Archive for October, 2009

Just an Atomic Bomb…

October 18, 2009

Tales from the Nuclear Age:
copyright © 2009 by Charles Glassmire
(Stories as true as my memory recalls)
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Oct. 18, 2009

Just an Atomic Bomb…

     The day was sultry and hot. It was 1965 and I was working in the Nevada desert at Jackass Flats on the Nuclear Test Site, after spending the night in a U.S. Army trailer. We were working in an air conditioned trailer owned by one of the test site contractors. This trailer was a far cry from the government operated trailer city at Mercury. The design was large and roomy, the seats were padded, and the facilities were improved. We even had a bathroom with a door.
     Jackass Flats lay at the southwest corner mb of the Nevada Test Site, only a few miles from Frenchman Flat where the Atomic Energy Commission was actively testing nuclear weapons. Jackass Flats is now known as “Area 25” but back then area designations were secret. These Flats first came to prominence as testing grounds for Project Pluto.

     In 1957 the Atomic Energy Commission and the US Air Force formed a joint project to test the concept of a nuclear powered Ram Jet engine. The idea was the ram jet missile took off under conventional power, and then reached speeds where the ramjet took over, powered by the heat from a nuclear reactor inside. The Ballistic Missile was still a dream of the future, and in the 1950’s looked like a very difficult thing to accomplish. The Pluto missile could theoretically circle at altitude for days if needed (reactors provided long term power generation), then be given an assignment to deliver nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union. The Lawrence Radiation Lab was given the contract to design and test the engine. So eight square miles were hacked out of Jackass Flats in the desert; known as Site 401, to test the idea. Large assembly buildings were constructed with thick radiation absorbing walls to disassemble and handle the radioactive device. Two prototype engines were built and tested in the desert, but after a serious expenditure, Pluto was cancelled in the early 60’s. Later, these buildings were to prove quite handy for the Nuclear Rocket Engine Vehicle program (NERVA), run by Westinghouse. NERVA was a nuclear powered rocket engine destined for a manned Mars mission.

     I was on site as part of a Westinghouse team sent to evaluate the fuel rods from a recent reactor test of a NERVA engine. The engine had been fired in an upside down position in the test stand, spewing radioactive fission products over the local desert test area. The reactor was now cooling in the desert and waiting to be hauled into the RMAD (Reactor Maintenance Assembly and Disassembly) building for disassembly and examination.

     I was standing at a drawing board in the trailer, examining a classified engineering drawing of a fuel element. Jack was at another table laying out a drawing, and at the opposite end of the trailer an engineer I didn’t know was typing at a desk. Yes – we used typewriters in those days. So we worked through the morning hours to the steady “clack clack” of the typewriter keys. He was a hunt and peck specialist.

     Without warning, the trailer began suddenly to rock violently, like a ship at sea suddenly hit by a giant tidal wave. I grabbed for a desk but fell to the floor, as the trailer sides around me moved up and down some three feet in distance. One wall went up as the opposite wall dipped down with a frightening oscillation tilting the floor to one side, then the other. Objects fell from the drawing boards, paper stacks crashed down and scattered across the floor, Jack was hanging on for dear life to his drawing table. Pencils rolled off surfaces which were now rocking wildly. Simultaneously I heard a muffled “boom boom” like a deep base drum sounding outside the trailer.

     In about 20 seconds it was all over. The trailer settled back onto its rubber tires with a contented sigh, as if we were in calm seas again and this ship could return to smooth sailing. Without comment, Jack frowned, picked up a drawing pencil from the floor, and went back to his drawing which miraculously had remained in position on the table. At the other end of the trailer, the stranger typist had returned to his pecking at the keys. Sitting on the floor in stunned amazement, I heard again the clack clack clack.

     I was awaiting the next tidal wave onslaught. As the clack clack began to calm my racing brain, I slowly returned to the reality at hand. I looked frantically around the room. Nothing was amiss except half the tools we were using were scattered across the cluttered floor.

     “What the hell was that?” I practically shouted, demanding some explanation, however strange. Clack Clack.

     The stranger stopped his typing, wearily turned to look at me and said in a matter of fact voice,

“That was just an atomic bomb”.

     I realized then we had ridden the ground swell from an underground nuclear weapon explosion at Frenchman Flat. The pressure wave from the blast had caused the earth to behave like liquid, transmitting the ground shockwave for miles radially outward in all directions.

     He then turned quietly back to his typewriter, and quietly resumed his typing …

(to be continued)

Mercury, Nevada

October 11, 2009

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2009 by Charles Glassmire

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Oct. 10, 2009

Mercury, Nevada

           The old miner’s town of Mercury, Nevada “jus’ growed” in the Nevada desert, over a century ago. It was named for the many mines located in the area whose denizens pried the dangerous chemical from the secrets of the desert hills. Situated in Nye County, there the local miners gathered in the town, to indulge in drink and an occasional bath, and a brief escape from the rigors of the desert heat. The town began to grow during World War II and it became the main entrance to what is now the Nevada Test Site (NTS) known then as the Atomic Testing Grounds. (in the fifties the Army called the town “Base Camp Mercury”.)  Situated about five miles off the main federal Highway U.S. 95, by the early ‘60’s it was experiencing unparalleled growth, due to an influx of engineers from around the United States. They had come to light up the early dawn skies with light shows such as the desert creatures had never before seen. Even the citizens of Las Vegas began to anticipate these light spectacles, which were visible on the horizon some 70 miles to the north in the pre-dawn darkness.

             I first encountered the town after the government-run Greyhound type bus turned off the main highway for a bumpy ride into the desert. Pulling up to the main gate, a Wackenhut guard entered the bus and walked the aisle, inspecting each passenger’s special badge worn on a lanyard around his neck. Each passenger in turn held up his badge for the guard to inspect, and the photograph, color codes and words on it had to be just right before admission to this highly classified area.

            It was a rough and tumble government run “town” in those days. I later heard they even erected a movie theater and a school there; but in the 60’s there wasn’t much to do in the chill desert nights except drink government beer. Off to the side of the main buildings there were acres filled with rows of government trailers. US Army Olive drab in color, they sat in the sun, lonely and unoccupied during the day. If you didn’t want to tolerate the long evening ride back to Las Vegas, workers at the site could rent a trailer for the night at the government rate of one dollar per day. It was considered a real bargain. Not being a fan of hour long rides in the morning and evening, a co-worker talked me into trying the overnight stay. So after the day’s duties, I dutifully plunked down my dollar and was given a key and a trailer number by the bored attendant.

             I began to have misgivings as I trudged the rows looking for number 147 in the early evening light. Desert creatures scuttled away from my boots leaving trails in the sand as they ran away under the trailers. The trailers were wheel less now, resting high off the ground on cinder blocks. These were World War II vintage, designed for use near the battlefield and far from the luxurious models issued today in national emergencies. These units were showing much the worse for wear, the olive drab paint peeling from the sides and the heavily screened windows starting to resemble prisoner cells to me as I walked.

             There were a few permanent residents of this Mercury trailer camp. Workers who had abandoned the civilized lights of ‘Vegas, who got into the rhythms of the desert, allowing the cycles of sun and chill darkness to accustom their bodies and minds to the cold clear emptiness of the desert nights, and who settled in to experience a kind of security and perhaps even peace in the olive drab rows of sameness. Their skins were colored a uniform leathery tan from months in the Desert sun. They mostly work faded blue jeans and dusty shirts. Occasionally I passed one of these denizens, sitting on the wooden plank stairs of a trailer, awaiting the night. Usually they stared off into some middle distance of their own peculiar vision, seeing who knew what demons or angels awaiting them. They did not speak, and mostly didn’t even seem aware of my passing presence. They just sat mute, each locked into his own desert reverie, silent and alone in this empty land.

             Finally I walked up the two rickety gray board steps to number 147, inserted the key and entered into a dusty interior. A shaft of early evening sunlight broke through the screened window, throwing a crisscross pattern onto the single army bed, which took up most of the space inside. The trailers had all been wired for electricity, so I switched on the overhead light. It provided a dim orange glow suffusing the small quarters. Mounted in the ceiling was a wearily rotating exhaust fan, turning far too slowly to bother the air inside, and misshapen enough to provide a slow gentle “clank clank” on every turn. On the bunk, neatly folded and wrapped around a two inch mattress, was an army issue wool blanket, of course, olive drab in color. Off on the side wall was a GI sink of sorts. A dented metal bowl with one spigot (no hot water) provided warm drinking water from a tank on the roof.  One chair filled the final bit of space in a corner. At the far end a latrine hole provided for necessities. It emptied into a half fifty gallon barrel below the trailer. It had been recently burned so luckily there was only a slight odor of petroleum.

             As I pulled down the covers, I wondered about radioactive fallout from the testing. Rumors said that if the wind changed, the fallout went in unpredicted directions, and that occasionally even Mercury got dusted. I decided to sleep in my clothes that night, and accompanied by the repeating “clank clank” from the ceiling fan, I stared up at the sky visible through the rotating fan, and drifted off into a restless sleep, resolving that this would be my last night spent at the Nevada Test Site in Mercury…

  (to be continued)