Travels in the American Southwest

Nevada Test Site


Mercury, NV & the Nevada Test Site

Thursday 8/21

Its name was supposed to have been Atomic City but in the end, it became known as Mercury. It is a place where protesters are arrested with regularity and trespassing results in substantial fines or imprisonment. It is here that the muscles of the Cold War were flexed. Mercury was the Nuclear Test Site for America's arsenal.

Due to fortuitous timing, I realized that our vacation in Las Vegas would occur during the once-a-month time that tours are offered of Mercury. Excitedly, I let MSO know of the opportunity and received the response from her I'd hoped for - "Cool!". I quickly sent an e-mail to the contact who handles the tours for Betchel Nevada, the company which now manages the test site. I received a reply e-mail asking for all types of personal information - Guess you can't be too careful of who is traipsing around a place where nuclear weapons were detonated. A week before the tour was scheduled, MSO and I received notice via US mail of the tour; when, where, etc. The list of "Do Nots" included wearing short pants, cell phones, cameras, binoculars. NOTHING was to be taken from the area including plants, rocks or any man-made objects. We were instructed to meet northwest of the city at the ungodly hour of 7:00 AM. Upon arrival at the debarkation point, we were met by large uniformed men with very big pistols on their hips. Our photo IDs were checked against a list and we were instructed to wait in the guest area for our motorcoach transportation to Mercury. And so began our tour of America's Nuclear Test Site

The tour covers 145 miles of the test site, which is slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island. Our first stop was Visitor Control where our identification was again checked against a list of authorized attendees and "Escort Only" visitor badges were distributed. A quick stop at the sentry post where our badges were checked along with the under-bus storage areas and on-board bathroom to assure the sentry that no unauthorized persons were aboard. Military Hummers were conspicuous, their black 50 calibre machine guns perched on the gun turret.

Our guide, Ernie Williams, was a spry 70 something. He has been associated with nuclear weapons for the past 52 years, first as an Army enlistee and then as a Dept. of Defense employee and now a volunteer guide. He has personally witnessed some 73 nuclear detonations, both above and below ground. His personal insight and experiences made the tour both educational and enjoyable. "Other than some deafness," he explained, "I haven't been sick a day in my life!" That this state of health is due to his many exposures to detonations, he sincerely believes. "It was a dangerous time (1950's), with the world situation. We didn't know what it (detonations) would do," explained Williams. A low point in his life was September 30, 1992 when the moratorium on underground testing was signed by George Bush, but Williams proudly stated that the test site could be up and running within six months should the moratorium be lifted. Williams truly loved his various jobs working with nuclear explosions and it showed as the tour went on. While explaining the significance of different detonations, he'd toss in some first hand experience. One was his first detonation. He and another soldier were some 2000 feet from Ground Zero, radiological instruments by their side. In hindsight, what he really wished he had was a thermometer! He could only guess at the temperature of the blast as it overtook his position - Today, he guesses it must have been 140-150 degrees as the blast swept past. Hot enough for him to turn his back on the fireball while covering his head and face with his arms.

As the tour continued, we learned about nuclear detonations. Because the government had no information on what number of kilotons would result in what type of destruction, tests were done. A 20000 foot long town was built with brick homes, wood homes, electrical substations and power lines, radio antennas, bridges, a bank safe, railroad tracks, everything found in a 1950's small town. Once the building had been completed, a nuclear device was detonated and the resultant damage extensively studied.

Anything above ground (or not behind massive earth bunkers) and less than 2500 feet from ground zero was destroyed. We saw the Apple II test house. The film clip of the house getting hit with a blast is frequently seen on television specials. Despite the 29 kiloton blast, the house actually survived; The mannequins inside moved only "slightly". Mannequins by windows indicate that those people would not have survived the initial blast however those in more protected areas of the house suffered no burn effects. The exterior paint was burnt off in the heat blast but the 2 story, 6 room house with fireplace still stands. The tour passed a surviving portion of the railroad bridge. Surprisingly, the 12 inch steel beams supporting the outside of the bridge were as straight as the day the were made, while the three foot inner beams had a six foot bend in their middle resembling the letter C! The smaller beams survived while the larger beams presented more profile to the blast resulting in the bending. The Mosler bank safe did a good job holding up against the blast. For the items stored inside, records indicate the gold was shiny, the silver tarnished, paper money "crackled" and paper records survived albeit in very fragile condition.

The tour passed only a few of the 1035 subsidences but we were allowed of get off the bus at the Sedan Crater. This blast resulted in a crater deeper than a football field is long and measures 1280 feet from rim to rim. In 1 1/2 seconds, 6.6 million cubic yards (12 million tons) of earth moved as a result of the detonation of a 104-kiloton device 660 feet below the surface. The Sedan test was part of series of blasts dubbed Operation Plowshare stressing the peaceful use of nuclear power in creating very big holes (think a new Panama Canal). The Operation Plowshare tests ended with the 1992 moratorium.

The tour included views of News Nob where reporters like Walter Cronkite would view atmospheric detonations from the safety of a hill seven miles from ground zero. The wooden benches those reporters would sit on while awaiting H hour are still there. We rode by Yucca and Jackass flats, the many subsidences bearing witness to the many detonations. We saw hundreds of spools containing 5000 feet of cable which was used to monitor the underground tests. Such cable couldn't be spliced so dozens of spools were for a detonation. The cable has sat in the desert sun since 1992. Williams questioned the cables suitability for use after a decade of environmental degradation.

During the slower parts of the tour when there was little to see, Williams kept interest high with his stories and answers to our questions. In the days of testing, the timing of detonations was fully publicized. We were told that there were two lights set up in Downtown Las Vegas. The blue indicated no test that day but the red indicated a detonation that day. One story concerned a woman who complained that one particular detonation had cracked her foundation walls. She had 'before and after' pictures of the damage and wanted the government to pay for the damage. Her demand for reimbursement was quickly withdrawn when it became apparent that the scheduled detonation she had claimed caused damage to her property had been scratched due to computer problems!

When we returned to the Visitor Center, a display of the upcoming museum dedicated to the Nevada Test Site was on display. Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation museum is planning an October 4, 2003 opening at its home on 755 East Flamingo Road.

Our 75 minute ride back to Las Vegas was filled with videos of detonations and what I'd have called the resultant craters but Guide Williams informed us that the proper term is subsidence.

From Underground Nuclear Weapons Testing - "When an underground nuclear device is detonated, the energy release almost instantaneously produces extremely high temperatures and pressure that vaporizes the nuclear device and the surrounding rock. Within a fraction of a second after detonation, a generally spherical cavity is formed at the emplacement position. As the hot gases cool, a lining of molten rock puddles at the cavity bottom.

After a period of minutes to hours, as the gases in the cavity cool, the pressure subsides and the weight of the overburden causes the cavity roof to collapse, producing a vertical, rubble-filled column known as a rubble chimney.

The rubble chimney commonly extends to the ground surface, forming a subsidence crater."

Prior to taking the tour, participants are provided a long list of "Do Nots" (and MSO made certain that I violated none of them!). I saw no one turned away for wearing shorts or having cell phones. I didn't bring a camera but these are courtesy of the US Department of Energy.

Returned to Las Vegas in late afternoon, tired but excited that tomorrow would begin our outside Las Vegas adventures.

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