Manhattan Project bill gets another shot

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By Arin McKenna

 Congress is once again looking at the possibility of establishing a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. 

On March 7, Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced the legislation, S. 507, which would create a national park with units in Los Alamos,  Oak Ridge, Tenn. and Hanford, Wash. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) co-sponsored the bill.

“As Americans, we have a special obligation to preserve and protect our heritage, and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park will ensure that all Americans learn about the significance of the Manhattan Project and how it continues to shape our history,” said Senator Alexander. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, pledged to support the park during a visit to the Hanford B Reactor.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and one of the proposed park’s strongest supporters, is expected to introduce a House version of the bill next week. 

Similar bills were introduced in the 112th Congress, but failed to make it through a deadlocked Congress. The staff of the House and Senate has worked together to iron out differences between the two bills.

Heinrich issued the following statement about the bill. 

“The community of Los Alamos and New Mexico has played a central role in our nation’s nuclear history, and a national historic park will help educate the public about our state’s important contributions to this era. The National Park Service has tremendous experience in exploring our complex history, and a Manhattan Project National Historic Park would be an important addition to the national park system.”

Udall said, “The Manhattan Project and the founding scientific community of Los Alamos forever changed the world. What transpired in the Jemez Mountain range marked a powerful and emotional turning point in history that a National Park would help generations of people to better understand.”

As Congress moves the bills forward, the Atomic Heritage Foundation has taken the first steps toward creating a national touring exhibit about the Manhattan Project and laying the framework for the types of interpretation the National Park Service might focus on if the park becomes a reality. 

In February, AHF sponsored a conference on “Transforming the Relationship Between Science and Society: The Manhattan Project and Its Legacy” through a grant by the National Science Foundation.

Speakers included Richard Rhodes, author of “Making of the Atomic Bomb,” Robert Norris, author of “Racing for the Atomic Bomb,” the biography of Gen. Groves and Peter Kuznick, who co-authored “The Untold History of the United States” with Oliver Stone.

Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Museum and Bradbury Science Museum Executive Director Linda Deck also attended, along with a representative of the American Museum of Science and Industry in Oak Ridge and specialists on large museum exhibits. Representatives from the National Park Service were also on hand as well as a sociologist who studies social responsibility in science.

The broad range of speakers sparked discussions about what content would be critical to both an exhibit and park interpretation. 

“There was one session which was just fascinating to me, when Richard Rhodes and Peter Kuznick got into a little bit of a debate over the dropping of the atomic bomb. And it was like a tennis match, because they’re on opposite ends of the table. It went on for about 10 minutes and was quite, quite fascinating. You almost felt privileged to be in the room,” McClenahan said. 

“When it was over, everybody said that’s exactly the kind of thing we need to have happen in the exhibit. We need to have this sort of debate and drama, and it’s just so attention-grabbing to hear it.”

The proposed exhibit would encompass the major issues of the project: the science behind it, the history, and biographies of the major players, nuclear and other technologies that advanced because of the Manhattan Project, control of nuclear weapons, secrecy and national security and the aftermath of the project, both positive and negative.

Attendees debated what audiences they would try to reach and which museums it would be geared toward. The ideal would be to show at venues such as the Exploratorium in San Francisco or the Field Museum in Chicago if sufficient funds could be raised.  

“Another question we talked about was what sort of tenor the exhibit would have. Would it be something that’s very fun and interactive, is it more of a somber exhibit because we’re talking about nuclear weapons and the destructive force that they have? Would it be something where kids go in and solve problems?” McClenahan said.