THE atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed and haunt the world.
Whatever our stances on the necessity, or travesty, of those bombs, radioactive waste storage or environmental damage, all our citizens can acknowledge that the development of atomic weapons in World War II altered human history.
The Manhattan Project brought together physicists, engineers, laborers, secretaries, who worked in complete secrecy (and often ignorance) in three far-flung locations: Los Alamos, N.M., Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford in Washington. Nearly all the participants are gone now. Our nation has a narrow window of opportunity to lock their critical story into our national consciousness by preserving the Manhattan Project District, and its key physical plants, as part of our national park system.
I was born and grew up in Richland, the bedroom community for Hanford in Southeastern Washington state. Mine was a one-company hometown. The company — the U.S. government, through its contractors — manufactured plutonium that fueled the Nagasaki bomb and two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
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I look back at that childhood, which was idyllic in many ways, with cookie-cutter houses, good schools and safe streets full of playmates, and try to understand our community’s part of atomic history. I try to make peace with our culture of secrecy, our insistence that nothing at Hanford was ever wrong or unsafe, our conviction that outsiders didn’t understand and our scientists always knew best; just as I struggle to make sense of those who portray the entire Hanford workforce — my friends and neighbors — as evil.
The Manhattan Project National Historic Park Act is not about taking sides. It is not a glorification of the bomb or a claim for our moral or scientific superiority. It is a means to preserve the ground where our world changed so that generations to come can remember and continue these essential conversations. Our national parks can preserve key physical structures for generations to come and render this story — regardless of whether one approves of it — more tangible and personal for those who visit.
I’ve had the rare opportunity to tour the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, one of the facilities that would be part of a national park site. B Reactor was built in 13 months in secret under trying conditions, with no guarantee it would work — but it did.
Nothing speaks quite as loudly as standing in the presence of that awe-inspiring, frightening, now-silent warhorse, rising up 40 feet high, the very essence of intricate and aged engineering — then stepping outside where nearby cleanup continues on the most contaminated waste site in our hemisphere. It’s an unforgettable experience. Imagine the impact on our children, who might feel before they enter that this history has little to do with them. Think how suddenly they would learn they are wrong.
The U.S. National Park Service is one of the jewels of our national government and one of only a handful of institutions that ignite respect and pride in a broad cross-section of our citizens. They preserve our natural and national history — the story of ourselves — and make it available to generations to come, long after those who lived it are gone. They do it without an agenda.
Our time to act is limited: So many of our Manhattan Project guides are lost each year. The time is now, 70 years after B Reactor first came online, before it’s too late to acknowledge the workers who altered world history. Legislation recently passed the U.S. House and now faces consideration in the Senate. Our country owes this to those citizens who gave so much of their lives, and to the generations beyond us.
Kathleen Flenniken is the author of “Plume,” a collection of poems about the Hanford Site. She is a former Hanford engineer and former Washington State Poet Laureate.