You probably have seen film footage of this site: a brilliant white flash, a pause, and then a building explodes into a million bits. If not, see below.
These tests, conducted in the Nevada desert, were considered far afield from civilization at the time. It is still not terribly close to much, but you can take a comfortable hour and 20 minute bus ride and travel back to the atomic era, when nuclear tests occurred frequently here in the vast arid expanse.
The Nevada Atomic Test Site, known officially as the Nevada National Security Site is huge. This free tour covers about 250 miles. (Don’t worry, the bus has air conditioning and is comfortable.) Your extremely well-versed guides—and by that I mean they previously worked at the site—ride with you the whole way and ready to answer your questions. (One guide shushed me for talking to another too long and too loudly. Oops.)
The Town of Mercury
First stop, the town of Mercury. This was one of the most fascinating parts of the tour for me. The government quickly constructed quickly a town for the many workers here. A temporary camp situation evolved into more elaborate structures: a hotel-like dormitory, a movie theater, bowling alley, olympic-size pool. Sadly, most of the town is gone—fewer staff are needed now. But the midcentury cafeteria—complete with breeze block—still stands today. Entering the cafeteria, you see the Mercury Steak House, a fancier dining option. Once I spotted it, I truly longed to go inside. Alas, it wouldn’t open until dinnertime. The plastic letter board menu for the evening was on the door, including wine selections for the night.
The Sedan Crater
A most impressive stop on the tour is at the Sedan Crater, a site on the National Register of Historic Places. During the 1960s and 1970s, the power of underground atomic blasts (as opposed to the atmospheric tests done in other parts of the site) was being studied for use as an earth-moving device; for mining, to cut through mountains for railroads, to create canals. Obviously, this never happened due to that nasty little bugaboo: RADIATION. I saw many radiation warning signs right around this crater, quite close to the pathway the group used to get to the viewing deck. It was a bit disconcerting.
Above Ground Tests
Above ground tests have plenty of representation at the Nevada Atomic Test Site. Little communities were built, just to be blown up by the tests. However, one of the wooden houses remains from the civil defense tests shown in the video. Twisted metal from testing on bridges, caved in bunkers and other structures litter the sand.
The bus passes trenches where troops, sadly, trained during the tests and presumably suffered from radiation affects. You also pass benches where spectators watched the explosions, press and dignitaries alike. The seating seemed dangerously close to where the blasts went off to me.
Site Use Today
Chemical accident and terrorist attack training occurs on the site now. In addition, low-level radiation can be stored there. (I mistakenly thought this type of waste was buried waaaayy down in the ground. It’s not. Security staff performed radiation tests on the bus tires before we left this area.)
Las Vegas was a favorite viewing area of the blasts, with folks gathering on rooftops to see the “fireworks.” Celebrating the atomic age was common at the time. It’s not shocking to say these weapons should never be used again and that the lifelong ramifications of these devices weren’t always considered. But it’s important to examine the history to understand motivations during these years.
The Low Down
That’s nice. Sooo, should I go? Seeking an off-the-beaten-path experience and fascinated by the history of this midcentury era? Then the Nevada Atomic Test Site is for you. Be advised, it is an all day affair and once you’re on the bus, you are stuck on the bus. Additionally, if you don’t like spending time on a bus, this is definitely not for you.
I’m smitten. Tell me more. You need to fill out a clearance form found here to get on the list and the list fills up quickly. The tour starts at the Atomic Testing Museum. No cameras or phones allowed. Carrying one on terminates the tour. Everyone goes back.
Location The bus pick ups/drops off at the National Atomic Testing Museum, 755 E. Flamingo Rd. Las Vegas, NV 89119. Parking is free.
Tip No shorts, skirts, tank tops or sandals allowed. It can get windy and it’s sure as hell dusty.
Cost Free. There is inexpensive food at the 2 cafeterias for purchase, but bring your own lunch if you prefer.