Congress considering measure to preserve atomic labs as National Parks
America's nuclear heritage has few sites open to the public. But since the Cold War ended, several sites have fallen out of active use. After narrowly avoiding being torns down, there's a movement to open them to the public as National Parks.
America's atomic weapons program was born in laboratories in New Mexico and Tennessee.
And while the Trinity Site, where the first bomb was detonated, has long been marked as a national historic monument, the labs themselves have been mostly hidden from public view.
A proposal currently in Congress, however, may change that. It would make these sites — like the Los Alamos labs in New Mexico, the Hanford nuclear reactor in Washington and the Oak Ridge labs in Tennessee — national parks, upping their tourism value and ensuring that they remain preserved long into the future. But there have been concerns. Are these locations safe? Can they be properly preserved with people traipsing through them.
Katy Brown, the president of the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau, said to the first question, the answer is absolutely.
"We wouldn't bring visitors to a place that would be harmful to them. I'm confident the Department of Energy and the different locations here in Oak Ride can accommodate those visitors. There's no chance they'd get anywhere near something that has hazardous wastes."
Cindy Kelly, the president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, has been working for years to get these locations preserved and opened to the public. She said part of the challenge she's faced is these sites have been classified for some 70 years, dating back to the Manhattan Project, and the Cold War.
"Workers were forbidden (from) talking about it with the public," she said. "The properties at Los Alamos that triggered my interest in this in the mid-90s were totally unseen by the people of Los Alamos. They didn't even know they still existed."
Kelly says some of those buildings have actually been abandoned since the 1950s. Virtually all of the properties had been slated for demolition as part of Army clean-up efforts.
"There was no real national awareness that they existed or that they were anything other than big hulks that were too contaminated to even think about bringing the public to," Kelly said.
There have also been concerns, though, that if these sites are made into a museum, they may serve to glorify the atomic weapons program, glossing over the ethical and moral debate that persists over the use, even the mere existence, of nuclear weapons.
Brown said the National Park Service has a history of telling the complete story.
"This is our story, and the way that things were done in Oak Ridge. It's about the people that were here. The people's story is fascinating," she said. "The average age was 27 years old. No one knew what they were doing. They came here with a purpose, which was to help the war effort. I think there's more to the story than we built a bomb here."
The community of Oak Ridge, Brown said, wouldn't exist except for the Manhattan Project. The community was completed from nothing to support the construction of the atomic bomb.
"This is our history and our heritage. We still have people alive and with us today in Oak Ridge who worked here during that time," Brown said. "Their stories are amazing."
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