Saturday, February 4, 2012

Nevada Test Site: A Matter of National Security


Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office, by Federal Government of the United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I read that there was a tour you could take in the middle of the Nevada desert, that is so popular it must be booked months in advance, that is so secure it requires a background check and makes cell phones, cameras and GPS units verboten, I knew I must go.

"Why are you going to Vegas?" people asked me.

"To take a tour of the Nevada Test Site." Silence. A pause. "You know, where they used to test atomic bombs."

"Uh, why are you going there?"

"Because I like to take tours of things, and it's kind of a weird thing that seems like nobody else would do. Except it's really popular apparently."

When I arrived, I realized with whom it's popular: retirees. Welcome to my world.

Most of my fellow passengers on that coach bus had probably not taken the day off from work (or, in my case, three days) to drive 70 miles outside of Vegas, 100 miles around the campus, and 70 miles back. There were a couple of nerdy-looking dudes flying solo like me, looking quizzically at me like they do when I walk into their haunts like Forbidden Planet or Games Workshop (or the Pinball Hall of Fame), but mostly my travel companions were ex-military history buffs and generally people of a certain age who could have worked at the Nevada Test Site during its heyday.

Normally when I do this sort of thing, I look forward to taking photos and sharing them with others, giving them a view of something they would never see on their own. But not being able to even sneak any photography in (for fear of thwarting the whole tour and being sent back home), I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I went anyway, saying they could take my camera away but not my words, but without taking on the task of documenting the trip in photos, between the whirr of the coach and the lull of the narration of old instructional videos we were shown, I had a hard time staying awake.

I expected more of a walking tour, I guess, having applied sunscreen to my face, but between the drive out to the site, around the site, and back, we were mostly vehicular tourists. And because the tour is run by the Department of Energy, it's intentionally full of education and propaganda about how positive the work is that they have done and continue to do there, including radioactive waste management (Area 5) - which involves cleaning, disposal, and burial of radioactive waste and radioactively-tainted materials.


Craters—Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office, by Federal Government of the United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But I was most interested in the dry lake, Frenchman Flat, where weapons effects tests were once held, Bilby Crater towards Yucca Mountain to the north, and Sedan Crater, both created by an underground detonation. We actually got to get out and gawk at Sedan Crater, much larger and deeper than Bilby, a result of testing the use of nuclear explosives for excavation projects (like building tunnels, etc.). The radioactive debris that the explosion created made this method of excavation - a "peaceful" nuclear explosion - impractical in the U.S. As with many of the other locations around the Test Site, there is still a lot of unreclaimed material lying around out there.

The interesting thing is that although it is thought that nuclear reactions sterilize all living things around them, what you actually find is tremendous revegetation in the areas of past detonation. "See that concentrated area of brush over there? That's where the bomb went off."

There are plenty of other indications of past explosions, of a less organic nature - industrial remnants, and even some structures, as with the Apple II houses. One of the series of tests that were conducted - widely covered by attending media at the time - was the effect on a nearby above-ground bomb explosion on a variety of types of buildings (concrete, wood siding, etc.) with a variety of different kinds of fallout shelters inside (in the basement, bathroom, etc.), all furnished in impeccable detail to the interior designs of the times (curtains, dishware, etc.) with even mannequins dressed in the fashion of the era. Some of the remaining houses - partially destroyed, damaged, or relatively unaffected - still stand onsite, begging to be photographed.

The Nevada Test Site is way out in the Nevada desert, next to Nellis Air Force base, not far from Area 51 and Indian Springs where unmanned aircraft is tested. It feels mysterious, creepy, and abandoned, but it also feels institutional, like any other military base, with abandoned barracks, and a grid-like system mimicking a real town.

The Nevada Test Site's last mission was supposed to be Icecap in Spring 1993, but the moratorium was signed by President Bush in October 1992. Since then, much of the Nevada Test Site's former amenities have been razed, with new facilities (like a fire station) being built in their place, but the footprint of the entire site remains just as large as before. The land was originally purchased by the government from the BLM, and the deed entitles their use of the property for hundreds of years - which feels like a necessity given all of the hazardous, radioactive waste buried underground, and all of the naturally-occurring and man-created radioactive material lingering practically in the air and certainly in the soil and underground.

Everyone who works there wears a radioactivity monitor around their neck, just to make sure they're OK. But they all say no one is at risk there, whether you're a daily employee or just a one-time visitor. They say that even if they were to move out tomorrow, and new residents were to move in immediately and start planing crops, that everyone would still be OK.

It seemed doubtful to me, but I didn't really care either way.

The Nevada Test Site tour wasn't the most exciting thing I did during my most recent Vegas visit, but it was a good reason to go and build a whole trip around it.



Related Reading:
Seeing Ground Zero in Nevada - New York Times
Tourists Revisit the Cold War at Nevada Test Site - Los Angeles Times