My Atomic Holiday

Way out in the desert, at the Nevada Test Site, a certain sort of traveler can confront strange traces of catastrophe (and tomfoolery).
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Nearly everyone on my tour bus was past peak reproductive age, which perhaps explained the generally blasé attitude about the remote chance that we’d have our gonads irradiated over the next six hours. We had all, in the previous weeks, received manila envelopes containing an invitation we had anticipated for months: Meet at 7:30 a.m. at the Atomic Testing Museum, in Las Vegas. Leave behind phones, guns, Geiger counters, and cameras. Proceed by bus an hour northwest into the desert for a peek at the scorched and barren zone where the United States conducted the bulk of its nuclear testing. Bring a sack lunch.

Since its establishment in 1951, the Nevada National Security Site (commonly known as the Nevada Test Site) has shaken to the booms of nearly 1,000 nuclear tests. Roughly 100 took place above ground, producing the distinctive death-cap mushroom cloud and showering the surrounding sagebrush with radioactive fallout. Since 1962, all nuclear blasts have been underground, and since the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in 1996, the only permitted tests here have involved small quantities of high explosives.

One of the most popular day trips from Las Vegas is a tour of the Grand Canyon, the greatest natural site in the United States. The somewhat less popular trip to the Nevada Test Site might claim to reveal the greatest unnatural one—an expanse about the size of Rhode Island that the government has been aggressively blowing up, terra­forming, and polluting for 61 years. Once a month, the Department of Energy offers a free tour to those willing to book as much as a year in advance.

On the bus into the desert, I surveyed my fellow nuclear tourists, curious about what sort of person books this curious sort of trip. At the back of the bus, a gaunt, deeply tanned, white-haired, homeless-looking man got a whole row to himself. He looked like a combination of Gandalf the Grey and the guy who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart. Even though the forecast called for 100-degree heat, he wore a sun-faded lavender sweat suit, with a pair of cornflower-blue nylon basketball shorts over his sweat-bottoms. (I later learned, to my surprise, that he was a recently retired infectious-disease geneticist.) One of the few young men, a pale, skinny guy with a handlebar mustache and olive-drab combat fatigues, wore a T‑shirt commemorating the Chernobyl disaster. Nina Elder—a 31-year-old artist and the only unaccompanied woman on the tour—told me that her preferred medium was “radioactive charcoal,” and that she had signed up for the tour because she was creating a series of images of nuclear tests.

John Spahn, the retired government official who led our tour, said he’d had a number of nutters try to join tours in the past—including a man wanting to wear a full spaceman anti-­contamination suit. Spahn said the prohibition on cameras and phones was a precaution to protect sensitive areas and activities at the test site, including what he slyly referred to as “Area … something in the low 50s.”

We drove northwest, to Mercury, Nevada. About half a mile from Highway 95, we reached a gate with a huge white placard forbidding us to go any farther without permission. Spahn said that when wayward tourists or anti­nuclear protesters stray beyond the sign, security teams materialize from out of the desert. The nosy are merely turned back, but trespassing protesters get arrested—though they’re now charged on the spot and spared the hot, 150-mile paddy-wagon journey to the courthouse in Tonopah that they used to endure. Spahn said he had un­wittingly taken antinuclear protesters on tours, and the confrontations became heated. On this particular tour, no one sprang any surprises, although Gandalf handed Spahn a long list of handwritten questions, some of them suggesting that the test site might have been a cover for a secret gold-mining operation, or perhaps illicit government experiments. Spahn flipped through the list coolly, and Gandalf didn’t press the issue.

Past the gate, we proceeded another few miles into the hills that shield the test site from the highway. Mercury itself turned out to be a small company town, with a post office, cafeteria, and steak house but no permanent residents. (Employees of the test site commute in by bus—about 1,200 daily—and stay overnight, in simple dorms, only when necessary.)

We passed signs warning of contamination and forbidding the fool­hardy from pocketing soil or adopting pet rocks. Then the real show began. We stopped to check in at an office and submit to a head count. (If an incident occurs, Spahn explained, “they’ll need to know how many body bags to get.”) We then drove toward Bailey Bridge, a large steel structure on a reinforced-concrete base. The desert is as flat as a hockey rink in all directions, so the sight of a bridge is a little un­settling. On closer inspection, the creepiness did not fade away: the bridge is wrecked and bent, its once-straight 24-inch I beams warped into long, bowing C‑shapes.

The bridge and a variety of other things had been built to test how they would hold up to a blast. We continued past a gruesome array of identical bunkers built at different distances from the detonation point. As we progressed toward Ground Zero, these concrete domes showed ever more damage. Other structures were totally wrecked: one building looked like a deflated basketball, and offered a powerful lesson in why you should not shelter from nuclear weapons in an aluminum hut. Spahn showed us rusty old pens where pigs dressed in custom-made Army uniforms were subjected to nuclear blasts, to see how well combat fatigues would protect the skin from radiation and flash burns. For miles around, other than these structures, there is nothing higher than a man’s knee, except for the occasional Joshua tree, standing alone, like a pillar of salt caught looking back while fleeing the hellfire.

A few miles farther, Spahn showed us the last couple houses still standing from Survival Town. These two-story houses had been stocked with furniture, food, and mannequins (allegedly posed in positions of sexual congress), then blown up. The one farthest from Ground Zero remained in decent repair, with its brick chimney just slightly scarred. All of the windows were blasted out, though, and on an upstairs bedroom wall, someone had spray-painted an image of Garfield the cat.

One thousand nuclear explosions had taken their toll on the landscape, from above and from below. Some under­ground detonations just left a sinkhole. Others caused the earth to bubble up like a soufflé, then crack and spew fire, smoke, and ash. One of the largest and most famous of these nuclear soufflés created Sedan Crater, with a 104-kiloton device, in 1962. The crater now bears a plaque noting its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The bus stopped at the crater, and the tour group gathered at the near edge to admire the steepness of the slopes. The pit was so wide that when I tried winging a stone across, it just plummeted to the bottom. Spahn said that bored site employees had taken tires, doused them with gas, and set them on fire to watch the flames roll into the deep abyss.

These days, the subcritical nuclear experiments conducted at the test site are rarer than another national-security exercise: training for radiation disasters, including terrorist events. Our last stop was what looked like the world’s greatest paintball park: a replica of a small town, mocked up in the middle of the desert so that mass-casualty response teams can practice and prepare for the worst. A decommissioned Delta 727 lay in three parts at one edge of the town, and a derailed train lay along another edge. The instructors simulate dirty bombs and radiological contamination—­with actual radio­active contaminants—­and force squads to clean up the area. “They generally blow up the [simulated] dirty bombs outside the town lawyer’s office,” Spahn said.

Like the men who tested weapons here, the people who now come to train are preparing for something grotesque—a tragedy that could involve city blocks in chaos, and children with radiation burns. And yet somehow, what was left behind suggested something else about what it meant to work out here. The Garfield graffito, the burning tires, and now this area for grim make-­believe confirmed my impression that for all the test site’s scientific and military value, it has also been a playground, the ultimate boys-with-toys zone where real-world rules seemed suspended, where forbidden games were played with impunity. As a day visitor, I was filled with horror, but also jealousy: the test site looked like altogether too much fun.

Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.
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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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