You should have seen the food back then. Only $2.50!
Steak and lobster $5.00!
Then- imagine- 10,000 people,
It was a block party!
Every month, the DOE Nevada Field Office runs a free tour of the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site).
John, one of the retired employees chaperoning the tour, narrates with a touch of a Southern drawl. Over the PA system he covers both the history of the site and whether or not the camera battery is charged. “I just wait while this thing spools up,” John mumbles into the microphone. Dario, the other guide, stands up when he has something to add to the conversation.
The isolated outpost of Mercury once had a bustling hobby club, swimming pool, church, movie theater, eight-lane bowling alley, and tennis court. That was before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1992. Now, the only sign of life at the gateway to the Nevada Test Site are the two stationed guards and the woman behind the canteen cash register. She has long black hair and curled bangs.
Whenever a bomb was being detonated, all unessential personnel were sent to Mercury. Of course not everyone had been as excited as John and Dario about the nuclear test block parties. During the heyday in the 80s, the entrance to the Nevada Test Site was often filled with protesters. If they crossed onto government property they were put in a chain link pen with a port-a-potty until the police took them to Beatty for processing.
From where those protesters sat, they would have seen a nondescript desert landscape in every direction. They knew better though. Just beyond the rolling hills, where Area 23 transitions into Area 5, is a closed basin– an innocuous name for land with a water system that does not drain into another body of water and has high levels of evaporation. It is an ideal location for ensuring the quality of nuclear weapons.
Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Complex
Overlooking Area 5 is a series of benches where press and dignitaries once observed the atmospheric tests on Frenchman Flat. The warped and twisted wood planks are surrounded by green brush and little yellow signs. Caution Radioactive Material.
Our first stop is at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex. It is comprised of a few cream-colored metal buildings surrounding a covered picnic table. A few employees are having a fish fry in the shade with a retiring colleague. Our tour bus pulls up to allow the manager of the complex to board.
During his portion of the tour, Jon speaks about the complexity of plutonium. He tells us that transuranic waste has a higher atomic number than uranium. Bioturbation, remember this word, is the study of the disturbance of soil. That’s why we put a four foot cap of earth on the waste; insects won’t go deeper than that.
The land is divided into ‘cells’ and within those earthen graves the waste is carefully recorded by columns, rows and tiers. Contaminated dirt goes into large white ‘super sacks’ and cranes deposit the 72,000lb casks containing hot material. Cell 19 received some waste from Dayton, Ohio. “I feel close to home,” Jon jokes.
Aside from hazardous waste, the facility accepts classified military waste. It’s more affordable to bury the classified material than it is to shred it.
Building 6-902 Wet N’ Wild
“I’ll let Dario tell you about that because I gotta call Brenda.”
Dario wears aviator glasses and a baseball cap with a roadrunner on it. He began his career at the test site in 1988 as a water engineer.
During the construction of Building 6-902, Dario had ordered a hydrostatic test on an important 12” pipeline. Some obvious part was overlooked, which makes the guys sitting next to me groan in disbelief, and 300,000 gallons of water flooded the facility.
“I wasn’t the one who forgot it,” Dario claims, but he has never lived it down. The nickname is printed on the tour itinerary. As the bus rolls past Wet N’ Wild, I see an antelope’s white bottom running through a field of lush scrub. It had rained a lot more than normal in the area.
Area 7 Icecap Ground Zero
The white corrugated emplacement tower is 152ft high and has a sign affixed to the front door that says no classified discussions in this building. Thick diagnostic cables snake out the back of the tower, through the desert, and into recording trailers encased within shock-absorbing aluminum honey comb. These cables would have been lowered down the ‘event hole’ to capture information about the bomb’s performance.
Operation Icecap was in the works when the nuclear testing moratorium went into effect. Had the project been given the go ahead, the 500,000lb test package would have been chilled with dry ice to -42 degrees to simulate the temperature a missile system would encounter in outer space. Because the test was discontinued the site has remained as it would have been prior to a test, emplacement tower and all.
Yucca Flat runs along the western edge of Area 7. The dry lake bed has the dubious distinction of being one of the most popular locations for nuclear tests. Out of 928 total tests, 828 of those were underground and a significant portion of those took place on Yucca Flat. Ten miles away from the peach-colored lake bed was News Nob. People like Walter Cronkite stood there amongst the Joshua trees in anticipation of an atmospheric detonation.
Area 10 Operation Plowshare
On July 6, 1962 a hole was dug 635ft deep. A 104 kiloton thermonuclear device was inserted and, when detonated, displaced 12 million tons of dirt. The result was one of the largest man-made craters on Earth.
In an age of unlimited nuclear possibilities, Operation Plowshare was part of a larger concept introduced to the public by President Eisenhower. The concept, Atoms for Peace, was interested in the application of cheap nuclear energy for peaceful applications: excavating land, open pit mining, and dam construction. Surprisingly though, the most promising use for underground nuclear explosions was the stimulation of natural gas production. To this end, Operation Plowshare only ceased at the end of Fiscal Year 1975.
Today, Sedan Crater is fronted by a metal viewing platform and rimmed with small puffy bushes. This is the only site on the tour where the guides are allowed to take a group photograph, but they are not allowed to show the horizon.
Area 1 Operation Cue
Just off in the distance, on Rainier Mesa, was a good café. At least it used to be really good.
“And,” John added, “it used to have a rec center.”
John pops a DVD of archival footage from Operation Cue into the stereo equipment. An attractive young woman named Joan Collin enters the footage with a purse on her arm and a patterned scarf loosely tied over her hair. “As a mother and housewife,” Joan assures us in that soothing Hollywood accent that went extinct in the 1950s, “I was particularly interested in the food test program.”
During the early hours of May 5th, 1955, Joan drank hot coffee on Media Hill while a small group of Civil Defense Volunteers jumped into a trench close to ground zero. They had thick, bulky jackets and hardhats. “As I watched the people eating,” Joan notes after the detonation, “I realized that mass feeding would be an important job for civil defense.” The camera pans over a troop of dusty men preparing a feast made with ‘salvaged cans.’
“Don’t let me forget, Dario,” John says as he switches the PA back on, “to call Patricia to get the photos set up for us.”
We drive into Area 1 along Yucca Flat and when we turn off the paved road the scent of dust drifts through the AC. Soon the bus is approaching a brown two story timber house. It is one of two structures still standing after the famously televised detonation of the Apple II bomb in 1955.
The structure is in relatively good condition, considering it was only 6,600 feet from ground zero. It has a red brick chimney, asphalt shingles on an undulating roof, and a reinforced concrete basement. Through the front door I see a white wood staircase and through an upstairs window I see Garfield spray painted on a wall. The tour bus slowly circles around the house. The gentle rocking has put Barret to sleep.
Although there are no more full-scale nuclear tests, the residual radiation from decades of testing makes Yucca Flat ideal for first responder training. The nearby Transportation Incident Exercise Site simulates nuclear terrorist attacks. Overturned cars, trains and shipping containers are strewn in front of a replicated Main Street. A jack rabbit hops past an airplane crash.
The Nevada National Security Site has a lot of scary associations, but those are carefully tucked away. What is visible looks as harmless as a neglected backyard with rusting cars on blocks.
I don’t know how John and Dario feel about the ethics of nuclear testing; they do a very good job of treading neutral ground. It must have been so thrillingly banal to work a 9-5 shift at a nuclear test site. I can see how easy it would have been to focus on just the science and forget the big picture.
In fact checking this article, I came across a name that was familiar but didn’t mean much to me: Operation Ivy. In 1952 President Eisenhower gave the green light to Operation Ivy. Two bombs were detonated under this program in the Marshall Islands. The first one, named Mike, was the world’s first hydrogen bomb. The yield for the device was 10.4 megatons.
When the dust settled and the ravaged landscape surveyed, Gordon Dean, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, sent Eisenhower a short message.
“The island of Elugeleb is missing!”
Humankind had just harnessed nuclear fusion, the same process that takes place in the sun. I can’t think of anything more sobering than that.
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