A plan now before Congress would create a national park spread over three states to protect the aging remnants of the atomic bomb project from World War II, including an isolated cabin where grim findings threw the secretive effort into a panic.
Scientists used the remote cabin in the seclusion of Los Alamos, N.M., as the administrative base for a critical experiment to see if plutonium could be used to fuel the bomb. Early in 1944, sensitive measurements unexpectedly showed that the silvery metal underwent a high rate of spontaneous fission — a natural process of atoms splitting in two.
That meant the project's design for a plutonium bomb would fail. But they pressed ahead with a new design. On July 16, 1945, the world's first atom bomb — a lump of plutonium at its core — illuminated the darkness of the central New Mexican desert with a flash of light brighter than the sun.
The plan for a Manhattan Project National Historical Park would preserve that log cabin and hundreds of other buildings and artifacts scattered across New Mexico, Washington and Tennessee — among them a large Quonset hut in New Mexico, where scientists assembled components for the plutonium bomb dropped on Japan.