Archive for June, 2011

Visit the Nuclear Test Site

June 20, 2011

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire

 June 20, 2011

 Visit the Nuclear Test Site

          The Nevada Test Site (NTS) lies about an hours drive north of Las Vegas on US 95.  Divided into multiple numbered areas, NTS sits adjacent to the infamous Area 51, and to the Nellis Air Force Base Gunnery Range. Nowadays, busloads of tourists arrive to tour some of the site’s 680 square miles of desert and mountains. In the days of above-ground testing, the detonations were even then a great tourist attraction. The flash could be seen as far away as Las Vegas and even Los Angeles if conditions were right. Vegas visitors would arise before dawn to see the event light the horizon. Braver souls would ride north on 95 to Mercury to get a closer look at the spectacular “light show.”

          NTS is still a working nuclear facility, and is mandated by the government to remain operational and ready to resume nuclear testing with 24 months notice. In its heyday, over 100 busloads of workers arrived at the site each day. Between 1951 and 1992 there were 1,021 nuclear detonations – all but 126 were underground tests. Recent estimates put arriving worker busloads down to less than 20 buses per day; now that President Obama has closed the Yucca Mountain storage facility, the bus arrivals may soon trickle down to maintenance and security workers only.

         Owned by the Department of Energy, its title and abbreviation was changed last year to Nevada National Security Site– N2S2. It

NTS Hazards

was Edward Teller who first pointed out that dragging tons of equipment and hundreds of specialists to the South Pacific for nuclear bomb testing was logistically cumbersome. He lobbied for a continental U.S. site for “quickie” testing. After the Soviets detonated their first weapon in 1949, President Truman, in December of 1950, agreed to apportion part of the Nellis Air Force Base gunnery and bombing range for nuclear testing. The land had been originally promised to the Shoshone Indians in a 1863 treaty, but was declared uninhabitable, and therefore suitable for testing.

          The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty was never recognized by the Congress, however, the U.S. government honored the terms nevertheless. Above-ground testing was halted and future tests all went underground. The site was transformed into a miner’s paradise. The town of Mercury Nevada filled with miners with underground experience, as a hugh network of tunnels and caverns was excavated beneath the surface of the desert. Miles of electrical cable was installed and run to the surface for recording test parameters. A tower was erected on the surface to hold recording instrumentation to measure the parameters of the detonation.

          The New York Times described what happened next:

         “On “D Day,” the test site is cleared of all personnel except a small group of scientists and security guards who drive out to a

Prepare an Underground Test

trailer known as the “red shack” to electronically arm the weapon. Two of the scientists carry a special briefcase containing tiny metal cubes with numbers on their sides… They pull numbers and punch a random sequence into an “arm enable” device…generating a random code sent to the underground weapon on a special cable.

          They then drive across the desert to the “control point” in a mountain pass…and punch the same numbers into the weapon. It is now armed.


            When ready the test controller gives the go ahead and a coded signal starts a computer in the red shack. There is no single button. A 5 to 15 minute program ends with the detonation of the weapon. The controller can stop the sequence at any point…

            If all goes well, a massive detonation occurs, generating a hugh ground tremor which travels out for miles from the epicenter.  There is no mushroom cloud, as the effects are confined to the tunnel system below ground. The Sedan shot (104 Kiloton weapon of Operation Plowshare) tremor was felt in Las Vegas proper, some 70-80 miles away. The energy released into the ground swell was equivalent to a 4 or 5 Richter earthquake. Sedan vaporized twelve million tons of earth, leaving a massive hole beneath the surface. Then the surface collapses into the void, subsiding a giant crater in the desert, which now looks like a meteor impact on the lunar surface. Sedan left a radioactive surface crater 1300 feet across and 230 feet deep. If the depth of the weapon is not computed correctly, the fireball can break the surface, violating international treaties. This is called a “broach” and vents radioactive soil into the atmosphere to travel downwind.

          In 1993 George H.W. Bush signed a weapons test moratorium, halting all work. Then in 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but the Senate rejected it. Nevertheless, the government has observed a halt in all weapons testing above and underground since that time.

          If you find yourself in Las Vegas, you can apply for a tour of the site. Seats are hard to come by, and the tours don’t run every day.  You take a special bus from the Operations Office in North Las Vegas, it’s a one hour ride, then you are returned to the city by 4:30 p.m. You must supply ID, SSN and place of birth, drivers license or photo ID. Minimum age is 14. Firearms and cameras are not permitted. Bring your own lunch, wear comfortable clothes (no shorts). Radiation badges are no longer necessary. See the website for details:

(to be continued …)

Soviet Submarine K-19 (continued)

June 2, 2011

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire


June 2, 2011

 Soviet Submarine K-19 (continued)

          (When last we saw Soviet Nuclear Submarine K-19 – see Blog entry of 8 March 2011- she was on patrol in the Barents Sea, cruising at a depth of 300 feet. She is 1500 miles from home, and has just completed sea trials testing her twin nuclear reactors, one each powering the port and starboard screws. The date is July 4, 1961, and her assigned mission is to conduct a mock nuclear missile attack on the Soviet Union from beneath the sea. On the late watch at 0415 hours, Engineering Officer Lt. Yuri Povstyev, in charge of the reactors, has observed coolant pressure in the starboard reactor loop drop to zero; he diagnoses failure of the main coolant pumps. Alarms sound all over the ship. The crew of 139 now knows that this Loss of Coolant Accident (LOCA) can lead to overheating and meltdown of the core and the loss of all lives onboard.)

        Roused from sleep by the alarms, Captain Zatayevimmediately orders both reactors to SCRAM, leaving the boat drifting powerless

K-19 Surface Running

at a depth of 300 feet. But due to decay heating, temperature inside the core fuel rods continues to rise, and is approaching 1470° F, at which point the center rods will begin to melt. The core must be kept cool or they are all doomed.

          By 0600, the Captain blows ballast to surface the boat and radio for assistance. But after surfacing, they discover the long-range radio transmission antennas are not functioning – there will be no call for help and no assistance.

          The core must be cooled. In desperation, the Captain summons the crew metalworkers, and requests some volunteers to weld a connection from the ships water supply into the main reactor coolant loop. Perhaps pumping ship’s drinking water into the core will control the heating. This welding crew must work in a very high radiation field in Compartment Six, beside the reactor core, and the Captain knows they may not survive. This could become a suicide mission.

          In the early morning, eight men enter the reactor compartment and begin rigging a connection. An air valve is cut open, releasing fission products into the compartment air, which is quickly sucked into the sub ventilation system, spreading radiation throughout many other compartments. Ionized Hydrogen is ignited by the welding torches and blue flame shoots from the pipe into compartment air. The crew is only wearing white chemical coveralls since there are no “suits” which can protect against radiation.

          Finally the connection is made and cooling water begins to be pumped into the core. Men have worked in the high radiation field for several hours and some now begin to show the symptoms of Acute Radiation Syndrome. Faces turn red and swollen, men stagger from the compartment vomiting colored bile. White cell counts are plummeting. Then the connection springs a leak! Some must re-enter to plug the leak in the piping and are exposed for several more hours.

          After more time, the cooling water seems to be bringing down the core temperature. All modern reactors are designed with backup cooling. The Fukushima reactors had three systems in-depth, all of which were destroyed by an overwhelming tsunami. There was no backup cooling installed in the K-19. Captain Zatayev had argued vehemently for this engineering change, to no avail. The Commissars were in a desperate hurry to one-up the American devils, and this safety precaution was simply ignored. Now men’s lives were on the line.

           The Captain later was to write in his memoirs:

 “ … operating vessels that had to return from the sea because of technical malfunctions was positively shameful…I had argued quite vocally that we should first build one or two experimental subs, perfect all their systems and equipment to the point that we could guarantee their reliability, and only then launch serial production. But nothing doing. We continued building ships that were not combat worthy… (page 107).

           Eight of the repair crew become critically ill with radiation sickness, and are already dying. All will perish within one to two weeks. It is later estimated they suffered radiation exposure to the whole body between 5,000 and 6,000 rem. A whole body dose of 450 rem is sufficient to kill 50% of those exposed. Exposure above 650 rem is almost always fatal.

          Home port is 1500 miles away. More crew will die if they try to make such a long journey. There is a nearby NATO naval base and the crew urges the Captain to sail there for help. He refuses and orders all firearms on the boat to be collected and thrown overboard. Several American vessels in the vicinity hear short-range transmissions, and offer help. Zatayev refuses. He decides to gamble on reaching some diesel Soviet subs some ten hours to the south, below the Arctic circle. After a long interval of sailing, nothing is sighted. In despair, he orders the boat to turn around and sail north again and retires to his cabin. A few minutes later S-270, a Soviet diesel boat, is sighted on the horizon.

          K-19 is taken in tow by S-270.  Some 200 ft away, the rescue boat measures radiation levels of 9 rem/hour when the dying men are transferred. Even after dumping their contaminated clothing overboard, levels of ½ rem above background are measured. The dying men’s bodies have become radioactive from exposure to neutron radiation while working in Compartment Six.

          Within a few days seamen begin to die. Captains log for July 10 shows Lt. Korchilov, Petty Officer Ordochkin and Kashenkov perish. July 12 Seaman Savkin. July 13, Seaman Kharitonov. On the 15th, Seaman Penkov. Some others are saved by bone marrow transplants and continuous blood transfusions.

          The crew must suffer one final irony after arriving at home port. Their diagnosis and appeal for disability is labeled “asthenic vegetative syndrome”, which was a type of mental disorder. Their appeals were then denied. In the USSR, it was forbidden for anyone to contract radiation sickness. Such things could not happen in Soviet Union.

          When K-19 was tied up to her dock, soon the dock and surrounding waters were contaminated to a distance of 900 yards around. An investigation attributed the failure of the sub cooling system to faulty welding techniques in the primary reactor loop, causing microcracks in the piping system. The K-19 was decontaminated and returned to service, but ever after in the fleet, she was known by a nickname awarded her by her crew: ”Hiroshima”…

 (to be continued …)