The senators’ discussion on plans for the new park had followed a classified briefing on Los Alamos National Laboratory’s role in training Iranian nuclear inspectors, according to the senators’ aides.

Congress approved the Manhattan Project park last year under a defense funding bill, thanks in part to efforts by Udall. The National Park Service and the Department of Energy will jointly manage park sites at Department of Energy facilities in Los Alamos, Hanford, Wash., and Oak Ridge, Tenn. President Barack Obama’s budget request includes an $180,000 appropriation for the park — but any budget request is subject to being cut. Congress has until December to approve a federal budget.

Two questions that still loom are what narrative will be told at the park’s various locations around the country and how much access the public will be given at the national security sites.

During a lunch at Fuller Lodge, which stands at the center of the historic district in a town whose economy remains reliant on nuclear weapons research, Udall and Mikulski discussed how the history of the atomic bomb should be presented to the public.

The goal of the park is “to preserve and protect” Manhattan Project sites, according to the legislation that created it, as well as “to improve public understanding of the Manhattan Project” and its legacy by allowing public access to the sites.

But Udall told Mikulski there’s more to the story. Many people don’t know about the local impacts of the Manhattan Project, including its effect on “Hispanic farmers and ranchers in the area,” who were “driven out.” They didn’t get compensated for the land until legislation authored by Udall was passed into law, he said.

Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in Congress who plans to retire in 2017, called the Manhattan Project “an incredible national accomplishment, no matter how you feel about it.” She said its story “needs to be told.”

Mikulski said she thinks there are “Manhattan Projects going on every day and we’re unaware of it.” She said she was referring not to weapons development, but to scientific breakthroughs. Telling the story of the Manhattan Project, Mikulski said, will help the public understand the role of the federal government in solving national problems.

“That’s to me the point of telling those stories,” she said.

McClenahan said in an interview after the tour that “there will be sites behind the fence, but we’re not sure how much.”

Helene Suydam, who lives in Oppenheimer’s former Los Alamos home, spoke with the two senators in her living room. The home would be one of the sites open to the public for the national historic park, McClenahan said.

She said she expects the park to be complete in three to five years, with the Department of Energy serving as the primary source of funding.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, said in an interview that his nonprofit opposes the park. He said the idea that a “company town” like Los Alamos can objectively interpret the Manhattan Project’s history is naive, especially given ongoing nuclear weapons research. He added that the park “will inevitably serve as some kind of glorification of the bomb.”

“The bomb in the American psyche is a barrier to our self-conception as a humanitarian nation that places human dignity at the core of what we stand for,” he said.

He said the Department of Energy should first focus on efforts to clean up nuclear waste before creating a national historic park that would only put lipstick on an “environmental pig.”

Justin Horwath can be reached at 986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.


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