Just an Atomic Bomb…

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

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2 Responses to “Just an Atomic Bomb…”

  1. Pete Says:

    Have been enjoying your series of stories about The Nevada test site and town of Mercury. You have a way of capturing the desert and its long term effect on people.

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