Written by Amy Cole, Senior Field Officer and Attorney
The top-secret Manhattan Project has been called “the single-most significant event of the 20th century.” Begun as a small research project to develop an atomic weapon in advance of Germany, the Manhattan Project grew to include thousands of scientists working around the clock and in laboratories across the country. The creation and use of the atomic bomb, developed by the Project’s scientists, brought an end to World War II, altering the position of the United States in the world community while setting the stage for the Cold War.
Specific laboratories central to achieving this mission were established at the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, and the Hanford Site in Washington.
Construction at Oak Ridge began in 1943, and included the Y-12 Plant with nine uranium enrichment buildings and the hundreds of warehouses, cooling towers, office buildings, and laboratories required to support the work. Y-12’s calutrons -- the machinery which processed the uranium necessary to produce an atomic weapon -- are the only surviving production-level electromagnetic isotope separation facilities in the United States.
Oak Ridge’s K-25 Site illustrates the enormous scale and ambition of the Manhattan Project. At the time of its construction, K-25 was the largest building in the world located beneath a single roof. The enrichment of Uranium 235 took place within its cavernous 43-acre footprint.
Oak Ridge’s Graphite Reactor produced the world’s first significant amounts of plutonium and was the model for Hanford's B Reactor that was subsequently completed in 1944. This was the world’s first reactor to produce plutonium on a large scale.
Los Alamos' V-Site is the location where the world’s first plutonium bombs were assembled. Constructed in January 1944 as a high explosives handling and assembly facility, the V-Site was one of the Manhattan Project’s most closely guarded secrets, for it was here that all elements of the project were integrated.
This vast network, comprised of hastily constructed wood-frame, masonry, and poured concrete structures, was designed only for temporary use. But at the close of World War II, many facilities were assigned new, long-term missions.
In the years following the end of the war, the laboratories became the scene of cutting-edge scientific research as additional applications for nuclear energy were developed, fostering advances in the then-emerging fields of chemotherapy, high-speed computer technology, genomics, and bioengineering.
The laboratories retain architectural integrity and are considered eligible for National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmark designation. These sites, owned and managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, were included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2009, with the Enola Gay Hangar at Utah’s Wendover Airfield representing threatened Manhattan-era properties.
In 2004, Congress authorized the National Park Service to study whether sites related to the Manhattan Project should become part of the National Park system. It was determined that resources located in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford possessed the national significance required for park designation and were suitable for inclusion as a three-unit national historical park.
Based on this study, today Congress is considering legislation to create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park that would interpret the development of the technology that created the atomic bomb at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos, and the contribution of scientists whose efforts created breakthroughs in a wide-range of modern scientific achievements.
The Manhattan Project is part of the National Trust’s portfolio of National Treasures, and we are leading efforts to ensure this legislation is enacted. But we need your help to make it happen! Please contact your elected officials and ask them to co-sponsor the bill that would designate these sites as Manhattan Project National Historic Park.
We'll keep you in the loop of what's happening on Capitol Hill with this project, and we'll let you know when more actions arise. Thanks for supporting this National Treasure!
Photos updated June 20, 2012.