The year was 1951, Nevada had a population of 160,083. The television sitcom “I Love Lucy” debuted on the CBS network, and up-and-coming singer Tony Bennett scored his first hit with “Because of You.” This was also the year that the United States began nuclear weapons testing in a section of the Nevada desert 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas; an effort that would continue for four decades and impact the state as well as the world.“In the very general sense, it was one of the places where the Cold War was won,” said Allan Palmer, executive director of the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.
Dive into history and learn more about the Nevada National Security Site (formerly called the Nevada Test Site) and its role in the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the former Soviet Union at the National Atomic Testing Museum. Plan ahead and you can actually tour the former test site, where research continues today, although weapons testing ended in 1992.
The National Atomic Testing Museum tells the story of the Nevada National Security Site, including why it was chosen over other sites for testing and why nuclear weapons such as atomic bombs had to be tested after the United States dropped two on Japan in 1945 to end World War II. “The dropping of bombs ended the war,” said Palmer, “but we didn’t know everything there was to know about (the bombs) when we dropped them on Japan.”
Museum exhibits explain how atmospheric (above-ground) testing led to greater understanding of radioactive fallout — the radiation hazard from a nuclear explosion. The switch to underground testing and the eventual abandonment of nuclear weapons testing are addressed, and it’s all put in historical context.
“We walk them back through the history, the motivations at the time,” Palmer said.
One motivator was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century, which spurred both countries to build up nuclear arsenals to protect themselves from each other. And while the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, nuclear weapons remain a concern. “There are still a lot of nuclear weapons around,” Palmer said, “and some of them are not in the right hands.”
See the Nevada National Security Site
If you wish to delve deeper into Nevada’s uncanny atomic history, consider signing up for a tour of the Nevada National Security site, where nuclear weapons were once detonated and research continues today. The National Nuclear Security Administration offers free tours once a month — guided, structured, all-day bus tours in which cameras and cell phones are prohibited and a visitor must bring his or her own food and drink.
Despite that, the tours often are booked five or six months out.“They’re very popular,” said Darwin Morgan, a public information officer for the Nevada National Security Site. The tours, which can accommodate up to 55 people, run from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and begin at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. Inside the test site, one of the first stops is Frenchman Flat, where the area’s first atmospheric (above-ground) test was conducted. “They’ll see old historic structures that were associated with the first atmospheric test,” Morgan said.
Tours also swing by Yucca Flat, where underground tests took place, and the Sedan Crater, where scientists researched the use of nuclear explosions for non-military purposes such as digging canals. Visitors also will see areas where research is conducted for the Department of Homeland Security.
The idea is to present an objective, just-the-facts look at the Nevada Test Site.
“We’re not trying to sway people,” said Morgan, who added that “all sorts of people — people who support and don’t support it,” visit the site. “We’re there to just show what we do,” Morgan said. “The tours are for people to understand what happened, to see the history.”