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A National Park for the Bomb?

The efforts of Senators from nuclear weapons states, particularly Tennessee and New Mexico, resulted in the authorization of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park to memorialize the work of building the first atomic bomb. In July, the Department of Interior, which is responsible for national parks, and the Department of Energy, which is responsible for nuclear bombs, released a Draft Memorandum of Agreement for public comment.

The document is mostly about the process for moving the MPNHP forward. The public had thirty days to submit comments; OREPA submitted the following today. Maybe the most cogent point is made at the last.


The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance provides these comments on the Manhattan Project National Historical Park DRAFT Memorandum of Agreement. We appreciate the opportunity to offer these comments.


  1. While the Memorandum of Agreement is intended only to be a first step, it sets in motion a chain of events; key links in that chain do not as yet exist and it is not entirely clear that they can. For instance, the sites designated in Oak Ridge (Exhibit A) are not accessible to the public, nor can they be made accessible to the public”at least the sites at Y12″without significantly compromising security essential to the mission of Y-12.


The MOA gives DOE the right to control access to these sites (Article IV). This necessary requirement calls into question the wisdom of spending time, energy and money on the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park”how many of our national parks prohibit public access as a matter of rule? What is the purpose of a park no one can visit? Would it not be more proper simply to designate sites historically significant for the purpose of preservation?


  1. It is important, especially with regard to local presentation, for the National Park Service to retain full authority for the content of interpretation of the Manhattan Project for purposes of administering the park. The MOA as written claims “decision making authority” for interpretive content. It is not completely clear what “decision making authority” entails; if it is anything less than complete authority, the MOA should make clear that the full responsibility and authority for interpretive materials rests with the NPS.


The reasons for this are two-fold. There is a history to the telling of the story of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. In Oak Ridge, the story is one of astonishing engineering and construction achievement; most of the participants had no idea what they were working on. This story has been told often. However, the story in Oak Ridge for decades ended with the detonation of the bomb and did not reflect at all on the effects of the bomb except to repeat the popular mythology of the Stimson article in Harper’s in 1946″that the bomb ended the war and saved tens of thousands of US soldiers’ lives.


The Manhattan Project is a singular event in history, an astonishing dedication of resources; the result of the effort was the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The story can not be told coherently without telling the whole story, the story that is in the documentary records of the day; the story can not be told honestly (with accuracy to history) unless it adheres closely to the contemporaneous records. As Gar Alperovitz pointed out when he spoke in Knoxville, Tennessee on August 2, 2105: “None of this is controversial among historians. The record is clear.”


Pressure will be brought to bear on the NPS, though, when we it prepares the interpretive materials for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. We need only recall the hue and cry surrounding the Enola Gay exhibit in 1995; the outcome of that challenge to this historically accurate record may have been politically necessary, but it was unfortunate and deficient from the standpoint of historians.


  1. Each of the sites designated in Oak Ridge as part of the MPNHP are located within the boundaries of a National Priorities List (Superfund) site. There are many areas on the Oak Ridge Reservation of documented contamination; there are sites being remediated and awaiting remediation. There are also an unknown number of “surprises” on the Oak Ridge Reservation. Crews working to construct a haul road two years ago stumbled onto a debris field fourteen feet beneath the surface that contained radioactive elements, including highly enriched uranium.


Consideration must be given to possible exposures to the public visiting the MPNHP. Cleanup operations on the Oak Ridge Reservation, expected to continue for at least thirty years, may at any time result in releases of airborne contaminants from a “surprise” waste site.


Consideration must also be given to the prioritization of cleanup on the Oak Ridge Reservation. The MPNHP can not be permitted to delay, inhibit, or interrupt cleanup activities; prior to the final establishment of the park, the Memorandum of Agreement should be explicit about scheduled cleanup activities and the operation of the park.


  1. Listed among the items to be included in the “Joint Operating Plan” for each site is “k. Potential First Amendment activities and requests.” It should be noted the Department of Energy in Oak Ridge has an abysmal record when it comes to respecting or preserving first amendment rights. Security personnel at the site routinely attempt to deny protected activity outside the boundaries of the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex, often enlisting local law enforcement, simply because they find it offensive to be reminded they are producing weapons of mass destruction in violation of the US commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.


When the Department of the Interior sits down to craft this Joint Operating Plan with the DOE, Interior should be aware of the history in Oak Ridge and should not start with the assumption that first amendment rights are respected”DOE will say they are, but the actual record tells a different story.


  1. Finally, while the Manhattan Project represents a singular moment in the history of the United States and the world, it is not without parallel, and it is part of a larger story. The use of the atomic bomb represented the first ever use of a nuclear weapon of mass destruction. In one sense it continued the re-writing of the rules of war that began with aerial bombing and were overwritten by the fire-bombing carried out in Europe and Asia during the second world war. In another sense, it was not simply a bomb that differed in quantity, it was a bomb that differed in quality, and the heirs of the Manhattan Project bombs are massive enough to threaten life on the planet.


The second World War saw a not dissimilar dedication of resources in Europe in the form of Hitler’s concentration and extermination camps. While the motives behind Hitler’s endeavor and the effort to create the atomic bomb may have been different, the results were equally shocking to the conscience of the world, at least outside the United States, when the full nature of the bomb became clear. (It was this realization that compelled the Stimson article in Harper’s.) The NPS carries this burden as it develops the interpretive materials that will accompany the story of the Manhattan Project. Compounding the challenge of telling the story is its place in history”the work of the Manhattan Project goes on unabated; the United States continues to manufacture thermonuclear weapons of mass destruction without a trace of shame, justifies this work as necessary for its defense, and deploys hundreds and hundreds of weapons with a destructive capacity far greater than Little Boy or Fat Man around the globe, on hair-trigger alert, at every minute of every day. Work essential to this endeavor is ongoing at two of the sites, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, designated to be part of the MPNHP. Can one imagine how the story of Auschwitz or Buchenwald might be told if ethnic cleansing camps, perhaps sanitized in some way, continued to operate?


Before the government invests additional taxpayer dollars on the MPNHP, this issue should be discussed in a public forum (or fora) and the resolution of the challenges presented herein should be determined. If no satisfactory resolution is possible, the MPNHP idea should be abandoned.



Submitted August 28, 2015

Ralph Hutchison, coordinator

Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance






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Sunday Vigil at Y-12 in Oak Ridge Tennessee

Sunday Vigil

OREPA has held Sunday vigils every week for more than 22 years at the main entrance to the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex (intersection of Scarboro Rd and East Bear Creek Road). We will now be holding the vigil at 4:00PM ET during the winter months so we don’t have to be sitting out in the dark. We are outdoors and space our chairs; when covid numbers are up, we encourage people to wear masks. Bring your own chair, we have some umbrellas for sun shade or rain.

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