Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Touring the Nevada Test Site

DOE helicopters fly radiation-monitoring personnel and photographers over Yucca Flat during tests. Yucca Flat is dotted with more than 200 subsidence craters from underground explosions.
By David Lusvardi

Who knew that you could find a broken-up Delta Airlines fuselage in the middle of the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site)? Or a house that has withstood an atomic blast? What about a bridge section that looks like a bent-up piece of Chicago’s “L” Train? 

Just an hour north of Las Vegas lies the Nevada National Security Site, a restricted area of government land that is rich in history, and even richer in legend. What really went on there, and what are they doing there now? Amazingly enough, you can find out for yourself. The U.S. Department of Energy offers free monthly tours of the famous site. You need to sign up months in advance, however (the next available tour is April 24, 2012). Also, prospective visitors need to provide personal information in advance for clearance to tour the site.

Within the restricted area, visitors will be entertained by signs such as:
• Caution: Underground Radioactive Material
• Controlled Area (on smaller roads that fork off from the main road)
• Caution: Radioactive Material
• Radioactive Area, Digging Prohibited

In one area, where they used to test nuclear bombs, they built elevated railroad sections, similar to Chicago’s “L” train. You can see how the historic blast bent the steel and pulled out the rivets from the sections. Nearby is evidence of the aluminum and steel test domes that were warped and wrinkled like paper or foil. Other structures of brick, wood, and earth demonstrate their various abilities or inabilities to withstand a nuclear explosion.

In a different section, houses were built, stocked with mannequins, furniture, and food to test the effects of atomic tests. Cars, airplanes, railroads, and different types of buildings were constructed to see how they would hold up.

The trenches are still there, from which some of the military observed the blasts. So is News Nob, where reporters could watch the happenings.

The largest cratering shot in the Plowshare Program, Sedan Crater, was fired at the Nevada Test Site on July 6, 1962.

An interesting site is the massive Sedan Crater, blown out on July 6, 1962. This was to demonstrate the potential of Nuclear Excavation, which could save time on major building projects. The explosion displaced 6.5 million cubic yards of earth. That number may not mean much to most people, but the 1,280-foot diameter crater can be seen from earth orbit.  Speaking of orbit, in 1970, NASA astronauts trained at the site to take advantage of the virtual lunar landscape.

A different section of the NNSS, Frenchman Flats, houses a low-level radioactive waste facility. Although we hear about these on television, most people do not see them. There are a number of large fields that look like man-made mesas which are 8 to 12 feet above ground. Each is a finished “cell.” A cell is a big, flat-bottomed pit that is dug into the ground into which large metal containers are stacked neatly and organized by size. 

The large metal containers, which look similar to dumpsters, contain waste that is shipped in from all over the country. Most of the waste inside is concrete, debris, or soil. A typical cell is 25 feet deep. When the cell is full, it is covered over with dirt to bury the waste. The cell may be finished, but it is constantly monitored for alpha, beta, and gamma rays, as well as temperature and moisture, to make sure it does not pollute the ground water or atmosphere. Last year, there were 3 million cubic feet of nuclear waste received; this year a total of 1.8 million is anticipated.

The majority of the NNSS is surrounded by the Nevada Test and Training Range (U.S. Air Force). Three sides of the site are adjacent to Air Force-held land. The bottom section of the site is adjacent to Bureau of Land Management lands.

Other places within the site include the cement plant, where they manufacture all of their own cement, and an epoxy plant, where they make the material to plug the holes after testing. There is also a Homeland Security Research and Development facility to develop new equipment and another area to train fire, police, and other first responders in the event of a radioactive emergency.

Much of the rest of the vast site is mountains and valleys with sporadic mounds of dirt, pipes and tubes sticking out of the ground, locked shacks, warning signs, and Joshua trees.

To make plans for your own tour of the Nevada Test Site, click here.

To see more photos from the test site, click here.

Read about the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas here.

Photos courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Site Office


  1. This reminds me of a History Channel program about the cause of an Arizona crater. Was it from a meteor, or was it volcanic in origin? They showed how that crater`s characteristics were exactly the same as the test site craters. Somehow,the program concluded that this was proof that the crater`s origin was from a meteor. The possibility that it could have been from an ancient nuclear bomb was never mentioned.

  2. Wow, they didn't suggest it was an ancient nuclear bomb in Arizona that caused that crater? I wonder how that eluded the creators of that documentary! Oh yeah ! Because no evidence would EVER suggest that other than sheer conjecture, that of a failed 8th grade physicist.

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