I spent my 50th birthday wandering a radioactive wasteland

Group photo from the NNSS Public Tour. I’m behind wife Julie, who was wearing a pink jacket. The upper right corner is a photo of the group at the Sedan Crater.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article chronicles my Jan 30, 2019 tour of the Nevada National Security Site. I primarily focus on the major tour stops. The details of the numerous locations inside the proving ground fill books and websites. I’ve linked to supporting material when appropriate. Because our group was not allowed to carry cameras, cell phones or any recording devices, I’m using pictures from Wikipedia, the NNSS and DOE websites, and the NNSS Flickr account.

Located some 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the Nevada National Security Site (formerly called the Nevada Test Site) is the nation’s home for nuclear testing. Between 1951 and 1992, more than 1,000 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests took place in the desert flats. Even though surrounded by mountains, the mushroom clouds from atmospheric testing could be seen from Las Vegas. The tests stopped in 1992, when President H.W. Bush issued a moratorium.

The NNSS has offered monthly pubic tours for years. Although free, reservations are required. The tours fill up years in advance. All tours including the wait list are filled for 2020. I was able to luck into an opening for the Jan. 29, 2019 tour.

My wife was not amused when I told her the unique way I wanted to celebrate my birthday. She promised to haunt me if she died of radiation poisoning. I advise her not to worry. The gigantic ants would eat us first.

Our tour was rescheduled for Jan. 30 because of a Jan. 28 security incident when a man rammed the main security gate and led police on a 6-mile chase. It didn’t end well, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

We met the tour group at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas at 7:30 a.m. to obtain our badges and catch the bus. The test site is about an hour up U.S. 95. Even if you have no desire to tour the test site, the museum is well worth a visit. The exhibits are sophisticated, well-designed and have an easy-to-understand narrative. I had previously visited twice. Alas, there was no time for a third visit. We quickly boarded the bus.

The trip to the site was comfortable. The tour bus seats were cushy and had cup holders. DVD screens hung from the ceiling. Our group viewed a few promotional/historical videos during travel. One video featured a young Joan Collins portraying a reporter covering the 1964 Operation Cue test.

There was no screening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

The tour group was about 25 people, mostly older folks. Tour guide Cheryl had worked at the test site for decades. Security was strict. Because defense research still continues, we weren’t allowed to take our phones or bring cameras. This really irritated my wife, but I didn’t mind being unreachable. I do wish the NNSS would develop a way we could bring and use cameras.  Then again, the selfie craze has gotten out of hand. I could imagine some people acting irresponsibly.

On the way to the test site we passed Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs. The base is home to the U.S. drone program. We spied a Predator drone flying around the base. The craft was the size of a small plane. Skynet was doing its thing.


Mercury, Nevada. Photo from Wikipedia and provided by the NNSS.

After a quick badge check at the main gate, we proceeded to the small town of Mercury. During the 1950-1990s, the town offered services and hosuing to the site’s 2,000 workers since Vegas was so far away. Amenities included residences, a cafeteria, a church, several stores, a bowling alley, movie theater, and steakhouse. Currently, the town is sparsely populated with no full-time residences. Older builders are being demolished to make it look less like a military base and more like a corporate park.

We stopped at the cafeteria for a quick breakfast and potty break. The cafeteria was typical 1950s government issue, tile and Formica, nothing fancy. Prices were decent, though. I thought about grabbing a sandwich and asking the cafeteria workers “where can I nuke this?” I’m sure the staff have heard that before. According to my research, for years a vending machine in the hallway was labeled “Nukeables.” I did not find it.

Into the site

Mercury Highway led north out of town in the heart of the test area. The well-paved asphalt road traverses a series basins and dry (and not so dry at times) lake beds called flats.

Aerial view of Frenchman Flat. Photo from Wikipedia, with original source NNSS.

Frenchman Flat, was the location of the first atmospheric nuclear test (Able, 1951) at the site. Most atmospheric testing occurred here. The Flat is a 123-square-mile area containing a dry lake bed. Being January, some lake areas held shallow water. The public is most familiar with this area of the site because of the ubiquitous nuclear testing films. Those black-and-white films show houses being torched by flames, trees swaying to blasts and pressure waves pummeling mannequins and vehicles. The Flat was home to the infamous “Doom Town.” It was a vast area dotted with test wreckage and some isolated buildings still in use for various activities. There were also plenty of historic spots. We would return Frenchman Flat later in the afternoon.

We proceeded north on Mercury Highway through Yucca Flat, a vast moonscaped pockmarked with subsidence craters from underground tests. At the entrance to the Flat are the two Control Point buildings. During tests, these concrete and metal buildings were the headquarters for operations. Scientists, test staff and military personnel coordinated efforts for the “shots.” Antennas on the top received data from sensors closer to the explosion. Across the highway from Control Point was “News Nob.” The crest of the hill contained wooden benches for journalists and dignitaries to witness tests.

Control Point at the test site. Photo from Wikipedia and provided by the NNSS.\

To be updated…

By Scott Davis

Former newspaper journalist, now government webmaster. Life-long geek.