Editorial: Park idea for Hanford deserving of support

While most people think of national parks as sites of natural splendor, there’s merit to recognizing and promoting centers of human ingenuity, too.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation recently pushing the idea of establishing a national park that honors the Manhattan Project. After a tour of the historic B Reactor, Salazar said: "We have not yet done a good enough job of telling the story of World War II and the nuclear era born out of the war."

Accompanying Salazar were U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and Gov. Chris Gregoire. Hastings and Cantwell are going to team up on legislation that would incorporate the sites at Hanford, Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., in forming a new national park.

Hanford’s B Reactor would be a key part of the park, and its fascinating history would lure visitors from all over the world. The boost to regional tourism would be tremendous.

The narrative would begin in 1943, when residents of small towns in south-central Washington were told to clear out to make room for a top secret project. Most of the workers didn’t know what they were building. The nearby newspaper agreed to keep the secret for two years.

In 1945, everyone would learn that Hanford was producing the plutonium needed for the first nuclear explosion, which took place in a New Mexico desert. It also supplied the plutonium for "Fat Man," which was the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

The nuclear age had dawned, and it would change the world forever.

B Reactor was built in a scant 13 months, as the U.S. government raced to beat Germany to produce the first atomic weapon. It was an awe-inspiring scientific and engineering achievement, but that hasty schedule also produced a toxic legacy that continues today.

Perhaps by raising awareness of this region’s contributions to World War II, the Cold War and breakthroughs in nuclear science, the federal government will redouble its efforts to clean up the massive radioactive waste left behind and secure its permanent storage. In addition, a park could highlight the heroism of Hanford workers and also tell the story of the "downwinders" victimized by postwar radiation experiments.

The big challenge, of course, will be in finding the money to build a park. Given the nation’s debt, it probably isn’t realistic for Congress to pay for it through traditional appropriations. It might take financial ingenuity to produce this monument to scientific ingenuity.

But if the financing can be solved, the nation should welcome a national park that tells such a compelling, history-altering tale.