“What are your plans today?” the Starbucks barista asks me. The coffee shop, buried deep inside a Las Vegas hotel and casino, is crowded with customers who, like me, are anxious to start the day with much-needed caffeine.
I hand the barista my credit card and consider how to describe my plans. Not that she actually cares, but I feel conflicted about how to answer. “Sightseeing,” I reply. I’m not lying—I am about to spend the next three days sightseeing, and the sights will, literally, blow my mind.
I am embarking on a “technical orientation visit” to the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site and before that the Nevada Proving Grounds), where 928 nuclear devices were tested between 1951 and 1992. Today, no full-scale nuclear tests are conducted there, but the site is still used for nuclear weapons–related development and research, and many relics from the testing days remain scattered across the desert—a sort of museum documenting the first decades of the atomic age. Three retired scientists are leading the tour, which, as a national laboratory employee, I am privileged to attend. During my visit, I will explore the history of America’s nuclear knowledge and get a peek into current developments. Nothing has prepared me for how much I will learn or the conflicting feelings I will have about our nation’s nuclear legacy.
The Nevada National Security Site is located about an hour north of Las Vegas in an area initially chosen for its remote location. As the bus drives down the highway, I realize that, despite our relative proximity to the crowded Las Vegas strip, the land extending in every direction is barren—void of houses, stores, or other signs of civilization. Instead, brown, rock-studded mountains climb from the sandy desert on either side of the road. We turn onto the Mercury Highway and proceed to the main gate, where IDs are checked and badges issued. Warning signs on either side of the road read “Restricted Area,” “Radiological Hazards,” and “Obey All Posted Signs.”
The first tests conducted in Nevada were atmospheric (above ground), carried out in the 1950s in response to a growing fear of Soviet attack. The bus passes a row of weathered benches where invited observers and members of the press would sit to watch, wearing special goggles to protect their eyes. “At first there is a very bright flash,” explains scientist-turned-consultant Byron Ristvet, passing around some 1950s-era eyewear.
“Those who don’t have goggles are told to face away from the blast and cover their eyes with their hands, but the reflection from the pale ground is so bright that most can see the bones in their hands,” he says. “Then, the side of their bodies facing the giant fireball becomes very warm. On a damp morning, peoples’ clothes start steaming from the thermal pulse. Then all of the sudden the ground goes up and down like an earthquake, and you feel sort of queasy. That’s the ground shock that runs across the desert at 5,000 feet per second, meanwhile the air blast is flattening down all the bushes and hits with the equivalent force of a 100-pound person running into you at 90 miles per hour.”
This entire sequence occurs in silence, but then there’s the sound. “It’s a sharp crack initially. It sounds like a rifle shot going off and then it turns into a rumble, followed by numerous short cracks. The size of the blast determines the length of the effects,” Ristvet explains, launching into a complex discussion of mathematical equations.
We roll on to a series of trenches where members of the military trained to fight through a nuclear attack. Further down the highway is Frenchman Flat, where various nuclear effects tests were conducted. Twisted rebar, crumpled metal, and concrete rubble remain from destroyed buildings, shelters, and even a bank vault. Empty animal pens stand by the road where long-ago scientists tested the nuclear effects on living creatures. “Don’t worry,” says Ristvet. “The pigs were heavily anesthetized and very well cared for.”
Later we visit the Apple Houses, built from kits and furnished by JC Penney and Montgomery Ward. Mannequins were positioned throughout the house to represent a family, unaware of an impending nuclear attack. The houses still stand, paint scraped bare, windows long gone, but most of the damage we see now is a result of weather, our tour guides explain.
In 1963, all atmospheric testing was banned when the Limited Test-Ban treaty was signed in Moscow, giving rise to the underground testing age. The site was well-suited for underground testing. Here, below-ground water lies at the greatest depth in all of North America, and the terrain consists of dry alluvial sand, volcanic tuff, and basalt. The United States conducted 828 underground tests in this desert, studying all aspects and applications of nuclear detonations. We will visit many of the locations where those tests took place.
“We call it the crater crawl,” Ristvet says as we climb into pick-up trucks capable of handling the rugged terrain we’ll encounter after a long drive north. The size of the test site is a mind-boggling 1,355 square miles, larger than the state of Rhode Island. Miles and miles of nothing to see but Joshua trees, chamisa, tumbleweeds, and sagebrush stretching across the desert, framed by the mountains, cloudless blue skies above.
The drive is rough. Many of the dirt roads have not been maintained since a nuclear testing moratorium went into effect in 1992. In my vehicle, we shout to hear each other as we drive across the lunar-like landscape. “What was your most memorable test?” I ask Ron Cosimi, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory test director.
Cosimi launches into a story about the time he was about to conduct a test, unaware that two protesters had sneaked onto the test site. “We started the countdown. I turned to the guy and told him to push the button to launch the test, but suddenly I saw movement out of the corner of my eye on a screen that showed ground zero. I shouted, ‘Stop. Stop the test.’”
Cosimi pauses, lost in the memory, then continues. “These two girls, protesters, somehow had gotten onto the site and when they heard the countdown on the loudspeaker, they started running toward the speaker, which happened to be on the other side of ground zero. The movement I saw was one of the girls jumping over a firing cable. They were running right toward ground zero.”
Officials sent security to arrest the women, while a team checked the area for signs of sabotage. The countdown resumed, and the device was detonated. “The ground went up 15 feet in the air and then fell back into a hole; they would have been killed,” Cosimi says. “I can’t believe I saw them. It was fate I guess. I still have nightmares about it.”
Exiting our vehicles, we hike up a hill to an underground test site similar to the one Cosimi has just described. The trail is steep and winds among giant basalt boulders, black with sharp edges, that were created by the blast. We top the ridge and look into Schooner Crater. In 1968, the approximately 30-kiloton blast formed a hole roughly 850 feet wide and 200 feet deep. The resemblance to the moon’s surface is so striking that I’m not surprised to learn that NASA used Schooner Crater to train astronauts for moon landings. A few people in our group put on gloves to pick up rocks fused into glass by the heat of the blast. The radiation control technician checks our hands and feet with a Geiger counter before we leave, as some contamination remains even more than 54 years after the test.
Over the course of the next two days, we visit several more craters, all formed from underground nuclear tests with a wide variety of goals. Many of the tests were designed to study industrial applications of nuclear detonations, such as building canals, quarrying, stimulating natural gas production, and cutting railroad tracks through mountain ranges. Though the tests provided a great deal of useful information, the United States never actually used nuclear devices for any of these purposes due to lack of Congressional and public support.
The largest crater, the Sedan Crater, was formed in soft alluvium, soil made of loose clay and sand. The crater was created in 1962 by a Lawrence Livermore–designed device with a 104-kiloton yield and provides a clear demonstration of the potential power of nuclear detonation. Sedan is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and is the most visited spot at the Nevada National Security Site.
As we continue the crater crawl, we also hear many stories of international collaboration. American scientists—most of them from Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories—carried out tests with counterparts from Russia, England, and France. Cosimi says along with building knowledge, they built friendships. The British test director was often a guest in Cosimi’s New Mexico home, and Cosimi says he got to know the Soviets as individual people, rather than a faceless evil enemy. Although Cosimi spent much of his career testing weapons, he says that testing helped build connections and prevent war. “I have been asked by people, ‘Why are you so warmongering?’” says Cosimi. “I say, ‘You’ve got the wrong idea.’ I actually have a hat that says 50 years without a major war by testing.”
Underground testing was suspended abruptly in 1992 when the United States voluntarily joined with Russia, the United Kingdom, and France in a test moratorium. In 1996, the United States signed (but did not ratify) the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which prohibits any type of nuclear detonation.
Cosimi says the days leading up to the moratorium were marked by a frantic scramble to wrap up all in-progress tests, most of which took about 18 months from design to implementation. One of those tests, Icecap, was designed by the British to test nuclear detonation in extremely cold conditions. Today, the Icecap site remains frozen in the final stages before firing, a living museum of the history of nuclear testing. Left behind is a tower surrounding a 150-foot rack that would hold both the nuclear device and complex diagnostic equipment. (Right before detonation, the rack would have been lowered into the hole and the tower disassembled.) Scores of thick diagnostic cables run from the rack, out of the tower, and across the desert to a handful of monitoring trailers that sit on concrete pads, abandoned, never used. We climb the stairs inside the tower to see the rack, the spot where the device would sit, and the tangle of cables. It is a nuclear ghost town, everything left exactly the way it was the day the ban went into place.
But the Nevada National Security Site is more than a monument for the atomic era. It is the working home of multiple programs, tests, and initiatives to enhance national security. There is a definite sense of important stuff happening here, reinforced at the gate as they confiscate our cell phones (because of the cameras). When we stand on a mountain ridge overlooking the test site, our guide points out Area 51—the highly classified U.S. Air Force facility famous for possible alien activity.
This desert has seen a lot (although the jury is still out on UFO sightings). The drive to discover, the relentless pace of scientific curiosity, the horrifying power of humanity’s ability to create weapons of war … all are embedded in both the sand and psyche of this place.
Returning to the hotel, tired and dusty, my head filled with test names and Ristvet’s “simple science” lessons, I walk slowly through the building, down the hall, past the Starbucks. Was it only just that morning I had stopped there for coffee? It feels as though decades have gone by. The barista calls out a cheerful greeting, “How was your sightseeing?” and I stop to think for a moment before replying. “Truly, it was a blast from the past.” ★