Atomic-Bomb-001[First published on, June 28, 2006]

Mercury, Nevada, sits 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, next to nowhere in the broad Nye County desert. For decades, it was a booming “company town,” with some 10,000 people, a first-run movie theater, a lending library, a dry cleaner, a health center, and an interfaith chapel. Its eight-lane bowling alley was busy on most weeknights and packed them in on weekends. The cafeteria seated 800; the Mercury Steakhouse offered more elegant dining for special occasions. And the Olympic-size community swimming pool drew big crowds when temps frequently topped a hundred degrees.

But today, a lot of that’s been bulldozed in Mercury. The place turned ghost town after October 1992, when the U.S. government ended 41 years of nuclear testing at the adjacent Nevada Test Site (NTS).

Oh, there’s still some activity at the test site. Just not enough to sustain a bustling settlement like Mercury once was. The Department of Energy (DOE) now markets NTS resources to private sector customers for hazardous chemical testing, environmental remediation development, and continued defense-related support.

And one day a month, the site opens its gate to nosey visitors like me who wonder what an expanse the size of Rhode Island looks like after a hammering by 928 nukes.

“What in blazes do you expect to see out there — giant ants?” a drinking buddy asked me.

“Not sure,” I confessed. But a childhood of “duck and cover” civil defense films and an eccentric interest in historic awfulness had me primed for a daytrip to America’s former atomic proving ground.

So one morning last week, I was “badged” in Las Vegas by the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office. Then I joined two friends and several dozen other tourists on a long, hot bus ride up dusty Highway 95 to what’s left of Mercury, the gateway to The Most Bombed Place on Earth.

“Remember, no cameras, binoculars, tape recorders, or cell phones,” said our guide, retired DOE employee “Bob,” when we finally reached security Gate 100.

The sign above the entrance to Mercury and NTS innocently reads “An Environmental Research Park.” After a quick stop to pick up water at the still-operating Mercury Cafeteria — “CAUTION: Microwave in Use!” a bright sticker warns ironically on its glass door — we continued north, crested a ridge, and descended into the “outdoor laboratory” called Frenchman Flat.

knothole-001The first Nevada tests began at Frenchman Flat on January 27, 1951, when one-kiloton Able was dropped from a bomber. Within ten days, four comparable detonations in the Operation Ranger series shook the flat. Two years later, in a one-of-a-kind test called Grable, a 280mm mobile atomic cannon fired a 15-kiloton bomb seven miles into the area; “test troops” sat in trenches about two and a half miles from the blast. Nineteen tests — 14 atmospheric and five underground — were held at Frenchman Flat.

In Frenchman Dry Lake, our bus wound through trash and wreckage, “nuclear relics” from 1957’s Priscilla. That project tested the effects of crushing pressure and heat created by a 37-kiloton device suspended from a balloon and discharged 700 feet above the ground. Fifty years later, gray dust still blows among the ruins of concrete and aluminum domes. Skeletons of long, low, partitioned “motels,” built from a range of materials, bake in the sun. A Mosler bank vault lies not far from Priscilla’s ground zero, its outer layer of reinforced concrete peeled away by the nuclear flash. A piece of train trestle stands nearby, its I-beams twisted like silly putty.

Bob told us that in Priscilla, animal pens were set up at measured distances from the explosion. Most of them held live pigs to find out the effect of radiation on their skin. “Pig skin is very similar to human skin,” Bob explained. “Some of the animals were dressed in flight jackets to see if clothing would protect soldiers from burns.”

A dark-haired woman across the aisle caught my eye. “Pretty horrible, huh?” she muttered.

We drove further north to reach Yucca Flat, the site’s largest, most active region. Before the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1962 prohibited atmospheric testing, 86 aboveground tests were performed here. They were driven literally underground after that, and more than 400 subsidence craters dot the flat like a Swiss cheese.

Our driver steered us 80 feet down into the 1,800-foot-wide Bilby crater, named for a 249-kiloton underground test in September 1963. The nuke was buried 2,400 feet, within the water table so scientists could analyze the resulting water contamination. Bilby’s jolt rattled Las Vegas 30 seconds after its detonation.

But the “showcase crater” is Sedan, accepted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. A few miles north of Bilby, it was produced during the Plowshare Program in the early 1960s, when the government considered using atomic bombs for the peaceful purpose of excavation. Bob explained that a 104-kiloton device was detonated 635 feet underground, generating a seismic shake equal to a 4.75 magnitude earthquake. It displaced some 12 million tons of earth and left a hole a quarter-mile in diameter. An overlook platform sits at the crater’s edge, and for the only time, we were allowed to step off the bus for a peek 320 feet down to the bottom. (Fun fact: Sedan was visited in 1970 by the Apollo 14 astronauts because of its likeness to the lunar surface.)

Back onboard, Bob pointed west toward a fenced off section. “About a mile over there,” he said, “is the site of Smoky, a 1957 atmospheric test. Shortly after that test, 700 American troops took part in maneuvers around ground zero.” Bob didn’t mention that a study later showed those soldiers were severely irradiated during the exercise. Radiation levels at the Smoky site are still considered dangerous.

As we turned south and began heading back to Mercury, we passed the blackened, battered shells of two houses from 1955’s Apple II civil defense test. A whole town had been assembled in the area, including school, firehouse, utility grid, and radio station — a total of 19 structures. All were fully furnished. Food was laid out on kitchen tables. Manikins were clothed and placed inside and alongside the buildings. Then a 29-kiloton nuke, mounted on a 500-foot tower, was set off a mile or so away. Film footage from tests like Apple II was used in the old Federal Civil Defense Administration movie Operation Doorstep and the 1982 documentary Atomic Café.

A few miles down the road, we paused at the last official point of interest: the open-air wooden viewing bleachers that mark News Nob. Journalists and even NATO dignitaries watched mushroom clouds billow over Yucca Flat from this “safe distance” in the 1950s. A Department of Energy PR handout reprints reporter John Kerigan’s eyewitness account of Charlie, a 31-kiloton atmospheric test conducted on April 22, 1952:

“You are waiting at News Nob, the rocky hill some ten miles from the spot on the dry salt bed of Yucca Flat where the bomb will be dropped soon. A pair of specially designed sun goggles is in your hand. You are waiting for the signal to put them on; to see the first atomic explosion ever made public in the continental United States.

“As you wait, you wonder. What can you say that will be different from the stories of the other newspaper reporters, the television broadcasters, and radio commentators? …

“Now you grow tense. You have been given the ‘get ready’ signal. Miles away, you see approaching the airplane that will drop the bomb that will release more energy than the ones exploded during the war.

“You put on the dark goggles, turn your head, and wait for the signal.

“Now — the bomb has been dropped. You wait the prescribed time, then turn your head and look. A fantastically bright cloud is climbing upward like a huge umbrella.

“The rest is anti-climax. You brace yourself against the shock wave that follows an atomic explosion. A heat wave comes first, then the shock, strong enough to knock an unprepared man down. Then, after what seems like hours, the man-made sunburst fades away.”

From News Nob, we returned to Mercury and back through Gate 100, where radiation detection equipment scanned the undercarriage of our bus. Then we proceeded to Las Vegas.

God willing, the only atomic mushroom clouds I’ll ever see in my lifetime will be in History Channel specials and sci-fi movies. I didn’t spot any giant ants last week at the Nevada Test Site. But I did look out across the dry lakebed of Frenchman Flat and the pockmarked desert floor of Yucca Flat. I saw for myself the vast fields of nuclear debris. The ruins. The craters. I glimpsed shadows from a ghastly Cold War era when many Americans were panicky enough to plant bomb shelters in their backyards.

And like newsman John Kerigan, I wonder, what can you say?

Maybe just “Pretty horrible, huh?”