During the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union funneled an endless supply of money to be the kings of nuclear weaponry. What followed was a series of non-stop testing, and no state was the site of more nuclear testing than Nevada.
Suddenly, mushroom clouds of smoke, vibrations from bombs, and the flashing of light in the distance became normal for the state’s residents.
It was a fascinating time in America’s history, and today, we’re going to highlight eleven interesting things you need to know about nuclear testing in Nevada.
So, put on your hazmat suits, and let’s go!
1. When Were Nuclear Tests Done in Nevada?
Nuclear testing in Nevada began in 1951.
Just 65 miles north of good ol’ Las Vegas, the government built the Nevada Test Site (originally called Nevada Proving Grounds).
The test site is larger than the state of Rhode Island, coming in at 1,355 square miles–massive, to say the least.
On January 27th, 1951, the first bomb was detonated at the Nevada Test Site.
The 1-kiloton bomb was called Able, and it was a part of Operation Ranger.
It’s been said that the flash was so big that it could be seen all the way from San Francisco.
That first bomb was the beginning of 41 years of nuclear testing, both underground and atmospheric.
From 1951 to 1992, the Nevada Test Site become one of the most prominent research and training centers for nuclear warfare.
As a result, Nevada, specifically Las Vegas, became notorious for atomic bomb testing, and people would come from all over the country to witness it.
2. Nuclear Tourism in Nevada
When the first atomic bombs were being tested in the United States, it was a big deal.
By the end of World War II, the United States had established itself as a superpower–a reputation that had been building since the late 19th century.
So, when the United States became committed to mastering nuclear weaponry, the public was all in.
Since the Nevada Test Site was conveniently located 65 miles north of Las Vegas, Americans came flooding into the city for a chance to see nuclear tests.
It was a new kind of technology, and people were dying to see it with their own eyes.
It became popular for tourists to have picnics as close to the testing sites as they could get and watch the nuclear explosions.
But that’s not all.
Hotels and casinos began hosting Dawn Bomb Parties, which consisted of partying until the first flashes of nuclear bombs could be seen in the wee hours of the morning–sounds kind of fun, right?
Bars, seeing an opportunity to sell drinks, served the Atomic Cocktail. It included champagne, vodka, brandy/cognac, and sherry.
More like an Atomic Headache.
To bring in as many nuclear tourists as possible, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce would even publish a calendar dating all the upcoming tests.
Different times…different times…
3. How Many Nukes Have Gone Off in Nevada?
The number of nuclear tests in Nevada is shocking.
I’ll give you a minute to think of a number.
Between 1951 and 1992, there were a total of 928 nuclear tests.
That’s almost one bomb per day for two and a half years straight.
Of course, these tests were spaced out over decades, but that’s a serious number of bombs going off just tens of miles from one of the most visited cities in the United States.
Of the 928 tests, 828 were underground, and the remaining 100 were atmospheric.
Quick note: atmospheric nuclear testing doesn’t always mean the bombs went off at high altitudes. It also includes bombs that were placed on towers, dropped by airplanes, or buried only deep enough to cause a crater.
Only 126 other nuclear tests were done outside of Nevada in states like New Mexico, Colorado, Alaska, and Mississippi.
Throughout these tests, the technology, size, and destruction increased more and more.
Because of the Nevada Test Site, modern-day nukes are nearly five times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki–scary, huh?
4. What Was Operation Plumbbob?
Operation Plumbbob was the Nevada Test Site’s longest and most controversial series of tests.
The tests began on May 28th, 1957, and lasted until October 7th.
During the operation, 29 bombs were detonated.
The government was testing anti-missile, intermediate-range, and intercontinental warheads.
What made Operation Plumbbob so controversial was the amount of radiation being put into the atmosphere.
In the 1950s, the effects of radiation were still fairly unknown, but the government had an idea that the impacts would not be good.
To better understand radiation, 1,200 pigs were used to study blast effects.
Studies included putting various protective suits on the pigs to see which ones offered the best protection.
Most of the pigs survived, but some received serious burns.
It was later declassified that 58,300 kilocuries of radioiodine were sent into the atmosphere because of Operation Plumbbob.
Many servicemen were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, and a survey done in 1980 found that the group had higher levels of leukemia.
5. Can You Visit Nuclear Test Sites in Nevada?
Are you just jonesing for a chance to see nuclear test sites in Nevada?
Well, it’s your lucky day!
The Nevada Test Site is now referred to as the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), and it offers historical tours!
Signing up for this activity will give you a look at 250 miles of NNSS, where fascinating and terrifying nuclear testing took place.
You first have to complete a few forms and provide proper identification, but once that’s all taken care of, you’ll be good to go.
During the tour, you’ll get a look at the village of Mercury, a small town that was constructed so that NNSS staff wouldn’t have to commute 65 miles to the site and 65 miles back.
Mercury was used more as a place for offices, mess halls, and recreational facilities, like a bowling alley and swimming pool, rather than an actual town where people permanently lived.
You’ll also have a chance to take a look at the Sedan Crater, which was caused by an underground 104-kiloton thermonuclear device in 1962. It created a crater 320 feet deep with a 1,280-foot diameter–not something you see every day.
Other attractions include seeing waste management sites, training areas, and the Frenchman Flat (where a typical American Town was built and then blasted).
So, if you’re fascinated by nuclear testing in Nevada, it’s a must-do activity!
6. What Happened to the Nevada Test Site?
The Nevada Test Site performed its last nuclear test in 1992.
It was later renamed the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) in 2010.
Today, nuclear testing is no longer done at NNSS, but it is still used for other national security measures.
For instance, the site provides training and preparation in the case of nuclear or radioactivity emergencies.
The NNSS is also used to keep the stockpile of nuclear weapons secure and safe from enemy forces and to deal with radioactive waste disposal.
As of now, getting rid of nuclear waste is a big problem because, well, there’s nowhere 100% safe to put it.
The best option we have today is to bury nuclear waste, and there are currently multiple of these burial sites at NNSS–talk about a toxic work environment.
No plans are in place for further nuclear testing at the site as the United States and other countries continue to reduce their number of warheads.
7. Is Nevada Test Site Still Radioactive?
After around 1,000 nuclear weapons tests were done at the Nevada Test Site, surely the land is still radioactive, right?
With 40 years of nuclear detonations, the Nevada Test Site was one of the most radioactive places in the United States.
The Department of Energy declared that around 300 mega-curies of radioactivity were sent into the environment due to nuclear testing.
Scientists have dozens of wells that they use to monitor the radioactivity levels in the water.
Although the levels are decreasing over time, it’s likely that some areas will have dangerous levels for thousands of years.
The good news is that the contaminated water is currently moving very slowly and shouldn’t put any civilians at risk.
Some geologists are concerned that the radioactivity could spread to other underground water sources that move faster.
So, although the threat is not pressing, it could be something the government has to deal with in the future.
8. Do They Still Test Nuclear Bombs in Nevada?
Nuclear testing is no longer done in Nevada or anywhere else in the United States.
The last detonation–the bomb was called Divider–took place on September 23rd, 1992, at the Nevada Test Site.
But why did nuclear testing stop?
When the Cold War ended in 1991, so did the infamous arms race.
President George H.W. Bush approved legislation to stop nuclear testing for a year in 1993.
That legislation later included the Hatfield-Exon-Mitchell Amendment, which declared the United States would stop nuclear testing completely by September 30th, 1996, if other countries did as well.
In 1996, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Although President Clinton signed the treaty, the United States still has not officially ratified it.
Other countries that also haven’t ratified or signed the treaty include China, Pakistan, North Korea, India, Iran, Israel, and Egypt.
There are currently no plans for further nuclear testing in Nevada or the United States–unless declassified testing is being done without public knowledge.
The United States has also been focused on reducing its nuke stockpile.
In 1967, the US had just over 31,000 warheads.
Today, it has 5,113.
9. What Were the Side Effects of the Nevada Atomic Bomb Test on Downwinders?
Although nuclear testing in Nevada stopped in 1992, its impacts were far from over.
A downwinder is someone living downwind of the sites used for nuclear testing and is at risk from lingering radiation.
Residents in surrounding areas and employees of the Nevada Test Site began filing lawsuits, stating that their health had been affected by the radiation.
It became evident that groups of people and livestock were developing cancers and diseases directly correlated with radiation poisoning.
As a result, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was put into place to compensate the victims of nuclear testing, but not without controversy.
Some people have found it very difficult to receive compensation.
As of 2021, more than 2.4 billion dollars have been given to 38,521 approved claims (52,100 claims have been filed).
The Act was recently extended in 2022 and now primarily deals with uranium miners.
10. How Did the Nevada Test Site Affect People in Utah?
Utah civilians were some of the most vulnerable to the side effects of radiation.
The government of Utah was instrumental in establishing the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
To give you an idea of how problematic radiation was in Utah, a New York Times article from 1973 discussed the death of around 4,300 sheep who were exposed to extreme levels of radioactive iodine.
Reports also showed that children born during the 1950s were dying at a rate 2.5 times higher than earlier and later generations.
At the time, in 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission denied that the deaths were associated with radiation.
Reports like these were made throughout the state during the peak of nuclear testing.
There’s no way to verify how many people were killed by illnesses due to radiation poisoning, but we can presume that the number is significant.
11. What Did the Anti-Nuclear Movement Do?
Yes, Las Vegas became a hotspot for tourists who wanted to see the cutting edge of technology.
For the most part, the majority of America was in favor of the country’s new nuclear efforts.
But not everyone was on board.
Anti-nuclear protests began after the first nukes were dropped on Japan, killing more than 100,000 civilians.
The protests faded out in the 60s and 70s due to the public’s attention focusing on the Civil Rights movement, equality for women, and Vietnam–it was a hectic time.
As those other issues started to end, the anti-nuclear movements were revitalized.
In 1982, there was a march of around 1 million people through New York City protesting nuclear weaponry and energy.
The Nevada Test Site saw hundreds of protests that consisted of thousands of people and arrests.
In 1987, around 2,000 demonstrators attempted to enter the site.
Hundreds of people were arrested and charged with trespassing–five were charged with resisting arrest.
You can read more about that protest from the original New York Times article here.
The years of the Cold War were frightening.
At all times, the American population felt they were at risk of potentially being nuked by the Russians.
Nuclear testing in Nevada, for many, had become a normal part of life.
It was truly a different time, and luckily, the world’s number of nukes is decreasing each year, and hopefully, they are a part of our past, not future.
But the nuclear testing in Nevada is, without a doubt, fascinating. If you want to learn more about its history, you should tour the Nevada National Security Site!
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