US park project tells stories behind first nuclear bombs

It was the breakthrough that, within the space of just a few days, ended a war and ensured US global military supremacy. It ushered in a new period in human history, the Nuclear Age, and for the first time raised the spectre of collective annihilation. As of last week, a new national park will seek to tell the stories behind the world’s first atomic bombs.

Manhattan  Project National Historical Park.

Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Developing the bomb was a massive undertaking, all conducted in secret. Split three ways across different states, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park commemorates the places and the people associated with the achievement.

Hanford, Washington was the site of the first full-scale production reactor in the US, where plutonium was produced. The Hanford Engineer Works – where at the height of activity some 51,000 workers toiled to produce weapons-grade plutonium – already hosts tours for some 10,000 visitors a year. The upgrade to national park status has some locals hoping numbers will grow tenfold.

A facility in Oak Ridge, southern Tennessee, produced enriched uranium.The Clinton Engineer Works, located in the hills of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was Manhattan Project HQ from 1942 and home for a time to 75,000 people involved with the project. Most of them knew nothing of the project's true purpose. The uranium-separating facility, covering 18 hectares (44 acres), was the largest building in the world at the time.

And it was on a New Mexican mesa in the secretive, isolated community of Los Alamos, some twenty miles northwest of Santa Fe, that 7,000 people worked towards developing and testing the weapons that would unleash a destructive power never before seen.

For now, only the Hanford and Oak Ridge sites are open, and even so can only be visited as part of a tour. There’s a visitor centre at Los Alamos but the key sites remain off-limits, as are some of the facilities on the other sites. It’s hoped that over time more sections of the facilities will be made open to the public. See the park’s website for details.

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