NTS (Nevada Test Site)
The military area where the USA
conducted the majority of its nuclear tests
(though not the first one, which was at Trinity
, nor the biggest ones, which were done at Bikini
). It's the US equivalent of the ex-USSR
test site near Semipalatinsk
, but unlike the latter it is still in use! There are no atomic bomb tests proper any longer, since the moratorium on all nuclear testing was finally agreed on in 1992, but so-called "subcritical tests" are still conducted.
Also there are nuclear storage facilities, and other types of research are undertaken too within the NTS boundaries.
Normally, the whole area is completely out of bounds to the general public and security is predictably tight. On a few days a year there are, however, coach tours into the NTS for civilian visitors – though these hard to get a place on. It is not impossible though … Hence the NTS remains one of my top "wish-list" destinations that I haven't yet been able to see.
More background info
What there is to see
Access and costs
Combinations with other dark destinations
Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
It had become clear from 1946 that the early post-WWII
proving grounds in the remote Pacific
islands such as Bikini
required too great a logistical and financial effort, so from 1950 an area for conducting tests on the American mainland was searched for. Of the few areas considered, the desert in the south of Nevada was decided on due to its extreme remoteness and favourable weather/climate conditions. The first test took place in 1951. For the really big yield tests within the megaton range, however, the Pacific test sites remained in use until all atmospheric tests were banned in 1963.
Initially the site in the Nevada desert was called Nevada Proving Ground, but later the term Nevada Test Site became established and remains so today, even though now it has more recently been renamed again. The official designation is now supposed to be Nevada National Security Site (since no actual tests have been conducted since 1992) – but since the old names still sticks and it is what most people recognize, it's what is used on this website too. However, remember that when you look it up e.g. on the official pages of the Department of Energy (DOE), which is now in charge of the site, it will appear only under its current new designation, not the more common one.
The NTS is the most bombed area of wasteland on Earth. In total 928 nuclear test shots were detonated here, 100 of them above ground, i.e. in the atmosphere. That is to say, the great majority of tests actually took place underground, out of view (though many left quite visible subsidence craters at the surface).
Still, it is those images of the atmospheric tests of the 1950s and early 1960s with their giant mushroom clouds that remain the prime iconic symbols of the Atomic Age. Amongst the most important of the NTS tests were the following:
"Able" conducted on 27 January 1951 as part of Operation Ranger was the very first test at the NTS, a small "only" 1kt device air-dropped from a bomber in the Frenchmen Flat area (note: this Able is not to be confused with the first shot of Operation Crossroads on Bikini
in 1946 that had the same code name. It was a common one for a first test of a series, simply standing for the letter A – there were also several second tests called "Baker", etc.).
The 32 kt "Harry" shot as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole, detonated on 19 May 1953 became the worst of all US tests conducted in the continental US in terms of radioactive pollution, as it created the greatest amount of fallout of all the NTS tests, which was further compounded by unfavourable winds. The cloud drifted as far as Utah where the fallout accumulated in dangerous levels at so-called "downwinders". Hence this test also became known as "Dirty Harry".
" shot, also part of Operation Upshot-Knothole, conducted on 25 May 1953, also on Frenchman Flat, was only the second (of a mere four in total) of the uranium gun-type design previously used over Hiroshima
. In the case of Grable it was also an artillery projectile; it was delivered by the "Atomic Annie" 280 mm type cannon, one of which can be seen at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque
. In this 15 kt test soldiers were used as "guinea pigs" – they had to wait in trenches and after the detonation advance into the direction of ground zero.
Operation Plowshare was a series of tests intended to test "civilian" uses of nuclear blasts for earth movement – e.g. in the building of canals (indeed there had been plans to build a replacement for the Panama Canal this way – a ludicrous idea thankfully abandoned in time). These were conducted sporadically over a period of several years. The biggest and most famous of these shots created the "Sedan" crater in the north of Yucca Flat. This shallow underground test displaced millions of tons of earth and left the largest explosion crater in the NTS, 1280 feet (almost 400 m) across and 320 feet (100 m deep). It's the first site at the NTS to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
A particularly controversial test was the "Priscilla" shot, part of Operation Plumbbob of 1957, the largest series of tests ever conducted at the NTS. For this several hundred pigs were used as stand-ins for human guinea pigs (because of the similarity of pig and human skin). For such "biological" parts of "weapon effects test", some pigs were placed on platforms at different distances from ground zero and dressed in various types of garments to test the degrees of protection the various materials might provide. Some pigs even survived the immediate effects despite 80% third-degree burns. Some pigs were placed behind glass plates to study the effects of flying shards (predictably, they got perforated). Troops were, again, involved in Operation Plumbbob too, conducting post-nuclear-blast manoeuvres, such as driving armoured vehicles under the still rising mushroom cloud. Many untimely deaths amongst the military personnel involved were later attributed to radiation-related illnesses directly caused by these human guinea pig experiments at the NTS.
Structural effects tests were also part of the test series – and bunkers, hangars, a bank safe and even an artificial forest of pine trees "planted" in concrete were subjected to the crushing effects of a nuclear blast.
Some of the most memorable film footage of such effects were shot as part of such structural effects tests, including especially the "Annie" test of Upshot-Knothole (1952) as well as the "Apple II" test in Operation Teapot (1955), when whole sets of buildings, one cheekily nicknamed "Survival Town" (or, alternately, "Doomtown"), were constructed. This included a "typical American home", complete with dummy families of mannequins representing the inhabitants … and even food was placed on the kitchen table.
The very largest atmospheric test ever conducted on the mainland in the USA was "Hood", a 75kt shot that was part of Operation Plumbbob, while the very last shots, fittingly named "Little Feller", conducted in July 1962, used one of the smallest warheads ever built and tested. The very final atmospheric test at the NTS used the Davy Crocket launcher for delivery and the detonation had a yield of only 18 tons or so (close to the lowest physically possible nuclear explosion yield).
Later, after atmospheric testing stopped altogether with the Partial Test Ban Treaty coming into force in 1963, only underground tests were allowed. Even though initially the personnel at the test site only reluctantly gave up atmospheric testing, it soon became clear that from a scientific point of view underground testing was even more efficient, giving better data under more controllable test conditions.
A few of the underground tests failed to be contained underground – such as what happened in the venting of the Baneberry test of 1970 when a large cloud of fallout contaminated staff and material outside and even deposited radioactive traces as far away as Los Angeles. It was one of the worst "accidents" in US nuclear history.
Eventually, with the end of the Cold War
all testing of actual atom bombs was finally suspended. It's still only a moratorium of sorts, as the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test- Ban Treaty has still not been signed and ratified by a number of countries (North Korea
being a particular worry), but the very last underground nuclear detonation test that the USA
ever conducted took place in 1992.
Since then the tasks at the NTS necessarily shifted from testing to other projects – even though subcritical test are still continued. The main concerns these days are areas such as nuclear waste management – and there are a few sites within the NTS developed for this purpose.
Other new projects include tests regarding spills of other dangerous materials that are a crucial hazard e.g. in mining. The remoteness of the NTS offers the industry the unique chance of experimenting with actual pollutants to find solutions and conduct exercises as to how to best contain such hazardous materials … and what to do in emergencies if there is a spill. The DOE hopes that this might generate future revenue for the site beyond its nuclear legacy. One other way would be in tourism, but that is still heavily restricted.
Even though security concerns are understandable, it's quite unfortunate that it is so extremely hard to get a place on one of the rare tours of the NTS. For non-US citizens the pre-registration bureaucracy is almost forbiddingly excessive. So much so that I haven't yet even seriously thought about applying. Still, it's possibly the most exciting of all destinations that nuclear tourism
in the USA
has to offer. And one day I will have to embark on tackling all the bureaucratic hurdles …
For the time being, in writing this entry I had to rely on outlines and reports that can be found online – and in particular on a comprehensive brochure I managed to get hold of when I was on my nuclear tourism trip of the south-west USA
in April 2012. I can't remember exactly whether it was at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
, in Los Alamos
or at the Atomic Testing Museum
that I found it, but it was available in one of the museum shops there. It's called "The Nevada Test Site – A Guide to America's Nuclear Proving Ground", by Matthew Coolidge, published by The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Los Angeles, in 1996. ISBN: 0-9650962-0-3 (selling price at the center ca. 15 USD). It appears to be the only comprehensive guidebook to the NTS around and allegedly it won praise both from DOE officials and anti-nuclear campaigners, which is quite an achievement. And indeed, no matter which side you're on, it is an invaluable resource! Highly recommended to the nuclear-minded dark tourist too.
What there is to see: normally nothing, as you won't be allowed in. However, there are public tours for visitors, organized by the Department of Energy (DOE), which now runs the site. These tours take place about only once a month, and you need to pre-book them well in advance (see below under 'access' for more details). They book out early, so you'd need to plan well ahead. When I last looked in May 2012, all tours for the remainder of the year were already full.
But if you do manage to get a place on one of these tours, the following are likely stops (for more on their relative significance see above under 'background'):
You'll obviously pass through Mercury
, the main base camp of the complex, which lies just behind the main access gate. Since testing was ended, the place has largely become a ghost town
, with only a fraction of the former numbers of inhabitants still in residence.
North of Mercury, there are several spots within Frenchman Flat that can be visited, including some remains from weapons effects test. The current Spill Test Facility is also located on Frenchman Flat. The Low Level Radioactive Waste Management Site is another potential point of interest here.
News Nob used to be an observation point for the media and other non-military visitors who witnessed atmospheric tests from here. In a way, then, these were the very first "tourists" at the NTS. Some test-viewing bleachers' remains can be seen … but you'll have to use your imagination to try and picture what it must have been like sitting there, as if at a drive-in cinema, waiting (with dark goggles on) for the nuclear show to commence …
The usual highlight on the NTS tours is a visit to the Sedan crater in the north of Yucca Flat. There are two observation platforms. It would be the foremost spot for a photo op if only cameras were allowed.
You may also see the installations for the underground tests that were cancelled after the moratorium on all tests in 1992. The emplacement tower of the planned "Icecap" test remains standing and sees some degree of maintenance to keep it in theoretical working order (just in case testing was resumed). But whether tours stop at such points is doubtful.
The same goes for the more remarkable remains of the structural effects test of Apple II where a whole "typical American home" purpose-built for the test remains standing. This would surely make for the eeriest sight of the entire NTS. At least in tours offered in the mid-1990s a visit to the Apple II structures was part of the itinerary. Current tour summaries on the DOE website, however, do not make any mention of this.
It is also not quite clear how much of the pockmarked nature of Yucca Flat may be discernible from ground level. Yucca Flat is covered with hundreds of subsidence craters of varying sizes that were left after underground tests when the vaporized cavities created by the nuclear blast collapsed. Aerial photographs of these fields of craters are probably the most iconic images of the NTS today. This is why one such image is reproduced above – though it's obviously not my own, but was taken from a screen at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.
As indicated above – going on one of these NTS tours remains one of my dream dark tourism trips, but so far I have had no chance of making it happen – the extreme bureaucracy, especially for non-US citizens such as myself, has made me shy away from more concretely pursuing it. But maybe one day …
in the middle of the desert some 80 miles (130 km) north-west of Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
Google maps locators:
Turn-off from Highway 95 for Gate 100 (only for authorized access to Mercury town and the NTS): [36.6007,-115.9984
Access and costs:
extremely restricted but possible; ca. once-a-month bus tours are offered, for free, but the bureaucratic hassle is immense.
Details: it's amazing enough that one can actually see the NTS as a tourist on organized tours at all. But here's the catch: tours take place only about once a month, and you need to apply for a place well in advance. Unsurprisingly, security is very tight and no photography is allowed on the tour at all (nor are cell phones, laptops, binoculars, etc.).
You have to register for tours well in advance – a minimum of six weeks prior to the date; and extra bureaucratic hurdles are in place for foreign nationals. But, on the plus side, these tours are free! They usually depart, early in the morning, from outside the Atomic Testing Museum
in Las Vegas (755, East Flamingo Road). You will be driven in a coach (with onboard restroom), i.e. in all comfort … though you have to bring your own food and drinks (but no alcohol!), as no lunch stops will be made. Under 14-year-olds and pregnant women are excluded (the latter not because of any radioactivity, but because of the bumpy ride – according to the NTS tour organizers at the DOE).
Time required: in total, the tours cover ca. 250 miles (400 km), so they last the best part of a whole day. Tours start very early in the morning, ca. 7:30 a.m. and you need to be there well in time.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Tours start and end at the Atomic Testing Museum
in Las Vegas, so it makes perfect sense to take this in as well, though you will hardly be able to fit it in on the same day. Go the day before to be fully briefed for what you may be able to see on the NTS tour.
Dedicated nuclear tourists will most likely also want to see the site of the very first test of an atomic bomb ever, at Trinity
in White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. They hold Open House Days, when the general public is allowed to visit the Trinity Site, but only twice a year, on the first Saturdays in April and October. Registration is however not necessary.
Even further away still, a comprehensive nuclear tourist's bucket list also has to include the NTS's equivalent in the former USSR
, namely the Polygon
or Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS), now located within independent Kazakhstan
. There's far less security there (as the STS is no longer in use), yet it is quite a lot more adventurous to get there. It is possible, however, at least for the time being. It's extremely rewarding too at least in terms of exiting exoticness. For this I can vouch myself. It ranks amongst the most extreme and coolest dark tourism trips I have ever undertaken.
There are yet more nuclear test sites around the world that are even trickier to get to (if it is possible at all), and I haven't yet been to any of them myself. These include the French
test sites in the Sahara desert in Algeria
, In Ekker and Regane
, as well as the sites in Australia
, where Great Britain
tested their first A-bombs, esp. on Montebello Islands
off the west coast of Down Under. Finally, the mother of all test sites in the Pacific
, and it can be visited (with some effort), if only by divers – the wrecks sunk in the famous Baker shot of the Operation Crossroads are allegedly amongst the best diving spots on Earth. Other even more remote and/or restricted sites such as the test sites in China
or the place where Russia
, or rather: the Soviet Union
set off the largest nuclear device in history, the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba detonated on Novaya Zemlya, remain totally out of any tourist's reach … and that's probably as it should be …
Back closer to the NTS: the only interesting relics that can be seen outside the security fence perimeter are those of the peace activist camps that used to be here until testing was ended. Some remains of their camp sites are allegedly still visible – as are those installations in which security forces would hold protesters who had been arrested. It's the other side of the whole topic in more than one sense then. How much this remains visible today I cannot say, though (the images I've seen were taken in the late 1990s)
Just beyond the NTS in the east, there's one more highly secretive and almost mythical place directly adjacent to the former nuclear test site, namely the legendary military restricted "Area 51" around Groom Lake. This is still the most secret military installation in the USA
(or anywhere) and there is zero chance of being allowed in (unless you're the CIA
and work there, of course). The secrecy about this place has hence fuelled all manner of conspiracy theories about aliens and UFOs and what not. But the plain truth of the matter is probably just that it's a laboratory for new types of (quite Earthly) weapon systems and for that simple reason so out of bounds. Still, some ufology aficionados get a kick out of driving at least up to the "no-trespassing" warning signs on the edge of the Area … which is absolutely as far as you can go without running the risk of being shot at. Don't go. There's no point.
For other, much more worthwhile and more genuine dark tourism sites see under USA
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
nothing at all in the vicinity of the NTS itself. However, Las Vegas, one of the most visited tourist destinations in the USA
(and the whole world), is only 65-80 miles (105-130 km) south-east of the NTS. See under 'non-dark combinations' in the entry for the Atomic Testing Museum