The long-running push to establish a Manhattan Project Historical National Park is reaching a critical juncture, with one of the main advocates soon leaving Congress.
Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has been the leading proponent in that chamber, but he’s retiring at the end of this congressional term. Early this year, Hastings was able to add language that would create the park to the House Defense Authorization bill. The park would commemorate the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell was able to accomplish the same with the Senate version.
The park is part of a large package of public-lands measures appended to the defense bill, including the expansion of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness east of Seattle, and the adoption of “wild and scenic” designations for the Pratt River and the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River. The House approved the defense bill Thursday; the Senate is expected to vote on it next week.
There is some resistance. Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has objected to unrelated matters being added to the defense bill, saying they should be considered as stand-alone measures. That would be ideal, but getting Congress to pass anything these days has become nearly impossible. The last public-lands bill was passed in 2009. So, in this era of gridlock, the strategy is to attach proposed legislation to must-pass bills.
The prospect of a national park at Hanford is particularly exciting (and it’s certainly defense-related). We supported the idea three years ago, when it was promoted by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar after he toured the historic B Reactor. As he said at the time, “We have not yet done a good enough job of telling the story of World War II and the nuclear era born out of the war.”
The story itself is remarkable. Residents of small towns were told to clear out, and workers were brought in to construct a mystery facility. Amazingly, this was all kept secret, and B Reactor was built in an astounding 13 months.
It takes longer than that just to finish the permitting on big projects these days. But the country was in a race to produce a weapon that would end World War II, with Hanford producing the necessary plutonium. In 1945, the nuclear age was born, and it has changed the world forever.
B Reactor is currently designated a National Historic Landmark, but historic park status would increase tourism-related amenities and guarantee that it be preserved. Other Manhattan Project sites, such as Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., would also gain the designation. Along with learning important history lessons, visitors would gain an appreciation for the long-term cleanup needed at these nuclear facilities. This, in turn, could build more support in Congress for the necessary funding.
Our country has wisely preserved for posterity such sites as Independence Hall and Valley Forge. The history-altering sites of the Manhattan Project also merit remembrance.
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