More Than a Half Life: Committing to the Preservation of Atomic Resources

By Nancy Tinker posted 09-13-2012 16:56


It’s hard to imagine an entire city existing in secret. Sixty thousand acres set aside for one, top-secret purpose. A discovery so huge it could end a world war. It’s hard to imagine – but it’s true.”  D. Ray Smith, Oak Ridge, Tennessee

The top-secret Manhattan Project is an American story of scientific discovery, an achievement some have defined as the single most significant event of the 20th century. It is the unparalleled story of a nation uniting for a common cause, an initiative that catalyzed advancements in physics and medicine while posing ethical questions regarding the moral responsibilities engendered by nuclear science.
The Face of the Hanford B Reactor
Credit: Atomic Heritage Foundation

Initiated by the Roosevelt Administration in 1942 and dedicated to developing an atomic weapon in advance of Germany, the Manhattan Project grew to include thousands of scientists working in laboratories located across the country. Creation of atomic weaponry brought an end to World War II, dramatically stepped up  the role of the United States in the international community, and irrevocably set the stage for the Cold War.  At the end of the Cold War , these laboratories became the scene of cutting-edge research. It was here that additional applications for nuclear energy were developed, fostering advances in the newly emergent fields of high-speed computer technology, genomics, bioengineering, and chemotherapy.

Recognizing the transforming nature of the Manhattan Project, the United States Congress has expressed interest in creating the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a national park includiing  three  laboratories central to the work of the Manhattan. Led by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Congressman Doc Hastings (R-WA), establishment of the national park possesses strong bi-cameral, bi-partisan support.

At its peak, the code-named Manhattan Project employed 135,000 people; but only a relative few were aware of the purpose of their work. The facilities and communities constructed for the effort were top secret and hidden in rural locations. The project’s classified status demanded sites be situated beyond range of enemy aircraft and isolated from population centers, yet accessible to a ready labor supply as well as rail and motor transportation. Specific laboratories--the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, and the Hanford Site in Washington--were central to the mission with their work tightly intertwined.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee

With the Manhattan Project authorized in 1942, the US Army acquired thousands of acres of East Tennessee farm land, forcing traditional farming families from their homes. Many  farmers hoped their leaving might help win the war:
The Y-12 Plant, Oak Ridge. 
Credit: US Department of Energy

In was born in the house my grandfather built. One day a man came to our house and said he was from the government. “We’re going to buy up your land,” he said to me. “All of it?” I asked. “Yes, sir,” he said, “Everybody has to go.”

Well, I went outside and look around me . . .  up at the green hills my grandfather had come across 100 years earlier. I asked the visitor what the government was going to do and he said it was for winning the war. I had three sons in service – two overseas – and I figured if giving up my home and my land would help bring them home sooner, I’d be happy to do it . . .”

The Y-12 electromagnetic plant was the first of Oak Ridge’s three laboratories, breaking ground in 1943. With the region’s farmsteads removed, engineers initiated construction of Y-12’s nine uranium enrichment buildings and the hundreds of warehouses, cooling towers, and office buildings necessary to support the work. Construction advanced at such a rapid pace that in December 1945, the Engineering News Record described the achievements as the equivalent of having constructed the Panama Canal within a 12-month period. The enriched uranium produced at Y-12 ultimately created the weapon detonated over Hiroshima, Japan.

Construction of the Oak Ridge Graphite Reactor (X-10 Site) followed in 1943. Designed as the pilot plant for reactors later constructed in Hanford, Wash., the Graphite Reactor produced the world’s first significant amounts of plutonium, proving that plutonium production could be achieved.

Erected in 1943, K-25 was central to the Manhattan Project’s mission, illustrating the initiative’s enormous scale and ambition. At the time of its construction, K-25 was the largest building in the world located beneath a single roof, its four-story, U-shaped footprint encompassing 43 acres. Purposed to produce weapons-grade uranium, and its scientists pressed to begin the production process, crews began construction before the building’s overall design could be completed.

Hanford, Washington
The Control Panel at the Hanford B Reactor
Credit: The Atomic Heritage Commission

Completed in 1944, Hanford’s B Reactor became the world’s first reactor to produce plutonium on a large scale. Modeled on scientist Enrico Fermi’s “Chicago Pile” and Oak Ridge’s X-10 Graphite Reactor, the B Reactor produced 250 million watts of power, developing the plutonium used in the bomb tested at Alamagordo, N.M., as well as the weapon detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.

Los Alamos, New Mexico

The laboratories erected at Los Alamos were constructed on the grounds of the former Los Alamos Ranch School, a boys’ boarding school which was situated approximately 40 miles from Santa Fe. Acquired by the Army in 1942, the school’s rural campus was soon overrun by barracks and chemistry and physics laboratories.
By 1944 Los Alamos was home to the “V-Site,” the lab in which the world’s first plutonium bomb was assembled. “The Gadget,” code name for the prototype “Fat Man” bomb detonated over Nagasaki, was assembled here.

Preservation Today

At the close of World War II, Manhattan Project sites were repurposed; their collective efforts trained on the NASA space program, in advancing medical science and in supplying the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The change in mission prompted the need for new laboratories resulting in the demolition of many Manhattan Project resources. Oak Ridge’s K-25 site is a case in point.

In 1998 the Department of Energy (DOE) proposed demolishing hundreds of K-25’s support facilities along with the 43-acre U-shaped building. Section 106 review was initiated with the Tennessee Historical Commission (TN-SHPO.) The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) joined as Consulting Parties. Six Memoranda of Agreement (MOA) followed, with DOE withdrawing from each successive agreement, their desire to pursue building demolition an indisputable goal. It was during this same period Congress became interested in creating a national park commemorating the Manhattan Project.
Exterior view of the Hanford B Reactor
Credit: Atomic Heritage Commission

In October 2004, President George W. Bush directed the Department of the Interior (DOI) and DOE to prepare a study determining the feasibility of creating a national park to commemorate the Manhattan Project. The study confirmed resources remaining in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford possessed the national significance required for designation and determined these resources to be suitable for inclusion in the national park system. On July 13, 2011, a major milestone was realized when Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, recommended Congress create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. DOE supported park creation and acknowledged interpretation of the K-25 site as central to telling the Manhattan Project story. Yet, the agency persisted in its chosen course, perceiving park creation and the demolition of the K-25 site as two entirely separate functions.

Recognizing the site’s mission as central to the Manhattan Project, ACHP readily accepted K-25’s eligibility as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). To create a forward path, ACHP exercised authority granted by Section 213, a little known clause embedded within Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The clause authorizes preparation of a document whose purpose is to conclude 106 review by identifying a range of strategies designed to facilitate site interpretation. A 26-page report resulted with the National Park Service determining two factors were critical to telling the story of K-25: the gaseous diffusion process accomplished by K-25 must be “authentically” interpreted and the worker experience must be accurately told.

Working closely with Consulting Parties, DOE was permitted to continue with its demolition plans. In exchange, the agency was required to retain and interpret K-25’s U-shaped footprint and to construct a four-story scaled replica of the processing plant. The replica’s interior will contain a representative cross section of K-25’s World War II technology with authentic equipment installed to replicate wartime conditions. A visitor’s center and viewing tower will complete this building ensemble.
The K-25 Site. The “U” is in the upper left hand corner.
Credit: US Department of Energy

The decision to use atomic weapons to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains a question of keen debate. While the National Trust acknowledges the complexities inherent in telling this story, it  endorses a Congressional desire to create this three-unit national park. The National Park Service has significant experience in interpreting the complex stories found at Little Bighorn, Little Rock Central High School, and Manzanar. These sites are interpreted as authentic sites – places where history happened – and not places of celebration. Sites such as these memorialize some of our nation’s most controversial and difficult events without attempting to decide these issues for visitors. The Manhattan Project’s multifaceted story embraces aspects of our nation’s scientific, industrial, military, economic, social, and cultural history, and merits inclusion in the national storybook.

Attending the National Preservation Conference? Make sure to check out the session "Interpreting History of the Atomic Age,"  or attend the field session "The Manhattan Project:  A Rare Tour inside the Hanford B Reactor" which takes place on Tuesday, October 30 and Saturday, November 3

Learn more about the National Trust for Historic Preservation's work with Manhattan Project Historic Sites.

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