Interior head backs B Reactor as national historical park

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJuly 14, 2011 

Making B Reactor part of the National Park Service received the backing of Ken Salazar, the secretary of the Interior, on Wednesday.

He recommended to Congress that a national historical park be formed to commemorate the Manhattan Project, the top-secret effort to create an atomic bomb during World War II. In addition to B Reactor, facilities at Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., which also were part of the race to develop the atomic bomb, were included in the recommendation.

The recommendation is a turnaround from the park service's previous stand. A draft study released in December 2009 by the park service concluded that only part of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory National Landmark District should be considered for a new national park.

The park service then was concerned about safety, liability and ownership of the nuclear facilities.

But it credited Ines Triay, the outgoing Department of Energy assistant secretary of environmental management, for proposing a solution that would have DOE continue to play a strong role at sites included in a national park.

Making B Reactor part of the National Park Service also was widely supported at park service meetings in the Tri-Cities and by the Washington congressional delegation.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, will write legislation authorizing preservation activities, according to his staff. The committee has jurisdiction over the National Park Service.

The final decision on whether B Reactor achieves national park status will fall to Congress and the president.

"The B Reactor played a critical role in the history of our nation, and establishing a national historical park will attract visitors from across the country and give them an opportunity to learn about and reflect on the contribution made by Hanford and the Tri-Cities during World War II and the Cold War," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a statement.

She will be working with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to make the recommendation a reality, she said. The reactor deserves preservation, Cantwell said.

B Reactor was the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor. It produced plutonium for the world's first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert and for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end World War II. It continued to produce plutonium until 1968.

Limited bus tours of the reactor are offered now, but they do not keep up with demand. About 7,000 people visit the reactor annually, despite tours now being closed to children, according to DOE. Last year the visitors came from 48 states and 29 countries.

The National Parks Conservation Association said that every federal dollar spent on national parks generates $4 in value. Annually visitors to national parks spend more than $11 billion in the regions near the parks, it said.

But in the Tri-Cities, many of its supporters have worked to save B Reactor not for the economic benefit, but because of the role it played in initiating the Atomic Age and to commemorate the feat of engineering needed to build the reactor not long after the first controlled nuclear reaction had been demonstrated.

"If the Manhattan Project National Historic Park is authorized by Congress and moves forward, it would be very well-deserved recognition of the efforts and sacrifices made by Hanford workers, the community and the nation during World War II and the Cold War," said Matt McCormick, manager of the Hanford DOE Richland Operations Office, in a message to employees.

The secret development of an atomic bomb in multiple locations across the United States was one of the most transformative events in the nation's history, Salazar said in a statement.

"The Manhattan Project ushered in the atomic age, changed the role of the United States in the world community and set the stage for the Cold War," he said.

There's no better place to tell the once-secret story of the atomic bomb's creation than the places where it happened, said National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, in a statement.

The environmental assessment report released to Congress by the park service this week calls for DOE to continue managing and operating B Reactor and for the National Park Service to provide museum-quality interpretation and education. The study was done after Cantwell and Murray sponsored legislation directing the park service to assess the potential for developing B Reactor and other Manhattan Project facilities as historical sites.

Triay assured the park service a year ago that the facilities "will remain in DOE ownership and that DOE will maintain them, preserve important historic resources at these sites, ensure visitor and employee safety, and request necessary funding from Congress to do so in the future."

Roles of the park service and DOE could be clearly delineated with each agency playing to its strengths, she said in a letter to Jarvis.

"We are ready to bring our radiological expertise, safety culture and in-depth knowledge of the individual facilities we manage," she wrote. "We look to NPS for its unparalleled interpretive and educational skills, understanding of the visiting public and ability to tie facilities at the three DOE sites together to tell the Manhattan Project narrative to future generations."

The park service would develop films, exhibits, kiosks, brochures and websites to tell the story of the Manhattan Project.

At Hanford, the park service would assign staff who could assist with programs at the proposed Hanford Reach Interpretive Center in Richland and in education programming through the Hanford area, the park service report said. It could also help train guides for B Reactor tours.

The park service envisions partnerships with local governments, museums and nonprofit organizations, said Ed Revell, chairman of the Hanford Communities governing board. He called the park service recommendation to Congress "fantastic news."

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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