Goal of the Manhattan Project historical park is to 'remember and learn from' nation's nuclear achievements

The machinery in Building 9204-3 that enriched uranium for the first atomic bomb has sat idle over the last half-century. During heavy rains, the roof leaks and giant pools of water spread across the floor. Decay, mold and dust abound.

The cavernous building, hastily erected as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II, is within a high-security perimeter at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., sealed off from visitors most of the time.

Building 9204-3, however, is now part of an ambitious plan to create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which would span three key parts of U.S. atomic bomb development: the Hanford Site in Washington, where plutonium was manufactured; Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the bomb was designed and assembled; and Y-12, where uranium was separated.

Oak Ridge, like the other sites that will be honored, is a monument to one of the nation's greatest technological achievements, or to the destructive potential of the human species — or both, say engineers, scientists and nuclear weapon experts.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz signed an agreement Tuesday in Washington, D.C., creating the park. Both pledged that the park would not glorify nuclear weapons but provide a complete story about the creation of the bombs that won World War II — and destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Interior Department convened last week a private "scholar's forum" of 21 experts from across the U.S. and Japan, aiming to bolster the credibility of how the government will tell the story of the Manhattan Project. A superintendent is expected to be named soon.

The park is "being created to remember and learn from this event which changed the history of the world," Vic Knox, a facilities and planning official at the National Park Service, told a briefing packed with Japanese news media at the State Department.

The New Mexico and Tennessee sites are still part of the active U.S. nuclear weapons complex. The Y-12 facility produces and refurbishes the thermonuclear assemblies of hydrogen bombs in a rusty and antiquated building that the Obama administration wants to replace.

The Los Alamos lab is one of the nation's two nuclear weapon design labs, along with Livermore National Laboratory in the Bay Area. The facilities are currently working on a new type of bomb that would replace some of the existing warheads.

The ongoing work on weapons has some nuclear experts skeptical about the purpose of the park.

"It puts an element of triumphalism to nuclear weapons," said Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department assistant secretary who is now on staff at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. "This is happening at a time when we are preparing to spend large sums of money to modernize our nuclear weapons complex. There is an element about it that is self-congratulatory. How about a monument to the eradication of polio?"

Alvarez, among others, points to the environmental damage that resulted from the Manhattan Project, which left 177 underground tanks of radioactive waste at Hanford and 2 million pounds of mercury in the environment of eastern Tennessee, along with other contamination at numerous sites across the nation. So far, that cleanup has cost about $100 billion and is far from complete.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy organization that focuses on energy and security issues, questioned whether anybody would want to go to a nuclear weapon factory, calling it a "Disneyland for weapons of mass destruction."

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FOR THE RECORD

The statement about "Disneyland for weapons of mass destruction" that was attributed to the Union of Concerned Scientists was made by an individual, not the organization.  

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Perhaps the ongoing role of nuclear weapons across the globe, along with the threat of proliferation by nations wanting to join the select club of nuclear powers, will motivate the public to learn more about the past.

"If the Manhattan Project park tells the story straight, it might be a service to everyone. But if it is a flag-waving party, it will be a blasphemy," said Ralph Hutchison, coordinator for the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, a watchdog group over Y-12.

The nation's nuclear weapons have always drawn intense public interest. Bus-loads of tourists regularly visit the former Nevada Test Site, where more than 1,000 bomb tests were conducted and the desert floor is marked by moon-like craters.

Every now and then, tourists are allowed into Building 9204-3 to walk among the calutron machines that magnetically separated fissile uranium from the stable isotope of the metal. Several years ago, the Energy Department put up a small Manhattan Project display in its lobby, including a nuclear weapon mock-up, and it drew curious tourists.

Some of the nation's nuclear weapon scientists say the park is a fitting recognition of America's war effort.

"It was a monumental scientific and engineering achievement and forever changed the role science played in national and international affairs," said Siegfried S. Hecker of Stanford University, director emeritus of the Los Alamos lab. "The park will also remind people of the devastation wrought by two atomic bombs and why these should never be used again. I consider the cities being commemorated to represent the battlefields of the Cold War — they helped to prevent a hot war."

An Energy Department spokesman said the agreement signed by Moniz and Jewell is just the first step in opening the facilities to outside visitors, although he acknowledged that it will probably take a long time to figure out how to maintain security and allow the public inside.

At the Y-12 plant, for example, visitors must provide proof of American citizenship and pass through security monitors. Guards armed with machine guns and other heavy weapons patrol the facility and drive armored vehicles.

An initial line of security encircles the entire site, and within that boundary is an even higher security area where individuals are questioned before passing through a heavy gate to Building 9204-3.

A few hundred yards away is the still-active uranium foundry, where an even higher level of security is maintained and almost nobody without a top Energy Department "Q" clearance can enter.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com
Twitter: @rvartabedian

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 19, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Manhattan Project park aims to teach, not glorify" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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