Sunday, March 22, 2015

A "Glowing" Review of the Nevada Test Site (aka Where They Blew up Huge Atomic Bombs)

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Field Office
About a year or so ago, I heard about the free public tours of the Nevada National Security Site (better known as the Nevada Test Site), the place where they did a huge amount of nuclear bomb testing. With my husband's father being a downwinder (someone who got sick from that testing), I thought it would be a good place for us to visit to learn more about an interesting era in our country's history. The only problem: the tours fill up fast, and there is often a wait of many months to take the tour. (All the tours for 2015 are already full.)

Last October, my friend Matt let me know that the Department of Energy had opened up its 2015 dates. My husband and I filled out a form and applied for the February trip. We had to get a background check, and about a month after we applied we received word we were approved to go on the trip.

About a month before the trip we received a packet in the mail. It contained a page of prohibited items (cell phones, cameras, binoculars, recording devices, incendiary devices, etc.). If any of those items were found on anyone during the trip, the paper warned, the trip could be cancelled. We also had a minute-by-minute itinerary for the daylong tour.

The day before the tour, we went to the Atomic Testing Museum, which somehow managed to make a very interesting topic seem, well, kind of boring. The museum, part of the Smithsonian, was quite a letdown, and not something I'd recommend unless you are really interested in the topic and can go through the museum during a quiet period, when you don't have four or five different videos all running at the same time in a small space. 

Fortunately, the tour was fantastic.

The plan was to meet at the museum at 7:30, have our identification checked, receive a badge, and then board a bus and depart at 8 am for the Test Site. Our tour would include visits to Mercury, Frenchman's Flat, Yucca Flat, Sedan Crater, and more.

Our guide was Ernie Williams, an 84-year old veteran who had worked at the Nevada Test Site beginning in the 1950s. After he retired, a contractor who does work at the NTS hired him and he continues to work part-time. Because he had been there during the tests, he had great stories to tell. And a wonderful memory.

After going through the guard station (run by contract guards), we stopped at the cafeteria in Mercury, NV. At one time this was a huge town, complete with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a bowling alley. Nowadays the Test Site employs many fewer people, and most commute every day. The cafeteria had bathrooms and vending machines.

Then it was onto Frenchman's Flat. Ernie had us get out of the bus to look at some elevated tracks that had been part of one test. The pressure wave had bent them. We then drove around some of the other buildings that had been tested to see how they would withstand the impact of a nuclear bomb.

What surprised me most during the day was just how many tests had been done at the Nevada Test Site: 100 atmospheric tests and 828 underground tests. These were done between 1951 and 1992. This fact sheet gives a great overview of the history of the NTS.

A total of 928 tests is a lot of tests. Couldn't they have combined a few? (I never did find out the answer to that!)

Some of those tests left nuclear waste behind, and part of the Nevada Test Site is a low-level radioactive disposal area, where they dig pits, put in the garbage (some of it from other Department of Energy sites), and then bury it. We visited the site and saw some of the places where they bury the garbage.

After that we headed north towards Yucca Flat. Before we got there, Ernie pointed out the DAF, or Device Assembly Facility. We couldn't even get close, there was a big guard station on the road there, plus two gun turrets on the building. And the building has a double fence and most of it is underground. This is top secret stuff. The fact sheet gives a hint of what is there: 

"The DAF is a collection of more than 30 individual steel-reinforced concrete buildings connected by a rectangular common corridor. The entire complex, covered by compacted earth, spans an area of 100,000 square feet.

Currently the United States is not conducting nuclear tests. However, the President pledged to maintain an underground test readiness program in the event that nuclear testing resumes. The DAF plays a crucial role in achieving test readiness capability." 

We went over the pass and descended into Yucca Flat. Soon we were driving with big craters on either side of the bus. We even drove down into one, Bilby Crater, and back out again. The craters formed when the nuclear explosions basically melted the rock. Different sized craters reflected the different sizes of the weapons and the different depths at which they were deployed.

We got out of the bus at a huge white building, about six stories tall. This was the site where they were going to do the 829th underground test. They had the hole drilled, the equipment in place, the trailers with the sensing equipment ready, and then George Bush declared a moratorium on nuclear testing. Ernie was not at all happy about that. He said $66 million had been put into this test. I asked if that was the average cost for each test, and he said no, the average was $25-$30 million per nuclear test. Wow again.

They had all sorts of reasons for doing tests. One was to see how much earth could be moved, say in case they wanted to make another Panama Canal using nuclear bombs. (Never mind the ramifications of highly radioactive ground potentially being flooded.) The result was Sedan Crater, the biggest crater. We had a nice stop at it. It reminded me of Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley or Lunar Crater along Highway 6 in Nevada. Except this one was manmade.

Ernie took a group photo of us (no horizon allowed in the photo--it said so on our itinerary, which we were now way behind, but that was okay with all of us because it was so interesting. We also had to make sure we put our temporary badges away. That was very important for some reason.).

Not far from Sedan Crater is Groom Lake, home to Area 51 (and perhaps the reason no horizon was allowed in the photo above?). Ernie helped develop that, but he couldn't tell us much about it. The Google Earth image of it reveals a huge installation, and I wouldn't be surprised if much of it is underground so pesky satellites can't see what's going on. You can see in the Google Earth image below runways and hangars--lots and lots of hangars.

After visiting Sedan Crater, we took a different road and passed by some trenches where troops had witnessed nuclear explosions and had been part of an experiment to see what would happen to them. There were also experiments to see what would happen to animals, houses, and equipment.

We made a stop at the Mercury cafeteria on the way out, then drove the hour back to Las Vegas.

It was a fascinating trip, and I highly recommend it. My husband was impressed with the amount of electrical material left behind. So many electrical boxes, wires, and more. I'm sure everyone who goes on the trip leaves with different things sticking with them. There is so much to absorb. (Here are articles about the tour from The Atlantic,, the New York Times, and the LA Times.)

To learn more, you can find many fact sheets here. And here's a specific one just about the tour.

Finally, thanks so much to all those who helped watch and shuttle our kids so that we could go: my mother-in-law Sylvia and her husband David; our babysitter, Carmela; and the great carpool friends, Jenny, Jess, and Stephanie.


Unknown said...

That trip sounds incredible, I'm sure Ernie had a lot to do with that.

Alice Carter said...

That's where we got arrested for trespassing. It was a blast

Unknown said...

Just took the tour 12.6.2016. Ernie is a hoot. A real practical joker. Loved the tour, skipped the museum. Pam Handor is the best. Flew into LV on the 5th, out the 7th and didn't drop a nickel in a slot. Just strolled the strip checking people out. And, of course, got a 'bomb' shirt, hat, magnet, patch and lapel pin at the museum. We got back late, so no picture under the sign. Rats! So I, as well, had a great trip. I give it 5 mushroom clouds!

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