Las Vegas Sun

November 30, 2015

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Blast from the Past: Nevada Test Site proves a powerful tourist hot spot

The tourists peered out the tinted windows of the bus as it turned onto a dirt road.

"Ground zero for the explosion is right down the road, one mile," Nevada Test Site tour guide Bob Keller said over the bus PA system. "Can you see that pile of dirt? That's ground zero."

For some, the moment was as monumental as the history of the site they were approaching. Just a mile to their right was the spot where a nuclear bomb was detonated in 1955.

Just up the road was the shell of a wooden two-story house that survived the 29-kiloton blast, part of a Civil Defense effects test named Apple II.

Sitting empty on a patch of desert, the house had been built along with other typically styled American homes on the Nevada Test Site to see how, or if, it would survive the impact of a nuclear blast.

The homes were filled with furniture, mannequins and food. Some were obliterated instantly.

Today buses filled with sandwich-munching tourists circle the home (one of few standing) for a closer view. It is one of several highlights featured on an eight-hour public bus tour that treks through the Nevada Test Site each month.

"The moral of this story would be, don't build your house closer to the 6,000 feet mark (of ground zero)," Keller joked, breaking the silence among passengers leaning forward to get a look at the structure on Area 1 of the pockmarked Test Site.

Keller, a 1993 retiree from the Nevada Test Site, worked there since 1963. He is one of several former Test Site employees who lead tours.

The journey through the graveyard of the U.S.'s nuclear testing laboratory 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas is not a typical tourist attraction in Southern Nevada, where Las Vegas casinos draw more than 30 million visitors annually.

But between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors participate in public and private Test Site tours each year. Last year, during the 50th anniversary of the Test Site, nearly 10,000 people took the tours, Energy Department spokeswoman Kirsten Kellogg said.

The tours feature a narrated drive through the town of Mercury, which was built to house the workers during the heydey of nuclear testing. The town serves as a gateway and base camp to the Nevada Test Site (and is also a central gathering point for protesters).

Highlights include the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Site, Bilby Crater, News Nob (a rocky knoll that served as a site for the media to watch and photograph nuclear tests) and Sedan Crater, where tourists can stand at the lip of the massive hole created by a 104-kiloton thermonuclear device in 1962.

The explosion was part of an experimental Plowshare program that examined alternative uses of nuclear explosives, such as digging holes. It moved 12 million tons of dirt in a matter of seconds.

Tours are free. Cameras and tape recorders are prohibited, and sack lunches are encouraged.

"We don't take you to any areas that are contaminated and yes, there are some contaminated areas on the site," Keller said.

"Some people schedule their vacations around this," he said while taking a break from his microphone as the bus moved through the desert. "Most people just want to see what's there. They're interested in knowing what happened there."

Massive force

From 1951 to 1992 (when a moratorium on nuclear testing was placed) there were 928 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site. Explosives were hung from balloons, dropped from the air, detonated atop towers and buried underground. One was shot from a 280-millimeter cannon.

More than weaponry was tested. Houses, survival shelters, railroad bridges, forests were situated on (or beneath) the desert floor to study the impact.

Mannequins dressed to the nines, military vehicles, food and automobiles were strategically placed near blasts to survey the consequences. The fireballs and mushroom clouds could be seen from Las Vegas.

The path through Frenchman Flat, one of three dry lake beds that hosted nuclear testing at the Test Site, is a surreal and sobering reminder of the destructive force of nuclear weapons.

Scenery includes wreckage of concrete structures, above-ground and underground shelters that often did not survive the blasts. The damage was based on the structures' distance from ground zero and the materials used to construct the shelters.

"Society was really concerned about surviving a nuclear war," Keller said. "You can do all the calculations you want. The only way to find out was to test them."

On one side are pens that housed pigs dressed in clothes that were exposed to blasts to see how they affected fabric and skin. On the other side sits a reinforced concrete bank vault with a steel door that was placed 1,600 feet from ground zero. Its concrete and steel exterior is partially blown away.

"You can see what it does to the rebar (steel rods)," Keller told visitors. "It rolls the rebar right back. That is a lot of force, people."

Bechtel Nevada, the company that manages Nevada Test Site operations, funds the tours, which begin at the Energy Department's Nevada Operations Office Public Reading Facility on Losee Road. Upon arrival tourists (who have been screened ahead of time) are briefed on the day's events and allowed to flip through glossy souvenir books that are distributed after the tour.

From there buses depart for the Yucca Mountain Science Center, where they peruse interactive exhibits about radioactive waste and the geology of Yucca Mountain, the site selected for storing the nation's nuclear waste.

Additionally, the tours offer a stop at Mercury Cafeteria, video highlights of the Test Site and a stop at the Nevada Test Site's History Center, a museum and gift shop that sells nuclear-testing postcards, baseball caps, coffee mugs and jewelry.

"When I found out they conducted these tours I was very intrigued," said Vernon Pierce of North Carolina, who scheduled the tour while visiting his family in San Diego and Boulder City.

"I was wondering if I would be the only one who showed up," Pierce said. "I didn't know what kind of attitude the tour would take. I didn't know if it was going to be more somber.

"I've really enjoyed this."

Atomic tourists

Kellog said that tours of the test site began in the late 1960s and early '70s as a way to expose the mystery of the test site. The number of people taking the monthly public tours has increased during the past five years, she said.

Patty Pennise, a Las Vegas resident, was drawn to the Test Site tour because, she said, "This is a piece of history."

Some said that they learned of the tour after seeing it featured on the Travel Channel and were simply curious to see what is out there. Others came to feed their longtime interest of nuclear destruction and learned of the daylong tour an hour outside Las Vegas on or "Trinity and Beyond (The Atomic Bomb Movie)."

"I've always been interested in atomic weapons from about sixth grade on," said Dawn Read, 30, from near Tucson. "I'm starting here, and I'm just going to hop around. Next year I want to do Yucca now that I know there's a tour for it. Then Trinity. And there's plenty of underground sites in New Mexico."

To Emily Scott, an art history student at UCLA, the tour was part of research for her masters thesis on the desert as an atomic landscape. Hers was a more intellectual and sobering look at media representation of nuclear testing during the 1940s and '50s.

Greg Mont, 43, from Springfield, Pa., was on a 19-day journey through the country and his trip around the Nevada Test Site tour.

"I always thought this area was going to be forbidden from the public," Mont said. "You have this image seared into your head from test footage -- the Apple Houses, Sedan Crater, the bank vault -- so to see it is amazing."

Mont carries with him dust from ground zero in New York City, where he has visited eight times. In addition to the Nevada Test Site, his vacation includes a look at destruction caused by the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

Traditional vacation stops are not for him.

"Monument Valley and Grand Canyon, they're going to be there for centuries," Mont said. "This is something that synthesizes what we created and it altered nature. I don't think this generation had the fears of the atomic bombs and of running away from the atomic bombs. This stuff shapes pretty much how a generation thinks.

"A boy in high school discovers the Manhattan Project. It either interests you for a second or stays with you for a lifetime."