“They don’t even know we’re here,” said Katy Brown, president of the city’s convention and visitors bureau.
But a spotlight might shine soon on the Oak Ridge lab and two other largely forgotten Manhattan Project sites as the nation marks the 70th anniversary of the general order that established the world-shaking atomic research and development program.
The Obama administration is supporting bipartisan legislation in Congress that would designate sites in Oak Ridge; Hanford, Wash.; and Los Alamos, N.M., as national parks.
The designations would make possible wider exposure of the aging laboratories, which altered history — and, some say, darkened it.
The Hanford site produced plutonium. The Oak Ridge site enriched uranium. And workers in Los Alamos used those materials to assemble the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs dropped on Japan, forcing the Japanese surrender and ending the war. About 200,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki perished.
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation called the creation and use of the atomic bomb “the single most significant event of the 20th century’’ in advocating the preservation of buildings once scheduled for demolition.
The president of the Japanese American Association of New York is not as nostalgic. Any commemoration of the sites, Gary S. Moriwaki said, should educate visitors “on the devastating effects of the bombs dropped” on Japan.
“One should reflect on the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer: ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,’ ” Moriwaki said. Oppenheimer, a physicist, guided the project at Los Alamos and has been called the father of the atomic bomb.
Today, thousands of scientists work in those labs on unrelated research, developing pioneering technologies used for Mars exploration, chemotherapy, whole-body X-ray scanning at airports, high-speed computers and biotechnology. This work is a legacy of the brilliant scientists who worked at the sites during World War II, Energy Department officials said.
“You can’t deny the impact nuclear weapons have had,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in nuclear policy. Zenko said preserving the Manhattan Project sites makes sense. “It’s a part of American history that most people forget.”
America’s race with Nazi Germany to develop the first atomic bomb received its code name, the Manhattan Project, in late 1941. The establishment of the Manhattan Engineering District followed in August 1942.