Some 13,000 people visited the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Hanford in its first year, including — this week — the new park superintendent.
Kris Kirby, newly named to the position, is the park’s first employee.
She’s based in Denver, and is splitting her time between the three sites of the park — Hanford; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and Los Alamos, N.M. — each of which played a major role in creating the world’s first atomic bombs to help end World War II.
The park was officially created a year ago, with the signing of an agreement between the Department of Energy, owner of Hanford facilities, and the Department of Interior, which includes the national park system.
The B Reactor Museum Association, local officials and others have been working with DOE for years to offer tours of historic B Reactor so visitors can learn about its unusual place in world history.
B Reactor produced plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, when plutonium production was little more than a theory. During World War II, America and its allies were racing to produce an atomic weapon before Nazi Germany.
The park includes the reactor — the world’s first full-scale reactor — and the few buildings still standing, which help tell the story of residents who were forced to leave their homes, farms and buildings in 1943 to make way for a secret wartime project.
Soon Hanford should have its second park employee, Kirby said.
Applications are being reviewed for National Park Service site representative for the Hanford portion of the park, to be based at the National Park Interim Visitor Center on Logston Boulevard in Richland.
The person, who will come from within the park service, will evaluate and offer advice on programs and activities at Hanford.
Visitors are not expected to see major changes at the national park until after a general management plan is prepared, which will provide guidance for the next 20 years.
Work on the plan could start about a year from now, when funding is available, and could take two to three years to complete.
One question the plan may answer is whether and where Hanford may have a visitors center. The tour headquarters is currently serving as the visitors center.
No permanent site has been chosen, Kirby said.
“There are a lot of operational and financial issues involved with having a visitors center,” she said. “Right now we don’t have the budget to construct one and I don’t know that we ever will get that budget, so we are assessing a variety of options.”
As the park service works with DOE, it may be possible to repurpose an existing building, she said. The park service will be considering what the public wants and how best to provide visitor access.
Until a general management plan is available, Kirby wants to focus on growing the tour program, which showcases both the area before the nuclear reservation took it over and also B Reactor. Tours are offered spring through fall.
There may be opportunities to add to the tours, to make them more accessible or to get the word out to more people.
The current program “is really well done. It is really mature,” she said.
In the past year, age restrictions were dropped at the Hanford portion of the national park, allowing elementary school children to tour B Reactor.
On the 100th anniversary of the park service this fall, history was made with the first organized bike ride on the closed nuclear reservation. The Mid-Columbia Mastersingers also presented what was believed to be the first-ever choral concerts in a decommissioned nuclear reactor anywhere in the world at B Reactor.
Both events are expected to be repeated in fall 2017, Kirby said.
Junior Ranger booklets for Hanford have just been released for kids. They don’t need to go on the tour to complete the booklet, available at bit.ly/2fkWMqf, and earn the honor of being sworn in as a junior ranger and a patch with an atomic symbol.
“We will continue to look for opportunities for balancing the security and protecting the mission of the Department of Energy with getting visitor access to the site’s locations and having more events,” Kirby said.
There’s no substitute for seeing the park.
Kirby said she had her “wow moment” as she went around the corner past the entrance in the B Reactor and stepped into the room where the front face of the reactor looms.
She also toured the pre-Manhattan Project areas of the nuclear reservation in the park.
The shrub steppe landscape was beautiful, she said.
“But I also realized looking at the landscape how it could appear to be stark and lonely, and why they chose the site” to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs, she said.
The visit helped confirm that she was right in applying for the job as superintendent of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
There are stories to tell at the park, not just of the birth of an atomic era and incredible science, but stories about race, gender, class and displacement, she said.