Comments of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance on the
Manhattan Project National Historical Park
Oak Ridge, Tennessee
1 February 2016
The job of a National Historical Park is not only to preserve and commemorate history, but to explain it to future generations. In some cases, the history being preserved and interpreted reflects moments of our nation at its best— as in the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in New York and its story of the long struggle for women’s suffrage.
Other National Historical Parks reflect darker moments in our history—the Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Hawaii tells the story of the physical and cultural isolation of residents suffering from Hansen’s Disease, then called leprosy, who were removed from their families and forcibly relocated and imprisoned on the peninsula. It is a complicated and nuanced story that must be set in the historical context to be understood. Parts of the story sound cruel and barbaric; other parts sound tragic but, in the context of medical understanding in that time, necessary. Even the patients themselves would tell complicated stories—for some the isolation was a refuge.
The Manhattan Project National Historical Park project also presents complicated challenges to the interpreter. On the one hand, it commemorates a truly stunning achievement of human endeavor—scientific and technical, yes, but also engineering and building, social and cultural. It is rooted, at least in part, in a war effort that almost the entire culture embraced as noble. It’s a story of sacrifice and determination mostly by people who had no idea what they were engaged in.
But like most history that warrants preservation, it is also a story that transcends the time and place in which it took place. The Manhattan Project changed the world; the creation of the world’s first atomic weapon which was then used to create incomprehensible human suffering, and which led to the devotion of many trillions of dollars to an arms race which is still with us today, reverberating in headlines daily as other nations consider or embark on their own quest to do what we have done.
The Oak Ridge part of this story has been told for decades at the American Museum of Science and Energy. For the most part, the exhibit there limited the story of Oak Ridge to the creation of the first atomic bomb and it was told in the context of the great secret that enveloped the city and the workers. In the last ten years, the exhibit has expanded somewhat to acknowledge the effects of the bomb once used, and the impact it has had on the entire world.
But the story of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge is even more complicated than that—there was more than one secret. Like the Kalaupapa story, there is a side wrapped up in that history that is not so easy to tell. If we are to learn what it means for humans to wrest power from nature in ways that inform us not only about the past but also cast a light into the future, we have to tell the whole story.
I have talked over the years with workers from those first years of Oak Ridge. Decades later, their feelings about their work ran the gamut from pride in their achievement to deep sadness and guilt about the results of their labor. I remember one woman telling me about riding the bus home from work at Y12 to LaFollette the day the news of Hiroshima broke—amid the cheering and celebration of her fellow commuters, she said, she sat with her head pressed against the window of the bus thinking, “I don’t belong here.”
But the reason she and I were talking was not because of the bomb, not directly. It was because her life had been profoundly affected by a long series of health problems that, some twenty-five years later, a doctor in Wisconsin who knew nothing of her work history identified as due to radiation exposure.
Most of the workers in Oak Ridge were unaware of the nature of great technical secret they were working on. They were also unaware that they were at risk as they worked. For some, the risk was part of a sacrifice they would have borne willingly if informed; for others, not so much. But in any case, they were not informed; they were not warned; protections were scarce if there were any at all. Even the scientists who knew the technical secret did not understand all the risks in those days before health physics. My friend recalled a day when she was taken from her station, her clothes confiscated, she was showered repeatedly and sent home; her urine was monitored for several days, and she was given no explanation, no information, no additional monitoring, no follow-up care. Asking questions, of course, was forbidden in the secret city.
The Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge kept other secrets. Environmental protection was not high on anyone’s list, really, in the 1940s, and certainly it took a backseat to the effort to win the war. And we were generally ignorant about the impact of contaminants on the environment. It was only later, as people learned more, that decisions were made to keep secrets—the environmental impacts of the Manhattan Project activities—the full effects of radiation releases due to slug ruptures at the air-cooled Graphite reactor—were secret even from the people who knew about them.
But it happened. It is part of the Manhattan Project story. Some of the radionuclides still rest in the sediments of the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers. A health physicist once told me that a person with a sensitive enough Geiger country could measure Oak Ridge in the Mississippi delta.
So—tell the history, all of it. The history of the moment as well as its impact on the world we live in today. Those who come to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park should be informed enough to make their own judgments about the accomplishments and the costs of the project, to decide for themselves what to celebrate and what to mourn.