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Manhattan Project park moves ahead

Sally Jewell

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell speaks during the signing of a memorandum of agreement to establish the Manhattan Project Historical Park on Tuesday in Washington. (Anthony Deyoung/National Park Service)

By Michael Coleman / Journal Washington Bureau

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015 at 12:02am

WASHINGTON – After more than a decade of planning, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park took a major step forward Tuesday with the signing of a memorandum agreement by the U.S. energy and interior secretaries.

The three related park sites, which will tell the story of the world’s first atomic bomb, will be operated by the National Park Service. They are in Los Alamos County, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and at the DOE’s Hanford site in Washington state. New Mexico’s U.S. senators joined Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and others – including Los Alamos County officials – at a signing ceremony in Washington.

Federal officials said the parks will educate visitors about the skill and determination of Cold War-era American scientists, engineers and others who harnessed the atom and built bombs that helped end World War II. The park will also celebrate the cutting-edge science that has sprung from the national laboratories in the decades since.

“This park is really about all of those people,” Moniz said, referring to current and former lab workers. “You built the weapon which ended the war and thereby saved countless American lives, and with regard to peacetime applications, you have raised the curtains on the vistas of a new world.”

But Moniz and others also pledged the parks will tell the story of the devastation that resulted when the U.S. dropped those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese died when the bombs detonated in August 1945.

Jewell choked up recalling stories her mother-in-law, who was a nurse in World War II, told her about traveling to the bomb sites after the blasts. A large contingent of Japanese media listened intently at the Interior Department ceremony as Jewell, her voice cracking, spoke of “consequences” resulting from the violence.

“The Manhattan Project and our use of the atomic bomb on two cities in Japan did, I think it’s fair to say, mark the end of one of the most significant global conflicts in our history, but it left devastation in its wake,” Jewell said. “We have many friends from Japan – a nation that is one of our closest allies – that felt the consequences, and their story needs to be told, as well. So, that is what the National Park Service will do. It will talk about ushering in a new era of scientific discovery and how these discoveries must be handled with great care.”

Kristin Henderson, chairwoman of the Los Alamos County Council, made the trip to Washington with several other Los Alamos residents for the event at the Interior Department. Henderson said she was gratified to see her community honored and hopes the park will help draw more visitors to the remote community in northern New Mexico.

“It’s so important to our country and our history, and it happened right there in Los Alamos,” she said. “We have a lot of people who are the grandkids and relatives of those who came to Los Alamos to begin with. It’s also important to welcome visitors and share this story.”

Joint management

The park – still at least a few years from completion – will be managed as a partnership between the Department of Energy, which already oversees and administers the properties for the United States, and the Interior Department’s National Park Service, which will provide interpretation, visitor information, and assistance in the preservation of the historic buildings at the sites.

Talks are still ongoing about the configuration of the Los Alamos portion of the national park. The act authorizing creation of the park identifies unspecified sites within secured areas at Los Alamos National Laboratory and two buildings in the downtown historic district: the former East Cafeteria on Nectar Street, which currently houses Los Alamos 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” – or within the security perimeter – 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.


Greg Mello, director of the Albuquerque-based nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, which opposes nuclear weapons and is often critical of Energy Department and LANL policy and spending, said the museum is a waste of tax dollars and a misplaced priority at a time of constrained federal budgets.

“It will be impossible for the National Park Service and the DOE to interpret these events objectively, because they are still involved in them,” Mello said, noting that the Department of Energy still maintains a vast nuclear arsenal. “It’s shocking that this is any kind of a priority, considering the legacy of contaminated (nuclear) sites around the country.”

But Ben Neal, a member of the Los Alamos County Council, said some of the kids he sees at his pediatric practice don’t know what the Cold War was, much less about the work that was done in their own backyard.

“It’s an opportunity for our kids to learn something,” he said.

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