Las Vegas (Part 2): The Atomic Testing Museum, NERVA, and SL-1

Part 1 of the Las Vegas Adventures can be found here.

If you are in Las Vegas, go to the Atomic Testing Museum. As much fun as gambling and debauchery are, make the time to head out to UNLV and visit. Getting a chance to visit the Trinity Test Site or one of the rare tours of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) is once in a lifetime event for most non-weapons complex employees, but this museum is there every day. Give yourself at least three hours if you really want to take the time to read everything they’ve put on display. And if any of the NTS retirees who are now docents are there, sit down and listen. It is as simple as that. Make the time as if you were listening to a WWII vet talking about landing in Normandy or Okinawa.

My apology for this post is that photography is prohibited in the Atomic Testing Museum, so no pictures. However, the Department of Energy Nevada Site Office has released some amazing photo collections from the testing days, along with current operations, and I definitely recommend wandering through them. Hell, we used to have a movie studio/military base in LA devoted to making films and photos from testing. Suffice it to say the picture I am missing for you is a replica of the Whackenhut guard shack that greets you at NTS, where the security guard checks your badge before letting you on site, is the ticket kiosk for the museum. Honestly, entering the Test Site feels a little anticlimactic, like you just passed the mall cop. It feels like not nearly enough security, until you remember that Nellis AFB is less than a minute away on afterburner. Inside the museum, if you pay close attention and look up you will see the US Atomic Energy Commission sign from the former Nevada Site Office hiding over an exhibit.

Reading/listening to the interviews  sends a very clear message that the Nevada desert is where the American front of Cold War was waged, one nuclear blast at a time, in the opinion of the former Test Site workers. To people that haven’t worked in the nuclear weapons complex, this may sound strident and reactionary. I know it felt a bit wrong hearing it and that was me. I was only at Lawrence Livermore National Lab for three years and change, but I spent a lot of time talking with and listening to the older workers and retirees (decontamination of facilities is sometimes like doing an oral history project with people who worked there, starting with “I just need to know what you did so I know what danger I might be in”). The Q cleared workers of the Department of Energy carry a very heavy burden that they can never put down, even the former janitors, because the obligation of the Q clearance doesn’t terminate with employment. In fact, for the rest of their lives they are informed individuals capable of thinking new classified thoughts because nuclear secrets are considered “born secret”. All other classified information is presumed public until reviewed and otherwise classified; nuclear secrets are presumed classified until reviewed and made public. They have been entrusted with the nuclear secrets of the nation and you’d be surprised how informative very peripheral information, like frequency of trash collection, can be. For this reason, they aren’t free to speak…EVER.

They’re used to a sizable population that hates the work they do, but they aren’t allowed to defend their work. On the flip side, they are used to their lives and research being guided by the budgeting whims of elected officials and appointees that, typically, have very little scientific literacy and operate on election timetables. It is funny how the Cold Warriors I used to enjoy talking to felt that while Soviet designers had been their competition, Capitol Hill was the actual enemy of Science. While Reagan called the national labs “The Arsenal of Freedom”, they never felt particularly held in esteem. The budgets and executive actions deeply at odds with the rhetoric in George W. Bush’s administration was a matter of doublethink that alienated the career workers of the complex further. In the middle of budget cuts & layoffs, I remember finding walls of letter with thank yous from the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their commanders, for the development of tools they felt were saving lives and rebuilding countries. With all that in mind, this helps inform the proud siege mentality I find many weapons complex workers to have.

It is also important to remember that weapons work is not the only thing they do. In fact, a majority of the Q cleared workers have nothing to do with weapons whatsoever. Just as it was in my time in Antarctica, for every researcher there are at least eight other people there who make their work possible because you certainly don’t want people like me doing carpentry. Only the most arrogant PhD or callous bureaucrat would fail to acknowledge all the other people working to make the national labs a success. Research grinds to a halt when the toilets don’t work, you know?

Not all of the ideas explored at NTS were particularly good ones. This brings me to the NERVA Program, AKA the nuclear rocket, of which one of the thrusters of which is on display at the museum. It is tagged as activated material as it had been made radioactive by the reactor operation, but it’s had nearly 50 years to  cool down and is kept behind a thick Lexan shield. You are safe to look at it, just don’t try to go lick it. If you want to know why you don’t have moonbases and missions to Mars already, it is because the NERVA program was canceled.

Important note, when America tests rockets we aim them upside down and test the force exerted on a pressure plate below the rocket to see what it yields. We learned, or rather we inherited Nazi rocket scientists that had learned, from the German rocket tests where they aimed them up and tried to tie or bolt them down (sometimes that didn’t work and the misfires were disastrous/amusing). The NERVA test that failed when they let it run dry of hydrogen liquified the nuclear fuel of the reactor, which then turned the upward pointing thruster into a molten uranium fountain. Oops. After letting the short half-life material cool down for a couple weeks, NTS radiation safety workers (my people) got to go in and do clean up, picking up uranium BBs one by one, for months. This is how I got to talking to the docent Layton O’Neill.

Layton is an 82yo former health physicist from NTS, Hanford, and Idaho National Lab. When I said that it must have been a serious pain in the ass doing that NERVA clean up, he said yes, but that it was nothing compared to SL-1 which he’d been a first responder to. My jaw dropped. This is the first time I’d ever met anyone that had been at SL-1.

So, “What is SL-1?” you ask. SL-1, or Stationary Low Power Reactor One, was an Army power project. The idea behind it was that military HQs were increasingly power hungry and that it would be ideal to have a quick field assembly reactor that you could bring in by plane, boat, or rail. You could never depend that you’d have cooling water in any given place (because who knows where a future HQ might be) so it was meant to use river bed gravel as moderator if necessary, but water was preferred. That’s what the reactor was, SL-1 the accident is a different matter.

Honestly, SL-1 is America’s only fatal nuclear accident but it’s one few people know about. To call Three Mile Island (TMI) an accident is a misnomer; something went wrong, but the safety systems operated precisely as intended. It would be more accurate to call TMI an operational success during a systems failure. SL-1 though, we killed the three servicemen operating it and badly contaminated the facility although it was fairly well contained inside the building. Most of the bodies of the three operators were buried in lead lined concrete caskets in Arlington, though some pieces were so radioactive they were buried at the NTS instead. I am extremely happy to say that the 40min long SL-1 abbreviated after action video is available online here. There is a 3hr version that was available in the LLNL training library, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

Your teaser to go read the Wikipedia article and watch the video: Layton is the man who identified that it was a control rod from the reactor, flying out like a spear under steam pressure, that had nailed the corpse of the specialist to the ceiling of the reactor dome.

I kept my fanboy excitement talking to Layton to a minimum. I shook his hand and let him know that it was an honor to get a first hand account, rather than read the reports and do the calculations from textbooks. I learned a few things that weren’t in the reports that will be helpful should the worst ever happen and I get called to respond.