Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a piece of Nevada that America decided was expendable. It had eaten countless settlements, boomed and busted so many times with the precious metal of choice, and the taken the lives of settlers with it. We then sacrificed it on the altar of national security and science, to forever be removed from the world, burning it with nuclear fire. The Nellis Bombing Range, AKA Nevada Proving Grounds, then renamed the Nevada Test Site (NTS), and now known as the Nevada National Security Site. Because for most of my life, certainly during the period when I worked in the complex, it was known as the NTS that is what I will refer to it as in this post.
NOTE: I once held endorsement to go to the Nevada Test Site in an official capacity but never actually made it out there. This was the first time I ever made it there and it was as a member of the public, not as the privileged and clearance holding.
I was lucky enough to get to take a public tour out there back in March. If you have the slightest interest in the desert and Big Science, or you’re just an atomic tourist, you owe yourself putting your name in the hat to take one of these tours. Slots normally open up in June, so keep on eye on the the DOE/NV Site Office Website for further announcements about tours. Yes, you will need to do some paperwork and possibly use a fax manchine. If you aren’t an American citizen, you may need to do even more.
Your tour begins at the Atomic Testing Museum at UNLV, which I’ve previously discussed, at 7:30 in the morning. Why so early? Because the next thing you do after collecting your badge is to climb on a bus as it drives an hour north of Vegas to the south entrance of the NTS. As a matter of entertainment, you’ll pass by Creech Air Force Base and have an opportunity to watch an air field that seems devoid of humans but with drones buzzing by regularly. The nearby town is boarded up, but the skies are humming.
I should add that I didn’t go alone on this trip. I was accompanied by my mother and sister, my Lovely Assistant, and Test Subjects Mortician & IT to Porn. This was a trip I had tried to organize before my father passed, but it took a couple extra years to get it all together. Some of the observations I’m sharing are collected from the larger group.
Once you actually arrive at the NTS, your first stop is badge check at the main gate. Just because you got issued a badge already doesn’t mean someone that shouldn’t be there hasn’t snuck aboard in the last 50 miles of lonely highway, so they check. This is the location that most of the old “No Nukes” protestors probably remember best as this is where the civil disobedience arrests used to take place. Our minder related his memory of when things had started to get a bit rowdy and there were too many people at one time to easily deal with, so they built a holding pen out there. Funny enough, the sherrifs discovered if you put too many likeminded people of a certain age together, of opposite sexes, bored, and possibly (very likely) stoned out of their minds… well, you need to build two holding pens. As described, it sounded like practice for future Burning Man camps.
Our next stop after going through the gate was the small town that is Mercury, NV because we’d been on the road for over an hour already, and there wasn’t going to be another good bathroom stop for quite a while; remember, this place is big, as in comparable to some states in New England. The more I think about it, town is much too generous a term for Mercury. It’s a quasi-military encampment that been there for decades, but it has a post office and zip code, therefore the place has to have a name and the original postmaster dredged up one of the old ghost town names for the area. Honestly, ghost town is a really good description for what Mercury was like. Other than the cashier in the NTS Cafeteria & Steakhouse, I saw one other person in Mercury who wasn’t on our tour.
Regarding the Steakhouse & Cafeteria, the Steakhouse wasn’t open when I was there, but I did peek through the window on the heavy wooden door. It reminded me of the fake rustic doors of old 1970s Italian restaurants you find in mini-malls, the ones with the tiny watery glass window with bars over them. On the inside, well, it wasn’t impressive. It reminded me of some of the less cared for VFW hall bars, except it lacked the character that comes with the old soldiers adding memorabilia and decor. Trestle tables, plastic table cloths, and a menu featuring Sam Adams as it’s microbrew. While it doesn’t look great, I’m to understand the steak is quite good, especially after a 12 hour long training exercise.
In the cafeteria proper, we who had woken up far too early for the tour had a chance to get desperately needed coffee. This was a mistake. A venerable government machine urinated into a cup for us. Test Subject Mortician took a sip, made a face, and said, “Tastes like its filled with scalding sadness.” I similarly winced and agreed with him, while my mom looked on and laughed at us for, truly, nothing had changed. The term she’d learned at Harris Technologies for this, circa 1970, for the magical machines that dispense coffee, tea, and chicken noodle soup, which all came out tasting identically horrible, was “Let’s get some kerosene”.
We then piled back into the bus with our snacks, to head out into the desert. Our minder for the tour was a former program director through 1980-90s for the non-nuclear experiments at NTS, so we got some interesting insights and tales of experiments that we might not associate with the place. For example, answering questions like “If you were to successfully shoot down a SCUD missile with a Patriot, which is POWERFULLY unlikely, and it’s loaded with chemical weapons, would the results of the interception be any worse than not doing anything?” or “If I wanted to try to weld a pipe onto the side of leaking chlorine rail car that’s leaking DID I MENTION THAT IT’S LEAKING to try to safely offload the contents, is there a way to do that without starting a chlorine fueled metal fire?”
Our next stop was the three mile line for the the Plumbob test series where, in addition to doing bomb performance studies, we were also doing survivability tests for different architectures and materials of typical infrastructure. We piled out of the bus and then looked up at the desert rusted heavy steel structure of the box girder train trestle, bent from blast forces, bolts sheared or yanked out of the concrete. The circle of concrete pediments continued at three miles from ground zero. We then kept driving and saw pummeled concrete domes, blasted houses, quansit huts. At the three mile mark most things survived; at the one mile mark, even the strongest, thickest, reinforced dome bunker looked like it had been smote from above.
The last stop I want to tell you about, because I want to leave some surprises for your own trip, is ICECAP (see photo above). In 1992, President Bush the First signed a temporary nuclear test moratorium. It’s still temporary, but the original 9 month moratorium has now become the more or less permanent 23 years and counting. Like anything that’s an ongoing process you bring to an end, not only is there something that has to be the last one but there also was going to be a next one. ICECAP is the nuclear test that never happened.
Depending on who you ask, ICECAP was either days, weeks, or months away from being ready for testing. It was intended to be what’s known as a String of Pearls test where more than one device was tested/disposed of at once, one stacked on top of another. But in particular it was intended to be a test of a British nuclear device where they were interested in performance in freezing temperatures, so there was an integrated freezer unit. They had the hole drilled, all the cabling and the diagnostic equipment prepped, and devices in preparedness to be loaded down the hole.
Why would we be testing a British nuclear device in Nevada? Once upon a time, the UK used to test in northern Australia until it got pointed out that the wind patterns weren’t great, hey, how about we test your stuff underground in Nevada instead? We’ve got a lot of Nevada, it’ll be great.
And then the moratorium took effect. Allow me to assemble a sarcastic, abbreviated year of diplomacy for you:
Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE): We really wanted our test.
US: We just put a moratorium in place. Sorry.
AWE: That’s your moratorium. We didn’t sign any of moratorium. We want our test.
US: Well, test away. Just not in Nevada.
AWE: We spent many, many millions of pounds for this test!
AWE: NOT COOL! We want our test! We want our money back!
US: [whistles to itself walking around the desert]
And this is how a Smithsonian grade museum exhibit of late 1990s nuclear testing capabilities came to be in the middle of Nevada Site. Thanks, British government!
You will also get to see the Sedan Crater (which is the very large physical remains of the Plowshare Program), visit the nuclear waste facility where the remains of the Manhattan Project are slowly buried one football field worth at a time, and drive through Bilby Crater so you can say you’ve been to Ground Zero of a nuclear test. I cannot stress what a wonderful history and atomic archaeology nerd once in a lifetime experience this is. My only regret is no pictures, I have to hold it in my head as a dear memory.