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First atomic detonation at the Nevada test site

First atomic detonation at the Nevada test site


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Forcefully marking the continued importance of the West in the development of nuclear weaponry, the government detonates the first of a series of nuclear bombs at its new Nevada test site.

Although much of the West had long lagged behind the rest of the nation in technological and industrial development, the massive World War II project to build the first atomic bomb single-handedly pushed the region into the 20th century. Code named the Manhattan Project, this ambitious research and development program pumped millions of dollars of federal funds into new western research centers like the bomb building lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico and the fissionable material production center at Hanford, Washington. Ironically, the very conditions that had once impeded western technological development became benefits: lots of wide-open unpopulated federal land where dangerous experiments could be conducted in secret.

After the war ended, the West continued to be the ideal region for Cold War-era nuclear experimentation for the same reasons. In December 1950, the Atomic Energy Commission designated a large swath of unpopulated desert land 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas as the Nevada Proving Ground for atmospheric atomic testing. On January 27, 1951, the government detonated its first atomic device on the site, resulting in a tremendous explosion, the flash from which was seen as far away as San Francisco.

The government continued to conduct atmospheric tests for six more years at the Nevada site. They studied the effects on humans by stationing ground troops as close as 2,500 yards from ground zero and moving them even closer shortly after the detonation. By 1957, though, the effects of radioactivity on the soldiers and the surrounding population led the government to begin testing bombs underground, and by 1962, all atmospheric testing had ceased.

In recent years, the harm caused to soldiers and westerners exposed to radioactivity from the Nevada test site has become a controversial topic. Some critics argue the government waged a “nuclear war on the West,” and maintain that the government knew of the dangers posed to people living near the test site well before the 1957 shift to underground tests. Others, though, point out that the test site has brought billions of dollars into the state and resulted in great economic benefit to Nevada.

READ MORE: Atomic Bomb History


ATOMIC TEST EFFECTS IN THE NEVADA TEST SITE REGION

A MESSAGE TO PEOPLE WHO LIVE
NEAR NEVADA TEST SITE:

You are in a very real sense active participants in the Nation's atomic test program. You have been close observers of tests which have contributed greatly to building the defenses of our own country and of the free world. Nevada tests have helped us come a long way in a few, short years and have been a vital factor in maintaining the peace of the world. They also provide important data for use in planning civil defense measures to protect our people in event of enemy attack.

Same of you have been inconvenienced by our test operations. At times some of you have been exposed to potential risk from flash, blast, or fall-out. You have accepted the inconvenience or the risk without fuss, without alarm, and without panic. Your cooperation has helped achieve an unusual record of safety.

In a world in which free people have no atomic monopoly, we must keep our atomic strength at peak level. Time is a key factor in this task and Nevada tests help us "buy" precious time.

That is why we must hold new tests in Nevada.

I want you to know that in the forthcoming series, as has been true in the past, each shot is justified by national and international security need and that none will be fired unless there is adequate assurance of public safety.

We are grateful for your continued cooperation and your understanding.


Purpose

While most of the shots conducted during Plumbbob were intended to test design principles for nuclear warheads that would be mounted on intercontinental and intermediate range missiles, warheads with smaller yields were also tested to develop and improve air defense and anti-submarine weapon systems. The military also wanted to understand nuclear blast effects on civil and military structures as well as various aircraft. During one test, a large blimp was subjected to the shock-wave from the nuclear detonation it collapsed within seconds.

Scientists were also concerned with the effects of radiation on biological life. To study these effects, over 1,200 pigs were subjected to bio-medical experiments and blast-effects studies during Operation Plumbbob. During one test, pigs were placed in cages and provided with suits made of different materials to test which materials provided best protection from the thermal pulse generated by the nuclear blast. While most of the pigs survived, many suffered third-degree burns to 80% of their bodies. In another test, pigs were placed in pens behind large panels of glass at various distances from the epicenter of the nuclear detonation to examine the effects of flying debris on living targets.

Another objective during Operation Plumbbob was to understand how the average foot-solder would perform, physically and psychologically, under the rigors of a tactical nuclear battlefield. Over 16,000 members of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines participated in exercises Desert Rock VII and VIII, a joint field operation which involved the largest troop maneuver associated with U.S. nuclear weapon testing in history.

Military officials were also concerned with radiation contamination and fallout from an accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon. On July 26, a safety experiment, "Pascal-A," was detonated in an uncapped hole at the Nevada Test Site, becoming the first underground shaft nuclear test. The knowledge gained here would provide data to prevent nuclear yields in case of accidental detonations (plane crash, etc.). The Rainier shot, conducted September 19, 1957, was the first fully contained underground nuclear test, meaning that no fission products escaped into the atmosphere. This test of 1.7 KT could be detected around the world by seismologists using ordinary seismic instruments. The Rainier test became the prototype for larger and more powerful underground tests.


Survivors of America’s first atomic bomb test want their place in history

On April 1, 2017, the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico opened its Stallion gate to the public, like it does twice every year. For a few hours, visitors are free to wander the Trinity Test Site, where, on July 16, 1945, the United States tested the first atomic bomb in history, forever altering the destructive power available to humans. On the way in, the over 4,600 visitors were greeted by about two dozen protesters, whose signs bore a simple, stark message: The first victims of an atomic bomb are still living.

“I remember just like it happened yesterday,” said Darryl Gilmore, 89, then a student at the University of New Mexico, studying music and business courses. His brother had just returned from the war, and they needed to get him down to Fort Bliss in El Paso so he could process out. Gilmore borrowed the family car for the trip he drove it back from Albuquerque to his parent’s home in Tularosa along Highway 380, which goes through Socorro and San Antonio and on to Carrizozo. It’s the same road people take to visit the Trinity site today. On that day in mid-July 1945, he stopped to check his tires, and then encountered a convoy of six army trucks.

“The lead driver, a sergeant, told me ‘put your windows up on your car, and drive out of here as fast as you can, there’s poison gas in the area,’” recalled Gilmore. “I found out much later that they were prepared to evacuate a bunch of ranch families in that neighborhood from miles around. I found out they didn’t evacuate anybody.”

“My folks had gotten up early that morning, before 5 o’clock, and they saw the flash from Tularosa, that explosion,” said Gilmore, “and of course in Albuquerque I didn’t notice it at all. The only thing that came out in the paper that afternoon was a statement that an ammunition dump in the remote corner of the range had exploded, and that’s all the information that was released at that time.”

Color photograph of the Trinity Test

Apart from the convoy, and the statement about the ammunition dump, Gilmore didn’t hear any official word about what had happened in the New Mexico desert that day until shortly after the news that the A-bomb was dropped on Japan, first on Hiroshima on August 6,1945, and then on Nagasaki on August 9.

The effects of the fallout on Gilmore became clear much sooner than that. By the time he and his family reached El Paso, his arms, neck, and face were red—as if he’d gotten a bad sunburn. “I didn’t know at the time what had happened to me,” said Gilmore. “My outer skin gradually fell off the next few days, I used lotions and stuff on it, [but they] didn’t seem to make much difference. A few years later, I began to have skin problems, and I’ve had treatments ever since.”

Gilmore is the survivor of multiple cancers. His prostate cancer responded to radiation treatment and hasn’t returned, but his skin cancers remain a persistent problem to this day. And his immediate family—his father, mother, and sister—who were living in Tularosa at the time of the Trinity test, all died from cancer.

Gilmore’s story is one of many collected by the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. The organization was founded in 2005 by residents Tina Cordova and the late Fred Tyler, with the express aim of compiling information about the impacts of the Trinity test on people in the area. Tularosa is a village in Southern New Mexico, about a three-hour drive south of Albuquerque or a 90-minute drive northeast from Las Cruces. The town sits next to the White Sands Missile Range, and, as the crow flies, is about 50 miles from the Trinity Site. The White Sands Range summary of the 2017 visit says the site was selected because of its remote location, though the page also notes that when locals asked about the explosion, the test “was covered up with the story of an explosion at an ammunition dump.”

“Trinity Site,” a pamphlet available for visitors to the location, notes that it was selected from one of eight possible locations in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado in part because the land was already under the control of the federal government as part of the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, established in 1942. (Later, the Army tested captured V-2 rockets at the range, and today it houses everything from missile testing to a DARPA-designed Air Force observatory.) “The secluded Jornada del Muerto was perfect as it provided isolation for secrecy and safety, but was still close to Los Alamos for easy commuting back and forth,” notes the pamphlet.

Cordova disputes that characterization. “We know from the census data that there were 40,000 people living in the four counties surrounding Trinity at the time of the test,” she said. “That’s not remote and uninhabited.”

There is no mention in the pamphlet or the official online history page of any civilians in the area. The history contains an evacuation order report, filed July 18, 1945, detailing “plans to evacuate civilians around the Trinity Site area if high concentrations of radioactive fallout drifted off the Alamogordo Bombing Range.” From that report:

Immediately after the shot, the wind drift was ascertained to be sure the Base Camp was not in danger. Monitors were immediately sent out in the direction of the cloud drift to check the approximate width and degree of contamination of the area under the cloud. A small headquarters was set-up at Bingham, near the center of the area in the most immediate danger. The monitors worked in a wide area from this base reporting in to Mr. Hoffman or Mr. Herschfelter. One re-enforced [sic] platoon, under Captain Huene, was held at Bingham the rest of the detachment was held in reserve at Base Camp. Fortunately no evacuations had to be made.

Gilmore’s experience suggests otherwise.

To this day, he’s surprised that there was no attempt by the Army or police to block off the roads in the area downwind of the test. “They should have known better,” said Gilmore. “That radiation spread for hundreds of miles, a lot of people in Tularosa died from cancer, and people in Tularosa attribute practically all of it to the A-bomb.”

Gilmore was driving from San Antonio to Carrizozo on highway 380, at about 9am on July 16, just hours after the Trinity test. It’s the same road that visitors take to get to the Trinity site today, and only 17 miles from the test location. Representation of Gilmore’s experience, or that of any civilians in the area at the time, are missing from the experience of the site itself.

On arrival, visitors first see the large rusting remains of “Jumbo,” a massive metal container built to catch rare and precious plutonium if the “Gadget,” the first atomic bomb, failed to work as planned. (Ultimately, confidence in Gadget was great enough that the planners decided not to use Jumbo, instead placing it 800 yards away from the blast site.)

Tourists pose inside “Jumbo”

The quarter-mile path from Jumbo to ground zero is fenced in, as is the blast site itself. It’s a simple chain link, with three strands of barbed wire angling outwards from the top, and intermittent “Caution: Radioactive Materials” signs placed on the outer edges of the fence. There is a small obelisk at the site, the official Ground Zero Monument, where crowds of tourists gather for their picture in the shallow depression of the first atomic blast. Facing the inside of the fence are a handful of small signs, printed up with photography of the site and observations about life in the area. Then there are a series of stills of the blast, captured milliseconds apart, showing the formation of the mushroom cloud. Finally, there is a flatbed truck with the casing from a Fatman bomb, the same kind dropped on Nagasaki. Tourists posed with the casing, asking strangers to take their picture in front of the weapon.

“Trinity Site is explicit about the story they’re trying to tell,” said Martin Pfeiffer, an Anthropology graduate student at the University of New Mexico focused on the social impacts of America’s nuclear enterprise. “The narrative is one of a new epoch, the atomic age, in which American technological and cultural might won World War II and, by implication, won the Cold War too. The Trinity Site is overtly triumphalist in their presentation of events and erases the experiences of those removed from the land without fair compensation or who may have suffered radiation injury.”

When asked about an official history of the site, officials with White Sands Missile Range directed me to “Trinity: The History Of An Atomic Bomb National Historic Landmark” by Jim Eckles, who worked in the White Sands Missile Range Public Affairs Office from 1977 to 2007.

“Other than a few instances, public exposure to radiation in the hours and few days after the 1945 test has largely been glossed over by officials and historians,” Eckles writes, and then says that may have changed after the 2010 publication of a study on Trinity as a source of public radiation exposure. Still, the possibility of a greater harmful impact in the area than initially reported can be seen as early as 1945, when the chief medical officer of the Manhattan Project recommended that future tests occur in a larger area “preferably with a radius of at least 150 miles without population.”

Part of the danger wasn’t just the immediate impact on people exposed to radiation the day of the blast, but also how the scattered fallout affected the people in the area.

“We have to remember what life was like in 1945 in rural New Mexico,” says the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium’s Cordova, “There were no water systems, so water was collected in cisterns and holding tanks, and that may have been contaminated after the bomb. There were no grocery stores. People bought things in a mercantile, things like flour, sugar, and coffee, but they didn’t buy meat, vegetables, food, anything that was perishable. They had orchards, they had gardens. People raised everything that they consumed meat-wise: cows goats, sheep, chickens. They hunted, and all of this was damaged. People didn’t bathe as often back then, because water was scarce, so it got on your skin and they were absorbing radiation. It did get into the water supply, and then they would consume it. It got into the food supply, then they would consume it. They would inhale the dust.”

Trinity test, 15 seconds after detonation

The secrecy around the project took the Army to some unusual places after the test and before the nature of the bomb became public.

“One of Trinity’s more unusual financial appropriations, later on, was for the acquisition of several dozen head of cattle that had had their hair discolored by the explosion.” writes nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein. Indeed, we know that in December 1945, the Army purchased 75 head of cattle at market price from ranchers in the area, and proceeded to study the effects of radiation on those cows and their offspring. The area around Trinity, before it was fenced-off as a military gunnery range, was ranching country, with enough meager grass to support grazing herds. While the Army purchased some of the cattle affected by the blast, it’s highly likely that more cattle in the area at the time of the blast, or that grazed in the area after the blast, ended up consumed by locals. When cows consume radioisotopes of iodine that the blast deposited on grass, their digestive process accumulates isotopes from the whole grazed area the cows can then pass the concentrated isotopes along through milk to humans.

This is echoed in testimony collected by Cordova on behalf of the Tularosa Downwinders. “We had this town hall meeting in Socorro when we had our report, and there were two sisters who came, and a brother, and they lived on a ranch that they said was 7-8 miles from Trinity, and said the government never paid them a visit, ever, and they said ‘our cows were wiped out we ate them.'”

Historians of the Trinity test acknowledge that, after the blast, people in the area were largely left in the dark.

“No one did real medical and scientific follow-up with these ranchers,” writes Eckles. “For a couple years after the test, Los Alamos personnel discreetly inquired about the health of these folks without cluing them in on their concern.” This is a marked difference from how the United States treated the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In October 1945, the United States set up a joint commission to study the long-term impact of the bomb on the lives of the people in the area. That study continues to this day, under the Radiation Effect Research Foundation, tracking and monitoring the health of people exposed to the blast.

Tourists read about Fatman, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki

Those populations are the largest and best-studied cohort of atomic survivors, but some of their experience doesn’t directly apply to those downwind of the Trinity test. The Trinity test’s low blast and scattered fallout is different than the atmospheric bursts over the Japanese cities, the climate of high desert is vastly different from coastal cities, and there is the matter of diet. Milk and cattle are a major part of life in rural New Mexico, in a way that simply was not true of people living in Japan.

The Downwinder’s report highlights this dietary exposure as one of the major harms from the blast to people in the area. In 2010, the Center for Disease Control published a draft report, the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment, which looked at off-site health impacts from research done by the lab that designed and built the first atomic bombs. From the LAHDRA report:

All evaluations of public exposures from the Trinity blast that have been published to date have been incomplete in that they have not reflected the internal doses that were received by residents from intakes of airborne radioactivity and contaminated water and foods. Some unique characteristics of the Trinity event amplified the significance of those omissions. Because the Gadget was detonated so close to the ground, members of the public lived less than 20 mi downwind and were not relocated, terrain features and wind patterns caused “hot spots” of radioactive fallout, and lifestyles of local ranchers led to intakes of radioactivity via consumption of water, milk, and homegrown vegetables, it appears that internal radiation doses could have posed significant health risks for individuals exposed after the blast.

The recurring theme of studies about the impact of the Trinity test on people in the surrounding area is that there is a lack of thorough assessment of what actually happened—of what knowable, traceable harms from the bomb impacted people caught in its fallout. The National Cancer Institute plans to conduct one such study. Reached for this story, the NCI declined to comment, noting that the study is not yet in the field and therefore there are no results to report.

In lieu of a published federal study specifically on the health impact of the Trinity test, the Tularosa Downwinders themselves conducted a Health Impact Assessment with funding from the Santa Fe Community foundation. Some phrasings in the study misstate the science at hand. When the study says “We want to convey the fact that one millionth of a gram of plutonium inhaled or ingested into the body will cause cancer,” it states as certain fact that plutonium ingestion will cause cancer, rather than the more accurately describing plutonium ingestion as increasing the risk of developing cancer. To make the case for radiation exposure compensation, the Downwinder Consortium wants a study to happen soon, while the first generation is still around to testify to their experience of the blast. And they want to make sure that they’re consulted for the study, so that New Mexico’s victims of radiation exposure aren’t erased from history a second time.

There is already a program paying for people exposed to radiation risk from the tests in Nevada. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, passed in 1990 and amended in 2000, provides lump-sum compensation to uranium workers in 11 states, to “onsite participants in atmospheric nuclear tests”, and also to downwinders in three states: Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Senate Bill 197, sponsored by Senator Crapo of Idaho, would among other changes expand that coverage to include Trinity site downwinders. The bill is currently in the Judiciary committee with no hearing scheduled, though according to the office of Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, that could always change.

Gadget, the bomb tested at Trinity

“The Trinity test site was part of our war effort, used to defend our country and keep the American people safe. The federal government therefore has a solemn duty to compensate those injured as a result,” says Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, one of the bill’s cosponsors. “I believe that the body of evidence shows a clear conclusion: people downwind of the Trinity test site were injured as a result of radioactive fallout, and downwind communities continue to suffer the consequences, both health and economic, of the Trinity testing. They should be compensated for their hardship.”

Compensation is a central goal of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.

“I coined the phrase “unknowing, unwilling, and uncompensated,”” said Cordova, referring to the status of people impacted by the blast. “People who worked on the project were knowing, they knew what they were doing, they were willing to do it, and they were compensated at the time plus afterwards if they got sick. Those of us who gave no consent, never knew, were never willing, have never been taken care of.”

Compensation is just one part of the Downwinder’s request. “We want the government to come back and issue an apology to the people,” said Cordova. “That would go a long way in helping people to heal. There’s this trauma that’s been associated with this, that the government’s never going to come back and acknowledge it or take care of us.”

Gilmore is skeptical that an apology will ever happen. “I understand they made some settlements in Utah and Colorado, and Nevada, but nothing in the way that I know of in New Mexico, they just ignored New Mexico,” said Gilmore, “They’re just waiting for all us old people to die off so they don’t have to pay us any money for what happened to us.”

Part of the mission is to simply inform people that the downwinders exist. For five years, the Tularosa Downwinders have protested outside the road to the Stallion gate, a living addition to the story told through inanimate objects at Trinity itself.

“We decided, if people are going to go out there and celebrate the science,” said Cordova, “then we’re going to go out there, so that they know there were consequences too.”

Sign outside Trinity enclosure

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.


Mushroom clouds from the atmospheric tests could be seen up to 100 miles away in the distance. This led to increased tourism for Las Vegas, and throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the city capitalized on this interest. Many guests could see clouds, or bursts of light from hotel windows, and the hotels promoted these sights. Some casinos also hosted “dawn parties” and created atomic themed cocktails, encouraging visitors to view the tests. Calendars throughout the city also advertised detonation times, as well as the best viewing spots to see flashes or lights or mushroom clouds.


Splitting Atoms: Nevada’s Atomic History

On the morning of May 5, 1955, a family nested in their contemporary dream home. A tall redbrick chimney and lovely shutters complemented the whitewashed exterior, which gave an exquisite view of the surrounding desert mountains. The home was perfect in nearly every way: a state-of-the-art television, an immaculate kitchen, dining room laden with fresh and frozen food, and the family Desoto sedan parked outside. The occupants were the quintessential 1950s household: a husband, wife, and several fine children, and on that morning they had numerous guests scattered about. Though they had some neighbors’ houses not too far away, the small town they lived in was mostly quiet.

But this morning was different than most. Just as the faintest hints of sunlight shone across the desert sky, anomalies abounded. As the father peered out the window, in a split second he saw a blinding flash, followed by an inferno, and finally the sights and sounds of unfathomable destruction. As luck would have it, the family and all of their guests survived the blast, as mannequins tend to do.

Mannequins are scattered about a mock living room that has just been hit by a blast. Photos reprinted from “Images of Amercia: Nevada Test Site: By Peter W. Merlin (Arcadia Publishing, 2016)

The mannequin family had witnessed—just several thousand feet from ground zero—one of man’s most destructive inventions: the atomic bomb. Though many of their neighbors’ homes weren’t so lucky, several that were constructed for the Apple II blast, theirs included, remained standing. The 29-kiloton (roughly 29,000 metric tons of TNT) device was detonated from a 500-foot tower on Yucca Flat at the Nevada Test Site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS). Though Apple II wasn’t the first atomic bomb test at the site, it joined 927 others as part of Nevada’s captivating and sometimes chilling atomic legacy.

BOMB BUSINESS IS BOOMING

The atomic bomb played a vital role in the outcome of WWII, and though the war ended in 1945, the interest of the U.S. in this new technology was burning brighter than ever as the Cold War took shape. From June 1946-48, atomic testing took place at several Pacific island sites, including Bikini and Enewetak Atolls however, it became costly and difficult to perform them so far from home. Cue Project Nutmeg—a top-secret feasibility study conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to identify the best possible location for a mainland atomic test site.

After a meticulous search, an area was selected 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas due to government control of the land, low population, little annual rainfall, and its absolute vastness. On Dec. 18, 1950, President Harry S. Truman signed the order to establish the site, and a little more than a month later the first atmospheric test took place. The 1-kiloton bomb named Able dropped from a plane onto Frenchman Flat.

After the blast proved successful, the AEC decided to expand facilities, and the site’s operation center at Mercury—located just 5 miles from U.S. Route 95—was born. In the heyday of atomic testing, Mercury boasted 10,000 workers daily, and held many comforts including dormitories, health facilities, a steakhouse, and even an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Members of the 11th Airborne Division kneel as they watch a test in 1951. Photos reprinted from “Images of Amercia: Nevada Test Site: By Peter W. Merlin (Arcadia Publishing, 2016)

FIRE ON THE TUBE, CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON

A film crew is hit by a shock wave several seconds after an atomic bomb explodes. Photos reprinted from “Images of Amercia: Nevada Test Site: By Peter W. Merlin (Arcadia Publishing, 2016) A mushroom cloud rises in the distance, as seen from Fremont Street in Las Vegas.

Atmospheric testing was extensive in the early days, and the AEC dreamt up countless designs and scenarios to better understand the bomb’s impact on various materials. Many of the tests took place at the 5.8-square-mile dry lakebed called Frenchman Flat. Bomb shelters, man-made forests, utility lines, a railroad trestle, a bank vault, and even mock towns outfitted with mannequins were constructed to test how they stood up to atomic blasts. Civil defense tests were also conducted several miles north on Yucca Flat.

Nevada Magazine’s inaugural editor, Fred Greulich, was in attendance with those who watched a 16-kiloton bomb named Annie detonated at the test site on March 17, 1953. The test—part of the Operation Upshot-Knothole projects—was the first nationally televised atomic detonation in history and featured the destruction of several mock structures. Approximately 600 journalists and cameramen from across the U.S. gathered to view the blast, which was broadcast to about 15 million viewers. Their vantage point for tests on Yucca Flat became known as News Knob, and the famous location was used to broadcast the U.S.’s muscle to the world. Greulich wrote in the June-December 1953 issue, “Primarily…the explosion was a scientific experiment, but secondarily it was for the purpose of impressing Americans with the deadly seriousness of nuclear device detonations and the need for arousing a keener interest in civilian defense.”

The explosions weren’t only visible by high-ranking officials, newsmen, and on television, though. Las Vegas became the epicenter of atomic displays. Nighttime flashes and mushroom clouds were sometimes visible from the city and could be viewed from hotel rooms, rooftops, and sometimes simply from the street. Visitors and residents could often feel the ground shake, and occasionally had to deal with rattling, sometimes shattering windows. The brilliant, unbeknownst radioactive, clouds didn’t last too long, though.

DRILL FOR THRILL

After a total of 100 aboveground atomic tests, the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 prohibited atmospheric, outer space, and underwater testing, bringing the days of visible mushroom clouds to a close. The treaty did not, however, limit underground testing. Instead of delivering the atomic weapons via airplane, cannon, or tower—as happened in aboveground tests—holes were drilled and atomic bombs were lowered into them and detonated. Most of the underground tests took place at Yucca Flat.

The device used for the 104-kiloton Sedan test was detonated 635 feet below the surface and moved nearly 12 million tons of earth, causing this crater. The crater can be seen from Earth’s orbit with the unaided eye. Photos reprinted from “Images of Amercia: Nevada Test Site: By Peter W. Merlin (Arcadia Publishing, 2016)

Initially, underground testing proved difficult and time-consuming. A 1,000-foot-deep, 36-inch diameter hole could take up to 60 days to drill, and sometimes holes needed to accommodate devices that were 6-12 feet in diameter. New drilling equipment and technology was developed, and soon the underground tests were in business.

Unlike atmospheric tests that cause scorched earth but didn’t displace much dirt, underground tests created craters—big ones. Once the atomic device was lowered by crane into underground shafts, the hole was filled in with sand, gravel, and epoxy, and the device detonated remotely. Information was then collected and delivered via fiber optic diagnostic cables to aboveground unmanned trailers, which monitored the effects of the bomb extremely carefully and accurately.

The intense heat from underground explosions caused surrounding rock to liquefy instantly, resulting in a hollow cavern. After time, the roof of the blast cavern collapses, causing the earth above it to implode on the hollow structure, leaving a massive subsidence crater on the surface of the earth.

Underground testing also provided scientists and engineers opportunities to explore new, peaceful purposes for atomic devices. For example, tests were conducted to determine the ability of atomic explosions to excavate earth and rock to create canals, harbors, and other large-scale excavations. One such test left behind the Sedan Crater, which is perhaps the most impressive crater at the test site, measuring 300 feet deep and 1,300 feet in diameter.

From 1957-1992, 828 underground atomic tests (928 total atomic tests including atmospheric) were conducted, and much was learned about the way the devices act and perform under a host of different conditions. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush introduced a moratorium on atomic weapons testing, effectively putting an end to full-scale testing. The NNSS, though, remains a bastion of national security to this day.

NEVADA NATIONAL SECURITY SITE

The T-1 Training Area provides first responders with the most realistic radiological training environment in the world. Photo: Eric Cachinero

In 2010—to better represent the nature of the work occurring at the site—the Nevada Test Site was renamed the Nevada National Security Site. Operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. The 1,360-square-mile NNSS utilizes the world’s most advanced technologies, with a focus on keeping the country’s nuclear deterrents safe, secure, and effective. The site supports homeland security and counterterrorism operations, including nuclear detection systems and first-responder training. NNSS Public Affairs Manager Dante Pistone says much of the national security work that occurs at the site today is only possible because of the past.


“The foundation for much of this work was laid during the nuclear testing days,” he says. “Many of the lessons we learned back then are applied today without having to do actual testing. Instead, we work with the National Laboratories to support maintenance of the nation’s nuclear deterrent using subcritical experiments and computer models.”

Associate Editor Eric Cachinero and NNSS Public Affairs Manager Dante Pistone at Sedan crater. Photo: Megg Mueller

Some of the active programs at NNSS today include:

• Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research (JASPER): JASPER is one of the most powerful gas guns on the planet. It is designed to subject materials—including plutonium—to extreme pressures and temperatures to see how they react without the need for underground nuclear testing. The gun is capable of accelerating projectiles at 28,000 feet per second.

• Device Assembly Facility (DAF): DAF allows scientists to work on special nuclear material in a controlled environment. The facility deals with subcritical tests and computer models to further understand what happens when a nuclear device is detonated.

• Big Explosives Experimental Facility (BEEF): This remote facility is used to test conventional high explosives and measure their responses using high-speed optics and x-ray radiology.

IMAGES OF AMERICA Author Peter W. Merlin, in collaboration with Arcadia Publishing, has compiled an extensive collection of Nevada’s atomic history in his book, “Images of America: Nevada Test Site.” The book features dozens of historical photos and follows Nevada’s atomic era from its earliest days to modern times. arcadiapublishing.com, 843-853-2070

• Remote Sensing Laboratory (RSL): RSL focuses on emergency response technologies, counterterrorism, and radiological incident response. Teams are in place 24/7 to respond to nuclear-related threats worldwide.

• T-1 Training Area: Located on ground zero of a 1950s-era atmospheric atomic test, the T-1 Training Area provides one of the most realistic radiological training environments anywhere, testing first responders in a number of different challenging radiological scenarios. The area includes mock storefronts, a crashed 737 airliner, helicopter, trucks, busses, and a derailed locomotive.

• Nonproliferation Test and Evaluation Complex (NPTEC): NPTEC is the largest facility for open-air testing of hazardous toxic materials and biological stimulants in the world. The facility provides field-testing and sensor testing to improve responses to toxic chemical spills, in full compliance with all applicable federal and state environmental requirements.

• U1a Complex: The U1a Complex is an underground experimental facility designed to conduct subcritical experiments, like measuring properties of plutonium under weapon-like conditions. The plutonium is subjected to high pressures and shocks, mimicking conditions during an atomic explosion.

Beyond tests concerning hazardous or explosive materials, NNSS has served as the location for other historic activities. In 1969, astronauts including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin underwent lunar training at the site. The mission involved collecting geological material and operating moon rovers. In addition, the University of Nevada, Reno University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the Desert Research Institute have used the site for climate testing. Experiments involved testing the effects of climate change on the landscape by exposing it to increased CO2 levels.

AN ERA ELEVATED

Nevada’s nuclear history is remarkable. It is sensational to some, and sinister to others. The truth is, there is so much we have learned—and continue to learn—from this technology. Given that most people have never had the fortune or misfortune of witnessing an atomic blast firsthand, Greulich, a man who has, explained it best. “All of the blasts are frightfully terrible yet unbelievably magnificent they are hellish but beautiful horrible yet spectacular. The whole range of human emotion is brought into play upon observing such a detonation.”

President John F. Kennedy tours the Nevada Test Site on Dec. 8, 1962. He later announced that nuclear propulsion technology would not play a role in the first lunar landing, but acknowledged its potential for future space travel. Photos reprinted from “Images of Amercia: Nevada Test Site: By Peter W. Merlin (Arcadia Publishing, 2016)


Mannequin Mayhem: Aftermath of an A-Bomb Test in Nevada

Burned up except for its face, this mannequin was 7,000 feet from the blast.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Written By: Ben Cosgrove

In the spring of 1955, as the Cold War intensified and the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated at a shocking pace, America—as it had many times before—detonated an atomic weapon in the Nevada desert. The test was not especially noteworthy. The weapon’s “yield” was not dramatically larger or smaller than that of previous A-bombs: the brighter-than-the-sun flash of light, the mushroom cloud and the staggering power unleashed by the weapon were all byproducts familiar to anyone who had either witnessed or paid attention to coverage of earlier tests.

Here, LIFE.com presents pictures made in the Nevada desert by photographer Loomis Dean shortly after a 1955 atomic bomb test. These are not “political” pictures. They are eerily beautiful, unsettling photographs made at the height of the Cold War, when the destructive power of the detonation was jaw-droppingly huge—although miniscule compared to today’s truly terrifying thermonuclear weapons. As LIFE told its readers in its May 16, 1955, issue (in which some of these photos appeared):

A day after the 44th nuclear test explosion in the U.S. rent the still Nevada air, observers cautiously inspected department store mannequins which were poised disheveled but still haughty on the sand sand in the homes of Yucca Flat. The figures were residents of an entire million-dollar village built to test the effects of an atomic blast on everything from houses to clothes to canned soup.
The condition of the figures—one charred, another only scorched, another almost untouched—showed that the blast, which was equivalent to 35,000 tons of TNT, was discriminating in its effects. As one phase of the atomic test, the village and figures help guide civil defense planning and make clear that even amid atomic holocaust careful planning could save lives.

Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

In the test, this scorched mannequin indicated that a human at that distance would be burned but alive.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Burned up except for its face, this mannequin was 7,000 feet from the blast.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

This lady mannequin’s wig was askew though her a light-colored dress was unburned.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Remains of a house [built for the test more than a mile from ground zero] after an atomic bomb test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

This mannequin was in a house 5,500 feet from the bomb blast.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Vehicles lined up far from ground zero before a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

After a nuclear weapon test, Nevada, 1955.

Loomis Dean The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock


Atomic explosion at Nevada Test Site, 1957?

I always wondered about the fallout from these things. Were these people not exposed to the radiation?

Excuse my ignorance I know very little about these things.

Yeah, I agree, my eyes may be deceiving me but they are way closer to that thing than what I would imagine would be a safe distance.

They were exposed, but the bombs aren't as lethal as you would think. The more serious danger from radiation comes from being close to ground zero or downwind of the fall out. I think the majority of the radioactive material is simply blown in a certain direction by the wind.

I'm working my through these declassified films I found. There's about 50 of them starting with the tests on bikini atoll. Fascinating.

One if the tests I've seen so far was dropped from the air as well

The bikini atoll tests are very scary. It highlighted just how little America knew about Radiation. They subjected their Navy personal to its effects in an attempt to "scrub off" any radiation that became embedded in their test ships. Not to mention the damage it did to the surrounding waters, wildlife, and natives of Bikini Atoll. If you look up the national flag for Bikini Atoll it's actually a parody of the American flag to serve as a constant reminder of what America did to their island.

These seem super-censored, or not complete at all.

"The first test began at dawn on Jan. 27, 1951, as a United States B-50 bomber dropped a nuclear warhead from nearly 20,000 feet onto Frenchman Flats in the Nevada desert. The device, codenamed Able, detonated 1060 feet above the desert floor, shaking the earth and echoing through the nearby mountains. The test would be the first of more than 900 documented nuclear detonations that would take place at the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1992.

“Mushroom clouds could be seen from Vegas,” some forty-five miles away, says Karen Green, curator at the Atomic Testing Museum. “Viewing parties were held on casino rooftops and people drove out of town to watch.”"


23 September 1992 - Last U.S. nuclear test

This nuclear test’s code-name – Divider – was well-chosen (perhaps unwittingly), as it marked the last U.S. nuclear test to date. The 20 kilotons underground nuclear test, which was conducted at the test site in Nevada on 23 September 1992, was the last of 1,032 nuclear tests carried out by the country. The first U.S. test - Trinity - had been detonated 47 years earlier on 16 July 1945.

The United States conducted more nuclear tests than all other countries combined. While the early nuclear tests were carried out at remote islands in the Pacific Ocean, starting with the Able and Baker tests in July 1946 at the Bikini atoll, the brunt of the U.S. nuclear tests - 928 - were conducted at the Nevada Test Site. In an attempt to minimize nuclear fallout on large populations in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the tests usually took place when westerly winds prevailed. The effects of nuclear testing for downwinders especially in smaller towns in Nevada and Utah, however, were severe.

“It does not constitute a serious hazard to any living thing outside the test site.” 1955 United States Atomic Energy Brochure on the fallout.

Before the advent of nuclear testing in Nevada in 1951, the U.S. government had conducted extensive studies on the effects of radioactive contamination on humans, particularly after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (the results, including the extensive film and photo material taken at the time, remained classified for decades). Nonetheless, residents close to the Nevada Test Site were assured by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission that the tests were harmless see 1955 brochure Atomic Test Effects in the Nevada Test Site Region.

Shortly after Divider, and following a months-long national grassroots lobbying campaign led by disarmament groups, U.S. President George Bush (Rep.) finally signed Congressional legislation approved by both House and Senate that mandated a 9-month moratorium on U.S. nuclear weapon testing, which was subsequently extended. Senator Mark Hatfield (Rep.) had played a key role in this bipartisan initiative. One year before, Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev had unilaterally declared a halt on all Soviet nuclear tests (see Gorbachev’s contribution to the September 2011 issue of CTBTO Spectrum, “Helping to create a truly global community”). Plans for U.S. underground tests initially scheduled for 1993 were abandoned and the 1992 moratorium was subsequently extended by President Bush’s successors.

Important factors leading to the moratorium were the end of the Cold War and the growing public pressure at home. From the mid-1980s, the Nevada desert witnessed a constant increase in protests against nuclear testing. Five months prior to the Divider test, around 500 protesters were arrested on misdemeanour charges after clashing with guards at the annual Easter demonstration against nuclear testing.

In May 2006, an initiative spearheaded by downwinders in St. George against the non-nuclear, high explosive ‘Divine Strake’ test, was successful in achieving its cancellation. Today, there is an ongoing debate on the future use of the Nevada National Security Site, as the Nevada Test Site is now called.

In 1996, the United States was the first country to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) which bans all forms of nuclear explosions. However, the United State has yet to ratify the Treaty, a step that is mandatory for its entry into force. The same applies to seven other nuclear-capable States: China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Egypt, India, Israel, Iran and Pakistan.


Nevada Test Site’s top 5 atomic blasts

More than 65 years ago, a 1-kiloton bomb ushered Las Vegas and Nevada into the atomic age.

More than 65 years ago, a 1-kiloton bomb ushered Las Vegas and Nevada into the atomic age. Another 99 above-ground nuclear tests followed at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

On Jan. 27, 1951, a 1-kiloton device was dropped by a B-50 Superfortress over Frenchman Flat at the Nevada Test Site. The mushroom cloud reached an altitude of 17,000 feet. The first test at the Nevada Proving Ground was known as Able, a part of Operation Ranger.

Annie, a 300-foot tower detonation, was fired on March 17, 1953. It was part of Operation Upshot-Knothole carried out in conjunction with Operation Doorstep, the first test related to civil defense involving cars, houses and other structures. Media were allowed to view the 16-kiloton test shot, which was nationally televised. The Annie shot included troop maneuvers and placed over 1,100 servicemen and observers in trenches about two miles southwest of the detonation tower.

At 8:30 a.m. on May 25, 1953, a 280mm M65 atomic cannon fired a 15-kiloton atomic artillery projectile over 6 miles into Frenchman Flat. Shot Grable, named after World War II pinup Betty Grable, was the only time a nuclear device was fired from a cannon during the test series. The 15-kiloton shot had approximately the same yield as Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Mannequins dressed in 1950s attire were posed in family settings and placed in structures on May 5, 1955, awaiting a 29-kiloton tower detonation known as Apple-2. The Civil Defense shot, part of Operation Cue, was intended to assess the affects on various building construction types in a nuclear blast. Two of the houses still stand at Area 1 at the site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site, and are part of the NNSS tour.

A balloon was used to deploy Priscilla, a 37-kiloton shot on Frenchman Flat, as a part of Operation Plumbbob. Over 700 pigs were used as test subjects in various experiments to evaluate experimental uniforms, shielding materials and protective cream. Although many survived, the pigs were covered with third-degree burns over 80% of their bodies. Observers consisting primarily of U.S. troops from various service branches watched from trenches 2 1/2 miles from ground zero.

On Aug. 5, 1963, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, banning nuclear weapons testing in outer space, underwater and in the atmosphere.


Nuclear Nevada

Sixty years ago Las Vegas was a dusty desert crossroads. Then President Harry S Truman decided to turn 800,000 barren acres of a military bombing range into the Nevada Test Site for atomic weapons. Hundreds of technicians and support crews swarmed into the area to operate the nation’s nuclear proving ground.

“Building Atomic Vegas,” an exhibition at the Atomic Testing Museum, traces the history of Las Vegas’s development in tandem with 42 years of nuclear testing.

The first test began at dawn on Jan. 27, 1951, as a United States B-50 bomber dropped a nuclear warhead from nearly 20,000 feet onto Frenchman Flats in the Nevada desert. The device, codenamed Able, detonated 1060 feet above the desert floor, shaking the earth and echoing through the nearby mountains. The test would be the first of more than 900 documented nuclear detonations that would take place at the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1992.

“Mushroom clouds could be seen from Vegas,” some forty-five miles away, says Karen Green, curator at the Atomic Testing Museum. “Viewing parties were held on casino rooftops and people drove out of town to watch.”

To mark the 60th anniversary of the first nuclear test, the Nevada Humanities Council has helped fund “Building Atomic Vegas” at the Atomic Testing Museum through Jan. 5, 2012.

The doors to the exhibition open onto a view of a giant mushroom cloud against a dark sky. Exhibits feature a B-53 gravity bomb on loan from the U.S. Air Force, artifacts from the testing site, correspondence from Howard Hughes expressing concern that radiation was in the water supply, movie posters, and artwork.

The exhibition at the museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, features the dog tags issued to area civilians so they could be identified in case of an accident. It shows photographers filming mushroom clouds seven miles away from ground zero. It shows young women as “Miss Atomic Vegas,” dressed up as an atomic bomb.

Las Vegas, says Green, was selected as the Continental nuclear proving ground because of its predictable weather and low population—less than 40,000 people. “A committee said there would be little danger to Vegas. If people were exposed they could take showers.”

As the bombs exploded, so did the Las Vegas economy. The test site brought federal funding and jobs. From 1950 to 1960 the population of Las Vegas doubled. By the end of the decade the mushroom cloud symbol was used on billboards, casino marquees, advertisements, and even the cover of the Las Vegas High School yearbook. In the 1970s, the population doubled again, prompting casino owner Benny Binion to declare, “The best thing to happen to Vegas was the Atomic Bomb.”

Museum admission is $12 for adults, $9 for children. Open seven days a week, it is located at 755 E. Flamingo Rd. Las Vegas, NV 89119


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