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Originally published Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 8:59 PM

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Nuclear national parks? WWII weapon sites did change history

The Obama administration is supporting legislation in Congress that would designate major sites in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Hanford, Wash.; and Los Alamos, N.M., as national parks, paving the way for wider exposure for the aging laboratories that altered world history.

The Washington Post

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Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory was such a well-kept secret during World War II that most Americans still don't know it sits off one of the busiest highways in the South.

Streams of vacationers whiz by the site that enriched uranium for America's first atomic bombs on their way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the most popular in the nation, just south of Knoxville off Interstate 40. Each year about this time, Oak Ridge holds a Secret City Festival, crying out to potential tourists.

"They don't even know we're here," said Katy Brown, president of the city's convention and visitor's bureau.

But a spotlight might soon shine on the Oak Ridge lab and two other largely forgotten Manhattan Project sites on the approach of the 70th anniversary of the general order that established it.

The Obama administration is supporting bipartisan legislation in Congress that would designate major sites in Oak Ridge; Hanford, Wash.; and Los Alamos, N.M., as national parks, paving the way for wider exposure for the aging laboratories that altered world history — and, some say, darkened it.

The Hanford site produced plutonium. The Oak Ridge site enriched uranium. And workers in Los Alamos used those materials to assemble the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs dropped on Japan, forcing a Japanese surrender and ending the war. Some 200,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki perished.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation called the bomb's creation and use "the single most significant event of the 20th century" in advocating for the preservation of buildings once scheduled for demolition.

The president of the Japanese American Association of New York is not as nostalgic. Any commemoration of the sites, said Gary Moriwaki, should educate visitors "on the devastating effects of the bombs dropped on" Japan.

"One should reflect on the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 'I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,' " Moriwaki said. Oppenheimer, a physicist, guided the project at Los Alamos and has been called the father of the atomic bomb.

Today, thousands of scientists continue to work in those labs on unrelated research, giving life to pioneering technologies now used for the Mars rover, chemotherapy, whole-body X-ray scanning at airports, high-speed computers and biotechnology — a legacy of the brilliant scientists who worked at the sites during World War II, Energy Department officials said.

"You can't deny the impact nuclear weapons have had," said Micah Zenko, a fellow at Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in nuclear policy. Zenko said preserving the Manhattan Project sites makes sense. "It's a part of American history that most people forget."

America's race with Nazi Germany to develop the first atomic bomb received its code name, the Manhattan Project, in late 1941. It's official formation in the Manhattan Engineering District followed in August 1942.

That same year, the Hanford reservation in Eastern Washington along the Columbia River was selected to produce plutonium. The Oak Ridge and Los Alamos reservations were established in 1943. In all, 125,000 people worked on the project at those sites and Manhattan, and only 1,000 knew the exact purpose of the work. About 32,000 people currently work at the sites.

Each site has some nuclear-waste contamination and is undergoing cleanups involving up to 30,000 workers under multibillion-dollar contracts, said David Huizenga, senior adviser for environmental management at the Energy Department.

Along the Columbia River, workers have nearly completed cleaning up waste in a 220-square-mile area, an Energy spokeswoman said. A treatment plant to convert highly radioactive waste into a stable glass for permanent disposal underground is experiencing delays.

In Tennessee, workers are cleaning more than a third of the 52-square-mile site, focusing on parts of its three main campuses that worked with uranium. In New Mexico, workers are digging up 55-gallon drums, placing them in larger containers with better seals and burying them 21 feet underground.

Huizenga said he's certain tourists can safely visit any Manhattan Project site. "Tours will steer well clear of contaminated areas. You would have to be directly digging up the waste to be at risk of being exposed by it," he said.

Concerns over waste is one reason why the government originally frowned on preserving buildings at Los Alamos and the other sites. Oak Ridge's mile-long K-25 building was one of the largest in the world during the war. Los Alamos' site held the modest home of Oppenheimer. By the mid-1990s, buildings that housed reactors and assembly plants were falling apart.

"They were all to be destroyed," said Cynthia Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, which worked to preserve them. "It was just kind of a quick and not very careful thinking of whether these were valuable properties."

That thinking shifted in 1997, when a team from the federal Advisory Council for Historic Preservation visited and was impressed by what it saw. Later the National Park Service recommended the establishment of parks at the site that "could expand and enhance ... public understanding of this nationally significant story in 20th century American history."

A proposal for a park designation by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., is slowly working its way through a committee. Companion House legislation proposed by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is awaiting a full vote, possibly next week.

As a national park, Oak Ridge could easily top the 1,500 visitors who swing by each year for a tour conducted by the Energy Department five days a week from June to September, Brown said.

She has taken the tour bus that boards at the nearby American Museum of Science and Energy past the tall laboratory fence. The graphite reactor, she said, is an awesome sight.

"It's really cool. It's very nostalgic," she said. The tour led into an old control room where a logbook encased in glass showed when the reactor first went critical, about 5 a.m. on Nov. 4, 1943, allowing scientists to begin extracting plutonium from uranium.

Seventy-five thousand people worked on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge.

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