Atom bomb historic sites may become national park

(CBS News) The U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, 67 years ago. It led to the Japanese surrender that ended World War II, and brought us into the nuclear age. Now there's a plan to mark the history of that devastating weapon by turning its birthplaces into a national park.

Hiroshima marks 67th anniversary of atomic bomb attack

CBS News was recently given the opportunity to visit one of those historic sites that changed the world.

High in the New Mexico desert stands a small unremarkable building. But, if you had peered through its now cobwebbed keyhole back in 1945, what you would have seen is the device that changed the world.

"The Gadget," as it was euphemistically called, was the first atomic bomb ever tested. Scientists and engineers at the Los Alamos National Lab rolled it out of the remaining barn doors some 67 years ago.

To Ellen McGehee, the lab's archeologist and historian, there are few places more significant. She said, "This is the dawn of the atomic age really. I mean, this is where it all happened."

And yet, this and the other buildings used for the top-secret Manhattan Project, have been forgotten by many. McGehee said, "If they're not maintained or managed, they will go away, we will lose this history."

"Fat Man," the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, was born in a still-surviving Quonset hut. "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was built piece-by-nervous-piece in a bunker that still exists.

No evidence is left of what happened in here. After all, it was top secret.

McGehee said, "You really can't understand how the scientists were working, what conditions they were working under, unless you come out to the place where history really happened."

But coming out to those sites is difficult at best. The Los Alamos National Lab is off-limits to the public. And yet, a bill is working its way through Congress that would open parts of it up, turning the Manhattan Project sites into a national historic park.

It would be a different kind of national park experience than many people are used to. There would be some unique requirements. For one, you'll have to be a U.S. citizen, and no cameras or cell phones either. They're not allowed behind the fence.

But the Manhattan Project didn't just sprout from Los Alamos. It was a nationwide effort, and so is the proposed park.

The historic Reactor B in Hanford, Wash., will also be included, as will parts of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Both contributed greatly to the development of the bomb.

Even the home of the bomb's lead physicist Robert Oppenheimer would be open for tours. It's still standing and so is its longtime resident. Helene Suydam, 92, moved there in the late '50s. She's kept the living room very much the way Oppenheimer left it.

When asked if her home becomes a national park - and what happens to her in the meantime - Suydam said with a laugh, "Well, they don't get it until I'm not here, so I'm not worried!"

But some are worried, and for very serious reasons.

Susan Gordon, of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a network of local, regional and national organizations concerned with U.S. nuclear weapons sites and radioactive waste dumps, said her first reaction to the idea of making these sites into national parks was "one of caution."

While Gordon agrees what scientists accomplished here is worthy of a national park, she worries commemorating the bomb, may celebrate it too, glossing over the problem of nuclear waste.

"It needs to be a much more balanced approach that addresses the environmental and health consequences of the production of nuclear weapons in this country," Gordon said.

Lost on no one is the human toll, the hundreds of thousands of lives either lost by the bombs or saved by their ending the war. That debate continues to this day.

McGehee said, "History isn't always pretty, and I think it's important that we don't lose this history, or lose the ability to reflect on that history."

Most of the men and women who lived and worked in this secret city are gone, what they did is already in the history books. Where they did it, some say, should have a place in history, too.

  • Lee Cowan

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