The Atomic Age in Las Vegas, Nevada!
by David Lusvardi
Atomic Las Vegas
Decades ago, Las Vegas flirted heavily with the Atomic Age. It was a strange mix of pop-culture and deep scientific research. Las Vegas became a natural hub for researchers visiting the outposts in Nevada. Tourists “enjoyed” watching the nuclear tests that were set off out in the desert. Many were visible from inside the city limits. There were viewing parties, which even included atomic themed costumes, cocktails and souvenirs. It was a spectacle in the 1950’s and 60’s. And it became part of Las Vegas’ mid-century history.
Las Vegas is no stranger to peculiar and quirky trends and phases. This Atomic Age is just one more era that adds to the uniqueness of the city, built on all things fantastic, whimsical, and surreal. Since Las Vegas was geographically close to a large, empty desert, it became a blend of frivolous entertainment and intense science. The juxtaposition intertwined the two into an unusual braid of history.
What’s Really in the Middle of Nevada?
Who knew that you could find a broken-up Delta Airlines fuselage in the middle of 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 Test Site. This is 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 general interest tours on a monthly basis. You need to sign up months in advance. The limited tour spaces fill up quickly, so you need to book well ahead of time. Also, prospective visitors need to provide their personal information in advance for clearance to attend.
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 steal and pulled out the rivets from the sections. Nearby, you can see how the aluminum and steel test domes 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. Visitors will see some of what was able to withstand the tests.
The trenches are still there, from which some of the military observed the blasts. So is News Nob where reporters could watch the happenings.
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. 6.5 million cubic yards of earth were displaced. That number may not mean much to most people, but the 1280-foot diameter crater can be seen from earth orbit. Speaking of orbit, in 1970, NASA astronauts trained here to take advantage of the virtual lunar landscape.
A different section of the Nevada Test Site, called, Coyote Flats, houses a nuclear waste dump. Although we hear about these on television, most people do not see them. There are a number of large fields that look like manmade mesas which are 8-12 feet above ground level. 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, organized by size. The large metal containers, which look sort of like dumpsters, contain nuclear 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 1.8 million is anticipated. Most of the land surrounding the Nevada Test Site in held by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) with which they have agreements to manage the area.
Other places within the area 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 to a radioactive situation.
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 contact the Nevada Test Site website.
Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas
Right in Las Vegas, on Flamingo Road, is the National Atomic Testing Museum. It is a fascinating place! It includes some very interactive experiences:
- Ground Zero Theater (Experience a simulated atmospheric bomb blast)
- Radiation: learn about natural and man-made radiation is tracked and measured
- Learn how to survive and atomic blast
- Atomic Culture
There is something for everyone to experience in over 8,000 square feet of various displays presenting the development and testing of one of man’s most significant inventions: the nuclear bomb. The National Atomic Testing Museum is a national science, history and educational institution that tells the story of the nuclear weapons testing program at the Nevada Test Site.
Walk through “underground” bunkers, bomb shelters and labs as you increase your understanding of the nuclear age. Learn about the past and understand more about the present and the future as facts unfold before you.
You may formulate questions about both the history and the future of our nuclear age. You will be informed, entertained, and enlightened with the amount of information available and the variety of methods used to display and inform the visitor.
Visitors often ask if these items are real. The answer is yes. The museum highlights over 70 years of nuclear testing, and houses a vast number of artifacts, equipment and even weapons that help to tell the story.
Nevada has a fascinating history from many angles. The Atomic Age of Las Vegas and Nevada are one aspect that can deepen the understanding of the travelers to the area.