Testing 1, 2, 3: the Nevada Test Site

Thursday, June 2, History on the Move had the privilege of taking a tour of the Nevada Test Site with Bob Keller, a former administrator at the site for over 40years. (As we found out at the end of the tour, for a time he was basically in charge of running the 1,375 square miles of military installations that developed and implemented nuclear testing.) The all-day tour took us throughout the site, and because the facility is still an operational military site no cameras were allowed. We learned about the above-ground tests that took place from the opening of the site in 1950 at President Truman's orders, through the period when they performed only underground tests. From 1962-1992 an agreement with the Soviet Union prohibited above-ground tests, or the leaking of any radiation from underground tests into the atmosphere. In 1992 a unilateral moratorium was signed by the United States, Russia and other countries to prohibit further nuclear weapons testing. Nearly one thousand tests were performed at the site over the course of it's operation as a weapons testing program.
As part of our tour, we visited a facility that the British had prepared for an underground test just prior to the moratorium's passage, preserved in the ready-state (with the live warhead removed). Called “Ice Cap,” this facility gives visitors a way to look at exactly what constituted a test warhead, including the hundred or so cables which enabled the scientists to gather data on the explosion. Our guide theorized the facility got it's name from the dry ice which would be added to the metal can on the end of the “stock” to keep the warhead at a temperature approximately equal to the environment it would be in stored in a plane on its way to being delivered in a war zone. Each test was designed with specific parameters in mind. The scientists were measuring the effect of the test for a certain airplane, a certain target, and a certain size of warhead.

A picture of the surviving house, from a site brochure.
Among other programs, the Nevada Test Site experimented with the effects of the nuclear warheads on both living organisms as well as man-made structures. Called “Boom Town”, a model city was used to measure the effects of the blast on structures and infrastructure. We were not able to visit the town on our tour because of current testing in the area going on throughout the week. However we did get to look at a two-story house approximately 6000 feet away from a nuclear explosion which survived a test in late 1950s and was still standing today in relatively good shape. Bob also told us about a farm the site hosted in the 1960s, consisting of livestock such as horses and cows raised near the hills at the edge of the testing valley. These animals were tested for radiation and for residual effects from the nuclear tests. Our guide emphasized that the animals were well cared for and occasionally entered in the local state fairs to compete.

Although the testing of nuclear weapons was prohibited after 1992, the Nevada Test Site is still a military installation, and still carries out tests on nuclear material under the oversite of the Department of Energy. One of our stops was at a the U1a complex, which conducts underground tests using small amounts of plutonium and high explosives. Rather than conducting tests on whole weapons, scientists now look at the reactions of explosive impacts on nuclear materials in minute sections, gathering important data on how the plutonium reacts to the explosives, as well as testing the effects of age on the nuclear material considering that any weapons currently in existence are twenty to fifty years old. In addition to scientific testing, the Nevada Test Site also hosts low-grade radiation waste storage, where materials such as deconstructed buildings and used safety gear is housed in storage units and buried at a minimum of four feet but often deeper. At the NPTEC facility, we were told about the many tests conducted on the soil and the water to ensure that no radiation escaped the confines of the “cells” as the burial plots are called. We had a NPTEC guide for this section, and he emphasized the very low levels of radiation they were dealing with. As we drove around the area in our tour van, we could see the workers in walking around with no other protection than the standard construction hardhats. A further use of the Nevada Test Site today is for the training of special forces, conducting exercises for Homeland Security, including counter-terrorism programs in model urban settings.

The green highlighted areas are the facilities we stopped and visited, though we drove by other sites as well.
Getting to tour a historic nuclear testing site was amazing, and rather difficult to fully comprehend. Although there were fences set up around the craters and areas cordoned off with signs warning of radiation, we were reassured of our safety and the lack of radiation in the area overall. Throughout the site there were numerous instances of safety precautions in place, including the radiation sensing badges worn by the employees such as Bob, but we were able to look down into the enormous crater caused by detonation at Sedan in 1962 with no fear of exposure. Growing up hearing about the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fact that there were plants growing in the sand, and the antelope we saw as well as stories about herds of wild horses in the region seemed counter-intuitive. However, the destructive power of the nuclear weapons was clearly evident in the giant craters, as well as the hillside left completely barren by the test “Smoky” which has not recovered its foliage fifty years later.

The Nevada Test Site only offers tours once or twice a month, and getting to see the facilities and speak with current and former employees about the work that went on was a really special experience. Our guides were clearly proud of the work they were doing, and stressed the positive results of the programs. As historians and Americans, it is important for us to look at all sides of the issues. We must resist the urge to hide behind cynicism or fanatical patriotism and acknowledge the role of human judgment behind all historical events. Nuclear technology forever changed how humanity looked at the world around it, and in touring this site, we gained a better understanding of how and why that change occurred.

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