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Passions Flare Over Memory Of The Manhattan Project

An archival view of Oak Ridge, Tenn. shows one of the three sites that has been included in the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
United States Department of Energy/Flickr
An archival view of Oak Ridge, Tenn. shows one of the three sites that has been included in the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Unlike some of the most well-known national parks, one of the newer additions won't have mountains with snow-capped peaks or desert canyons. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park will offer something different: the story of how scientists created the world's first atomic bomb. But how the story will be told is surrounded by controversy.

In downtown Los Alamos, N.M., a group of tourists follow guide Jim Shipley through Fuller Lodge, which became a gathering place during the Manhattan Project.

"The likes of Oppenheimer, Fermi, Hans Bethe — all those people spent a lot of time in this room," Shipley says.

These were the legendary scientists who built the first atomic bomb. A film from the Bradbury Science Museum shows them arriving from around the world while saying, "Almost everyone realized that this was a great undertaking and it might determine the outcome of the war."

That idea of the atomic bomb as a great undertaking still holds powerful sway in Los Alamos. For instance, during formal ceremonies establishing the Park, school children sang about Robert Oppenheimer.

Greg Mello heads the Los Alamos Study Group, which supports nuclear disarmament. The park was created in 2015 at three sites: Hanford, Wash., Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Los Alamos. Mello doubts the park's future interpretive center will be objective.

"The Manhattan Project really is going on to this day at Los Alamos National Laboratory and at Oak Ridge, so there are massive conflicts of interest, there are booster organizations, billions of dollars of contracts are involved," Mello says.

Mello says the National Park Service faces pressure to give the Manhattan Project a positive spin. The lab today is a huge part of northern New Mexico's economy and the park itself is a partnership between the Department of Energy, which runs the lab, and the Park Service.

"I have no illusions that it's going to be easy or that it's going to be without conflict," says Tracy Atkins, the Department of Energy liaison to the park.

Atkins was previously the park's interim superintendent. She says the Park Service has already tackled controversial topics like slavery and Japanese internment in World War II.

"So we're starting to grapple with some of the more challenging aspects of our national history and the Park Service is in a unique place to do that," Atkins says.

Others worry some stories will continue to be left out. Tina Cordova grew up near the Trinity site in southern New Mexico, where scientists tested the bomb. She's been documenting cancer among the thousands of residents and their descendants who lived nearby. Cordova believes their stories will be lost in the park's future interpretive center.

"We've put our family and our friends in the ground for this, and yet we're completely written out of the history of this," Cordova says.

The Park Service has released an early draft of the story it wants to tell. It says the park will address how the bomb affected local communities. But a full interpretive plan will need more funding. So the National Park Service's final story of Los Alamos remains unwritten.

Copyright 2017 KUNM

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.