Feb. 2, 2001

A blast from the past at NTS

The mushroom clouds and the underground tremors are long gone, and the site that once hosted these "events" now shows hints of ghost town stature.

While the Nevada Test Site still plays an important role in national security and stockpile stewardship, it is the rumblings of the past for which the facility will be forever known. As the home to almost 1,000 nuclear blasts, both above ground and below, the Nevada Test Site, located 65 miles north of Las Vegas, holds the distinction of being one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.

Since December the site has been embracing its past as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of its dedication, along with the 50th anniversary of the first test, an atmospheric detonation called Able. That test took place on Jan. 27, 1951.

Fifty years later, on the same date, employees of the test site, the weapons laboratories, and DOE, along with their family members, were allowed to come out and see the work that once went on at the facility, along with some of the work that takes place today.

More than 2,400 people showed up to take in the sights and get up close and personal with life-size models of various weapons and warheads, among them Fat Man and Little Boy, the W-47 and W-38. There were also various models of "racks," as the nuclear packages were called, along with displays of various parts, cables, switches and other hardware too numerous to mention, much less recognize.

The highlight of the day was a three-hour scenic bus tour that traveled past Frenchman’s Flat (where 14 atmospheric tests took place), News Nob (the viewpoint from which the media, dignitaries and other observers were allowed to witness an occasional test), Yucca Flat (which resembles a lunar landscape, thanks to hundreds of craters caused by underground detonations), the Control Point 1 (the command center from which all tests were conducted), and the Sedan Crater.

The crater is an impressive inverted volcano of a hole that stretches more than four football fields across and drops 320 feet deep. The site now stands as a national historic landmark and seems to beckon any visitor to try and throw something to the bottom. That’s what most visitors did Saturday as they encircled the rim of the crater, sending waves of dirt clods or snowballs downward before posing for pictures.

While cold weather and a constant dusting of snow prohibited tours of some of the areas, particularly Frenchman’s Flat, the open house was seen as a prime opportunity for co-workers, retired and current, to reunite and reminisce.

"It’s been great seeing all the people come out and really take a close look at all the posters and the exhibits, and trade their old stories," said Don Felske, the associate program leader for the Lab’s Nevada Experiments & Operations office.

Groups of tourists also huddled in tents to watch declassified films or buy souvenirs — T-shirts and videotapes of previous explosions were the big hits — while others steadily loaded onto buses for the guided tour of the facilities. Bad weather closed the walking tours of Frenchman’s Flat, but some bus riders were driven past some of the remnants of "Survivor Town," an eerie collection of bombed out buildings and other structures that were used during the atmospheric tests that dominated the 1950s.

The highlight of the bus tour was a stop at the Sedan Crater, the result of a 104-kiloton detonation in 1962. The blast was part of the Plowshare Program to study civilian uses of nuclear explosions. At the time of the explosion the 12-million tons of earth blown away from the crater bubbled 200 feet before venting. Declassified footage of the event is now shown on the Nevada Test Site’s Web page ( http://www.nv.do.gov ).

Tourists were also able to see the remains of Ice Cap, a joint test between the United States and Russia that was to take place in 1992. Ice Cap was in its final days of preparation when the United States signed the moratorium on nuclear testing, putting the detonation forever on ice. Though Ice Cap’s "rack" has been removed, the tower and many of the diagnostics remain behind.

Throughout the tour there were the stories of the past, particularly protesters who would try to sneak into the facility at night in hopes of camping out at tests sites and delaying various shots, or chaining themselves to industrial drums filled with concrete that blocked the various gates. (A handful of protesters returned Saturday for the 50th anniversary event, yet they were outflanked by a score of security guards.)

During the height of testing, the Nevada Site was home to 12,000 employees, and boasted a steakhouse, bowling alley, jogging track, theater, baseball field, tennis courts, pool, and dormitories to house more than 1,200 people. While the restaurant, tennis courts and dormitories remain available, many of the facilities are closed up. Still the facility operates as its own little town, complete with sheriff’s substation, fire department, hospital and a post office.

Today 1,800 employees are assigned to the facility. The test site is used for subcritical experiments important to the Stockpile Stewardship Program. The site also features a Low Level Radioactive Waste Management Site, a Hazardous Material Spill Center to test spill dispersion and cleanup procedures, a Device Assembly Facility and BEEF, or the Big Explosives Experimental Facility.
For more information on the Nevada Test Site, see the Web at http://www.nv.do.gov .

Newsline will run additional articles about NTS in upcoming issues.