Five years ago, the Center published the first edition of The Nevada Test Site: A Guide to America's Nuclear Proving Ground, a book that explores this forbidden landscape in detail. Since that time, the Nevada Test Site has continued to evolve into a place where its past seems to supercede its future. The test site can be viewed as a sort of landscape museum, where the artifacts of a remarkable chapter in the history of human endeavor remain, for the most part, intact and accessible on the surface. Every pole sticking out of the ground, every stretch of fiber optic cable decomposing on the desert floor, and every empty concrete pad is a vestige of a mostly untold story, the details of which are disappearing as the old-timers take their knowledge to the grave. It could be that in the future we may be more amazed than we are now that a place like this existed, and we will regret that we lost the opportunity to record the details of this literally incredible place. The Center still follows activities at the site, and occasionally dispatches representatives to examine the contextual and physical transformations there . . .
THE RECENT OCCASION OF THE 50th anniversary of the first atomic test at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), offered an experience of what it might be like if the test site were open to the general public as a certified tourist attraction, a scenario that may not be as unlikely as it sounds. To commemorate this event (the 1 kiloton shot "Able," detonated in January of 1951), the Department of Energy sponsored a "family day" in Mercury, the principal logistics center and the closest thing to a town on the test site. Normally off-limits to the public, Mercury was open to current and former employees, their families, press, and others, including two CLUI representatives. More than 4,200 people were expected for the day, but because of blizzard conditions in southern Nevada, a little more than half showed up. Visitors of all ages and of all job descriptions - nuclear physicists, firemen, security guards - piled into Coach USA buses for transit from the DOE headquarters in Las Vegas, to the test site. Instead of the usual visitor processing at the point-of-entry, Gate 100, the security guards handed out commemorative badges.
At Mercury, large white tents awaited, with danishes, coffee, the Marine Corps Brass Band (out of 29 Palms Marine Base), and a round of speeches from various organizations associated with the NTS. Later on, there was a Chautauqua- a historic reenactment of Harry S. Truman establishing the Nevada Proving Ground.
Another tent held booths set up by NTS contractors and others - Bechtel, the NTS Historical Society, the Yucca Mountain waste repository project, DOE’s Nevada Operations Office, and Wackenhut, providing exhibits about the past, present and future of the NTS. Souvenirs abounded: pencils, tote bags, sun visors, all emblazoned with the NTS logo. Bechtel sold travel mugs, t-shirts and the Bechtel Employee Cookbook. The Nevada Test Site Historical Society sold t-shirts depicting the mushroom clouds of historic tests, Sedan Crater mousepads, Little Boy and Fat Man earrings, and Enola Gay key chains. They also provided pamphlets and other literature about the planned NTS museum in Las Vegas.
Every hour, Coach USA buses left to take visitors to Sedan Crater, far into the forward area of the test site (a planned stop at Frenchman's Flat, perhaps the premier attraction on the NTS, was cancelled because the ground was too wet from the snowstorm for the buses). The tour guide on our bus was Don Collins, an NTS employee who works with the JTO (Joint Test Organization), and has been at the NTS since its inception. In 1956, according to Collins, there were only 250 employees, and over 2,000 by 1957. Collins apparently has seen it all- he was on the observer benches at the famed "Priscilla" atmospheric test in 1957 (a 37 kiloton device which produced much of the rubble on Frenchman's Flat), and was also present at Operation Plumb Bob tests at Bikini Atoll.
As we pass signs that say "Danger, Radiation," people on the bus asked about current radiation hazards. Collins answers "…if you kiss your wife or girlfriend, she's irradiating you, and you’re irradiating her. Most people don’t understand that," and then tells us that it is perfectly safe to be on most open areas of the NTS, as there is less ground level radiation than in an urban parking lot. A coyote in the road causes the line of a dozen buses to screech to a halt. Collins says that the NTS is a great place for bird and animal watching - it is possible to spot antelope, eagles, and coyotes.
After traversing Yucca Flat, the main testing grounds of the site, the buses stopped at the Sedan Crater, a 320 foot deep and 1,280 foot wide pit from the "Sedan" test, which displaced 12 million tons of earth. Hundreds of visitors piled onto the viewing platform, and hiked around the rim to get the perfect shot of the massive crater, whose enormity is incomprehensible from photographs. The largest crater on the NTS, Sedan is a suitable monument for conveying the power of atomic weapons. It was formed by the first Plowshare test, which explored the possible uses of nuclear devices for peacetime projects, such as earth moving and cratering to create harbors, canals, and mountain passes. It it is currently the only structure on the test site that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The NTS will probably never be used for nuclear weapons testing of this magnitude again, but portions of it remain active for weapons related tests, and would remain off-limits should the site be served by a tour concession, as some DOE officials have suggested it might someday. Most current experiments are carried out under laboratory-like conditions, and among the active facilities is the U1-A, used for underground "sub-critical" testing. An air-inflated dome structure and several headframes cover the entrance to a 1000 foot vertical shaft and a network of underground tunnels, where the tests are performed. The new JASPER program (Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research), a nuclear weapons test simulator, is being built in Area 27, one of the more secure sites at the NTS.
Other than these and a few other active testing areas, the NTS is generally a quiet place, with attention now paid to "weapons stockpile stewardship," cleanup of contamination, and developing new uses for the site, among them tourism. Many of the relics of former testing days dotting the landscape are uncontaminated by radiation and are already regular stops on the occasional tours given around the site. On the return trip from Sedan, we saw evidence of the NTS's past in the distance - domestic test structures from 1950s tests, subsidence craters marked with orange fencing, and towers from which test devices were to be lowered into deep, drilled shafts. A Los Alamos tower, which was abandoned when large-scale underground testing stopped in 1992, is now home to a nesting barn owl.
Back at Mercury, lunch is provided by Bechtel, in the cafeteria, where steam tables full of chili mac, breaded chicken fingers, greenbeans, and mashed potatoes were served. After lunch, we took a self-guided walking tour of the town, using pictorial maps that were given out earlier. Mercury has many amenities that are now unused - the swimming pool, bowling alley, and movie theater all look abandoned and in need of repair, but the physical fitness track is well maintained. The hospital and post office are operational, as are the color-coded, modernist dormitory buildings containing motel-like rooms.
Our self-guided tour continued to the NTS fire station, the emergency and rescue services hub for the entire site. The tour of the state-of-the-art station included a look at the specially customized ambulances and fire trucks, and the fire extinguisher shop, used to service the 8,000 fire extinguishers on the test site.
Down the road, Wackenhut, the security contractors on the NTS for the past 36 years, had two vehicles available for viewing. The "Badger” is an armored personnel vehicle built on a 1-ton pickup chassis, complete with gun turret windows and ammo boxes. These vehicles are used by perimeter guards, and were outfitted with machine guns and rocket launchers when nuclear devices were escorted through the test site. A surveillance van is equipped with infra-red, zoom lens, and image enhancement built into the telescoping, roof-mounted camera. The Wackenhut officer demonstrated its capabilities by capturing visitors at the distant food tent on his screen. The van is also equipped with a microwave oven and coffee pot, especially useful on those long, 12-hour nighttime shifts, during which, our Wackenhut guide tells us, the nighttime patrols like to use the sophisticated surveillance equipment to watch owls and other nocturnal animals.
Field Report by Lize Mogel