Visit the Nuclear Test Site

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:

http://www.atomictourist.com/nts.htm

(to be continued …)

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