"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."
-- Albert Einstein
We wouldn't object to seeing that quotation from one of history's greatest minds displayed at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
If only the park existed.
Those few words make a poignant argument for Congress to create a new park focused on the dawning of the nuclear age.
The first nuclear bombs fashioned from materials made at Hanford and Oak Ridge, Tenn., indeed changed everything.
The fearsome destructive power of the atomic bomb has dictated the course of human events ever since, from 60 years of Cold War gamesmanship to today's international debate about a nuclear Iran.
But the more compelling argument for the historic park is contained within the second part of Einstein's remark. Failure to find new ways to address the issues raised by the nuclear bomb continue to threaten the planet with unparalleled catastrophe.
New modes of thought -- if they're to have any value -- must emerge from a realistic and thorough grounding in the past.
Preservation of the artifacts and places that form the foundation for today's world crucial to our understanding of events.
Anyone who has walked the grounds at Gettysburg National Military Park or followed the Freedom Trail through Boston understands the connection.
For that matter, so do the thousands of visitors to Hanford's B Reactor, where plutonium for the world's first nuclear bomb was created.
But no speculation is required to gauge the value of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. That's already ensured.
This year, 10,000 people are expected to tour B Reactor, even though bus tours to the historic site only operate on certain days. Visitors have come from all 50 states and 39 countries.
Remarkably, once the Department of Energy opens registration for the tours, all available slots are filled within hours. And that occurs without any marketing effort beyond issuing a news release.
If B Reactor became part of a national park, with regular hours and the cachet that comes with being part of the National Park Service, interest would explode.
The 13 national parks in Washington had 7.5 million visitors in 2010, Kris Watkins, president of the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Center, told the Herald.
Congress is considering legislation to create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park that would include historic facilities at DOE sites at Hanford, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, N.M.
Versions in the House and Senate differ, but not enough to justify keeping the proposal off the fast track. Something closer to the House version would best serve the public.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House National Resources Committee, is pushing legislation that would establish the park immediately, then give the National Park Service a two-year deadline to complete a management plan.
Observers say conditions in Congress are ideal for advancing the new park, but that won't last.
Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee. That means representatives of two of the three states affected by the legislation are in key positions to advance the plan.
But Bingaman has announced plans to retire at the end of his term, so the pressure is on.
The issue could work its way through Congress as early as next month. But with Bingaman planning his exit, any delay beyond then could decrease the park's chances.
Bingaman and Hastings need to do all they can to make the Manhattan Project National Historical Park a reality. Constituents would benefit, of course, but the bigger audience is the world.