Note: This story was last updated at 8:20 a.m. Nov. 13.
Federal officials established the new national park that includes Oak Ridge on Tuesday. Oak Ridge residents celebrated on Thursday.
The new park, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, commemorates the Manhattan Project. That was a top-secret federal program to build the world’s first atomic weapons during World War II, before Germany could.
Oak Ridge was the main production site for the Manhattan Project, and uranium enriched at the Y-12 National Security Complex fueled the first atomic bomb used in wartime. It was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, shortly before the war ended.
“Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project changed the course of history,” Mayor Warren Gooch said.
It’s taken more than a decade to establish the park, and there have been some hurdles to clear. The former mayor was told at one point that the park wasn’t going to happen, and one earlier proposal would have put the park only in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
But after years of lobbying by city officials, historic preservation groups, and federal legislators, Congress approved a unique three-park site in 2014 that includes Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford, Washington. The U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Interior, which includes the National Park Service, formally established the park in a Tuesday ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The park will be managed as a partnership between the Department of Energy—which owns and manages the properties—and the National Park Service, which will provide interpretation, visitor information, and assistance in the preservation of the historic buildings at the sites.
It’s the nation’s 409th park and the first to commemorate the Manhattan Project, which is considered one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century and an incredible engineering feat.
Oak Ridge celebrated the new park on Thursday with speeches and music at Oak Ridge High School and a re-creation of the iconic “War Ends” photograph from 70 years ago, but this time with different text: “Park Opens.” Three original Manhattan Project workers attended. So did Ed Westcott, the government’s official photographer in Oak Ridge during the war.
In Oak Ridge, the park will include the footprint of the former K-25 Building, a giant now-demolished building once used to enrich uranium in west Oak Ridge; the Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a pilot facility for the production of plutonium, which was used to power the second atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945; and Building 9731 and Building 9204-3, or Beta 3, at Y-12. The two Y-12 buildings were used to enrich uranium.
Also eligible for inclusion in the park is the Alexander Guest House, a historic two-story hotel now converted into an assisted living center in central Oak Ridge. Unlike the other four buildings, it’s not a U.S. Department of Energy site.
“I think the park really represents the historically significant things that happened here, and it allows us to integrate a new thread into the fabric of our community,” Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said.
The National Park Service has vowed to tell all sides of the story, including the devastation of war. Officials said they’ve had conversations with Japanese representatives.
The park is now operational, and the NPS has a visitor use assistant who will start working at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, starting this Saturday.
“I’m excited about the opportunity we have here,” said former Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan, who testified about the park to the U.S. House and Senate.
There are still some issues to resolve, including how to provide safe, secure access to the Oak Ridge sites, which, particularly at ORNL and Y-12, are inside secure, guarded facilities.
Work on what is known as a foundation document is expected to start early next year. That document, which could take a year to produce, will include a discussion of thematic stories and relevant resources.
Also expected are individual plans for each site and long-range interpretive and development plans. The interim superintendent, who could be hired this fall, will be located in Denver, where the Park Service has a regional office. That location is central to Hanford, Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge. A final headquarters location has not been determined, although East Tennessee officials have lobbied to have it in Oak Ridge.
Officials plan to build on the “fantastic” tours that DOE has already put in place at Oak Ridge and Hanford. On Thursday, DOE offered 10 bus tours to the Graphite Reactor at ORNL and buildings 9731 and 9204 at Y-12. That shows that access can be provided, although details still have to be worked out, officials said.
“It will be a continuous transition,” said Barclay Trimble, NPS Southeast deputy regional director. “This location already has a good base to build on.”
City and state officials say the park could boost tourism, the second-largest industry in Tennessee after agriculture. It’s also expected to help tell the story of the Manhattan Project, the groundbreaking, world-changing work that occurred at the three sites, and the scientific achievements that resulted, including in work that continues today.
“Clearly, it draws national and international attention to Oak Ridge,” Gooch said. “We celebrate our past, but the fact that there will be a lot of new people coming to Oak Ridge is important…It will become clearer to people as we go along just how important this is.”
There was $180,000 appropriated for the new park in Fiscal Year 2016, which ends September 30, and the president’s budget request for FY 17 included about $500,000. Officials expect to develop a better idea of budget and staffing levels as they finish planning.
Colin Colverson, Oak Ridge Reservation lead for the new park in the DOE Oak Ridge Office, said there will be multiple meetings on the foundation document spread out over several days in February, and there will be public input. The Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association had a meeting on Thursday night, after the ORHS and Jackson Square ceremonies, to collect public input, and NPS staff members were expected to attend.
The next step for DOE is to start working with the Park Service to negotiate annual joint operating agreements. And NPS will work with DOE to provide access to park facilities, while ensuring that the labs and sites, which were born in the Manhattan Project, can continue operating. It’s not clear yet how often access might be provided to some of the park’s new facilities.
DOE has agreed to own and maintain the sites, and officials said that’s one of the agreements that helped make the new park possible.
Trimble said the national park designation provides additional prestige and could help with funding, preservation, and promotion.
“There are economic benefits for having a national park,” Trimble said. The new park is close to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Obed Wild and Scenic River, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The planning for the new park will include teams of professional planners working with DOE and NPS, incorporating public comments, and using resources already in place, including the Y-12 New Hope History Center, the K-25 Virtual Museum, and the DOE bus tours.
“We’re not coming in starting from scratch,” Trimble said.
He said site directors could be hired in 2017.
A K-25 Virtual Museum was launched Tuesday by DOE’s Oak Ridge Office in conjunction with the establishment of the new national park.
K-25 used a process called gaseous diffusion to produce enriched uranium. The K-25 site continued to be used during the Cold War for nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear power plants, but it shut down in 1987. The K-25 Building was a mile-long, U-shaped building that was once the world’s largest under one roof.
Uranium enrichment moved to K-25 from Y-12 after 1946, according to Y-12 Historian D. Ray Smith, who has been among those advocating for the national park.
Building 9731 at Y-12, which used electromagnetic separation, was a pilot plant, and it has the world’s only alpha calutrons, Smith said. Beta-3 was a production facility.
Uranium for the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima was enriched at those two buildings and eight others at Y-12, five of them using first-stage alpha processes and four using second-stage beta processes.
The Beta-3 building continued to separate stable isotopes for nuclear medicine until 1998.
The Graphite Reactor operated from 1943 to 1963.
The B Reactor at Hanford is the world’s first large-scale plutonium production reactor, and it is also included in the new park. Earlier this year, DOE said it will continue to offer bus tours to the B Reactor. The four pre-Manhattan Project facilities left from before the government’s occupation in 1943—Hanford High School, White Bluffs Bank, Bruggemann Warehouse, and the 1908 Allard Pump House and farmstead—were expected to be the focus of a new historic tour that was set to debut in 2015. DOE will also complete the rehabilitation of the historic White Bluffs Bank in 2015, enabling visitors to go inside this turn-of-the century facility for the first time, officials said.
At Los Alamos, all 17 of the Manhattan Project-era properties are currently closed to the public, including V-Site, where key components of the Trinity device were assembled, and Gun Site, where scientists performed ballistic tests for the gun method used to detonate the uranium bomb. Several historic properties within the County of Los Alamos are open to the public, including Fuller Lodge, an important community building in use during the Manhattan Project, DOE said in February.
The Manhattan Project was an unprecedented national program, a world-changing event that harnessed the atom, and the largest industrial project ever, employing 130,000 people at just the three park sites. Whole cities and gigantic industrial plants were built in just a few short years, and Oak Ridge quickly swelled to a population of 75,000. Plants like the B Reactor were built in 11 months, still considered a marvelous feat today. The Manhattan Project is credited with helping to end World War II through its creation of the two atomic bombs dropped over Japan in August 1945.
Questions about the use of the bomb continue to be debated today. East Tennessee residents take pride in the role that Oak Ridge played in helping to end the war. They cite a claim that the use of the bombs likely saved a million lives by preventing further combat.
But opponents of nuclear weapons question whether the use of the bombs was necessary, and they point to the suffering endured by residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including children.
Officials vowed to tell all sides of the story during the signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday morning.
“You can trust us with this story,” National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said. “We will be fair to all.”
See photos from Thursday’s celebration at Oak Ridge High School and Jackson Square here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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