December 15, 2014

Big Win: Manhattan Project National Historical Park Established!

  • More: National Treasures
  • By: Nancy Tinker, Senior Field Officer, and Denise Ryan, Director of Public Lands Policy


Big news on the National Treasure front -- the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act was passed in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 on Friday, December 12, 2014.

With this action, Congress has authorized the establishment of a new National Park commemorating the history of the Manhattan Project. Comprised of the three laboratories whose work was dedicated to accomplishing the Manhattan Project’s mission, the new national park will include historic resources located in Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington. As laboratories located in each site furthered Manhattan Project goals, each location will spotlight specific resources that were critical to this era in American history.

We anticipate the bill will be signed into law by President Obama. Creation of this national park was a long time in coming, beginning in 2001 when a bill introduced in Congress by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) authorized a National Park Service Special Resources Study. In 2004 the National Park Service was authorized to study the issue, and completed their report eight years later. In 2011, the National Trust engaged in earnest on the legislation to establish this national park and finally now in 2014 that bill has finally passed into law. Let the next phase begin!

The front face of B Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.
The front face of B Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.

But crafting the boundaries of a national park with high security in mind is never easy. Let’s walk you through the next steps of the process.

Unlike other national parks, whose establishment occurs when the president signs legislation, this new entity will be twelve months in the making, allowing extensive conversations to occur between the Secretaries of Interior and Energy. And unlike other national parks, this new park will not be managed solely by the National Park Service, but will be co-managed with the assistance provided by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). This park in three locations will need to operate in some places within a high security perimeter as work at each of these historic Labs continues today.

With the exception of the B Reactor at the Hanford Reservation (which is included in the park boundaries), the Secretary of Interior will work collaboratively with the Secretary of Energy to determine which Manhattan Project facilities at Los Alamos, Hanford, and Oak Ridge will be included in the National Park. This might not seem like great news at first, but there are many structures owned by non-government entities who would like their property included in the park, and this will give them the chance to make the case for collaboration and inclusion within the National Park boundary with the Department of Energy and Department of Interior. (See the list at the close of this post.)

The Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos, New Mexico, was built in 1928.

Each of the Manhattan Project sites and structures add an important piece to the multifaceted story of thousands of people working across the country at incredible speed to develop and detonate an atomic bomb in secrecy. Nothing compares with walking through the B Reactor at Hanford to admire the engineering technology and sheer guts it took to build a full scale nuclear reactor from scratch. The scientists, engineers and workers experienced first-of-their-kind problems, while keeping their blueprints and plans just ahead of the construction workers.

It isn’t a structure of great beauty on the outside, but to walk through the inside left me with a great sense of pride for successful American engineering and construction. You can look inside the core of that great reactor and understand it was built and operational in less than a year, with research that was barely a year old.

The Jemez Mountains and 7,000-foot elevation of Los Alamos, known as “The Hill,” should be experienced for its own special beauty. To experience the difficult travel around the mesa tops or the steep canyons that separated them is to understand the isolation of the scientists, workers, and families who made Los Alamos their home. It is easier to understand how the U.S. government could control the secrecy of the project and the people who made it possible in the former ranch school location.

The K-25 Site sign in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

And the City of Oak Ridge contained three plants critical to the ultimate success of the Manhattan Project. At the time of its construction, Oak Ridge’s K-25 Building encompassed 44 acres and was the largest building in the world constructed beneath a single roof. Requiring 50,000 construction workers, K-25 was essential to the production of highly enriched uranium used for the atomic bomb "Little Boy," dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Oak Ridge’s associated plants, Y-12 and X-10, played an historic role in bringing an end to World War II. These facilities also played critical roles during the Cold War, prompting scientific advances in the newly emergent fields of chemotherapy, high-speed computer technology, genomics, and bioengineering.

Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, explains, “When I write about history, it is essential for me to visit the places where the historical events happened. There are always surprises. It is one thing to read a document or interview people; but it is another thing to see the places where history happened.”

The Manhattan Project National Historical Park will become one of the nation’s few parks to focus on American industry and to highlight the work of physicists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians, and other scientists. The park could become a catalyst for teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and increasing understanding of the nexus connecting science and society. Creating the Manhattan Project National Historical Park has been many years in the making, and now current and future generations have the opportunity to better understand this indisputable turning point in American (and world) history.

There are many contributing sites and structures to be considered for this new National Park. Below are the facilities that will be considered by the Secretaries of Interior and Energy to teach us about this remarkable era.

In Los Alamos:

  • Houses located on “Bathtub Row” were occupied by Los Alamos’ leading physicists, Manhattan Project Director J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe (astrophysics), and Edwin McMillan (transuranic chemistry).Compared with the typical Army housing provided Los Alamos for the laboratory’s remaining scientists, the homes of Oppenheimer, Bethe, and McMillan were considered plush as they were the only houses in town furnished with bathtubs.
  • Fuller Lodge is a grand building constructed in 1928 with 771 massive pine logs for the Los Alamos Ranch School Dining Hall. During the Manhattan Project it was used as a dining and meeting hall and later as a hotel.
  • The Performing Arts Center, or “Little Theater,” is the former enlisted men’s mess hall that was later converted to a theater in 1972.
  • Ashley Pond is a natural pond across the street from the Fuller Lodge where many of the original technical and research buildings for the Manhattan Project were located, but were later demolished.
  • The Christian Science Church is the site of the former Women’s Army Corps dorm.

    • The bomb known as “Little Boy” was assembled at the Gun Site and was later detonated over Hiroshima, Japan.
    • The “Gadget,” an implosion-design plutonium device that was the first nuclear bomb, was housed at the V Site and was detonated at Alamagordo, New Mexico.
    • The Quonset Hut is the site where scientists worked on triggers for the atomic bomb and assembled the “Fat Man” bomb before it was shipped to Tinian Island.
    • The 200-ft. diameter Concrete Bowl built to recover precious plutonium if an atomic bomb test failed.Also within the boundaries of Los Alamos National Laboratory sites are the Gun Site, the V Site, the Quonset Hut, and the Concrete Bowl.

In Oak Ridge:

  • The former Guest House located at 210 East Madison Rd. in Oak Ridge (aka Alexander Inn) was constructed early in the war years to provide housing for dignitaries and scientists associated with the Manhattan Project. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, General Leslie Groves, and physicist Robert Oppenheimer were among the property’s guests.
  • The Graphite Reactor, located within Oak Ridge’s X-10 Site, was the world’s first operational nuclear reactor. The design of this pilot facility guided construction of the B Reactor later erected in Hanford, Washington.
  • The East Tennessee Technology Park is home to the Department of Energy’s former K-25 Site. Constructed in 270 days, K-25 was, at the time of its construction, the largest building in the world to be constructed under one roof. It was here that the gaseous diffusion process produced the enriched uranium needed for the atomic bomb. The DOE completed demolition of the K-25 building in December 2013.
  • Building 9731 and 9204-3 (Beta 3) are located within Oak Ridge’s Y-12 Electromagnetic Separation Plant. Known as the Pilot Plant, Building 9731 houses Y-12’s prototype calutrons. It was here that scientists first proved that the electromagnetic enrichment process would produce sufficient uranium necessary to fuel an atomic weapon. The Pilot Plant houses the only fully intact calutron racetrack to remain within the Y-12 Electromagnetic Separation Plant, retaining the last remaining example of the Alpha calutron. It was in this facility that Y-12 scientists first developed medical applications, designing nuclear medicine (chemotherapy) for cancer treatment.

In Hanford:

  • The B Reactor National Historic Landmark is the world’s first-full scale plutonium production reactor which produced the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb tested at the Trinity site in New Mexico as well as the plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. The T Plant (221-T Process Building) is where plutonium was extracted from the uranium fuel rods following the rods removal from the reactor.
  • Many historic buildings and landscapes were occupied by farm families before the Manhattan Project, including the White Bluffs Bank Building in the White Bluffs Historic District. The U.S. government seized the small farming towns of Hanford and White Bluffs and forced residents to move within weeks to create the secret Hanford production facility. The remaining buildings to be preserved in the new park include the ruins of Hanford High School, Hanford Irrigation District Pump House, the stone warehouse at the Bruggemann’s Agricultural Complex, and the Hanford Construction Camp Historic District. It was here over 50,000 workers lived in tents and barracks during the construction period at the Hanford Engineer Works. During this time the Camp was Washington State’s third-largest city.

By: Nancy Tinker, Senior Field Officer, and Denise Ryan, Director of Public Lands Policy

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