- Nevada National Security Site
Nevada Test Site
November 1951 nuclear test at Nevada Test Site. Test is shot "Dog" from Operation Buster, with a yield of 21 kilotonnes of TNT (88 TJ). It was the first U.S. nuclear field exercise conducted on land; troops shown are 6 mi (9.7 km) from the blast.
Type Nuclear testing range Location Coordinates: near Las Vegas in the United States Area ~1,350 sq mi (3,500 km2) Operator United States Department of Energy Status Active In use 1951–present Testing Nuclear
Map showing location of the site
The Nevada National Security Site (N2S2), previously the Nevada Test Site (NTS), is a United States Department of Energy reservation located in southeastern Nye County, Nevada, about 65 mi (105 km) northwest of the city of Las Vegas. Formerly known as the Nevada Proving Grounds, the site, established on 11 January 1951, for the testing of nuclear devices, is composed of approximately 1,360 sq mi (3,500 km2) of desert and mountainous terrain. Nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site began with a 1-kilotonne-of-TNT (4.2 TJ) bomb dropped on Frenchman Flat on 27 January 1951. Many of the iconic images of the nuclear era come from NTS.
The Nevada Test Site contains 28 areas, 1,100 buildings, 400 miles (640 km) of paved roads, 300 miles (480 km) of unpaved roads, ten heliports and two airstrips.
Established as a 680-square-mile (1,800 km2) area by president Harry Truman on December 18, 1950 within the Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range
Between 1951 and 1992, there were a total of 928 announced nuclear tests at Nevada Test Site. Of those, 828 were underground. (Sixty-two of the underground tests included multiple, simultaneous nuclear detonations, adding 93 detonations and bringing the total number of NTS nuclear detonations to 1,021, of which 921 were underground.) The site is covered with subsidence craters from the testing. The Nevada Test Site was the primary testing location of American nuclear devices; 126 tests were conducted elsewhere (many at the Pacific Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands).
During the 1950s, the mushroom clouds from these tests could be seen for almost 100 mi (160 km) in either direction, including the city of Las Vegas, where the tests became tourist attractions. Americans headed for Las Vegas to witness the distant mushroom clouds that could be seen from the downtown hotels.
On 17 July 1962, the test shot "Little Feller I" of Operation Sunbeam became the last atmospheric test detonation at the Nevada Test Site. Underground testing of weapons continued until 23 September 1992, and although the United States did not ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the articles of the treaty are nevertheless honored and further tests have not occurred. Subcritical testing, tests not involving the full creation of a critical mass, continue.
One notable test shot was the "Sedan" shot of Operation Storax on 6 July 1962, a 104-kilotonne-of-TNT (440 TJ) shot for the Operation Plowshare which sought to prove that nuclear weapons could be used for peaceful means in creating bays or canals—it created a crater 1,280 feet (390 m) wide and 320 feet (100 m) deep that can still be seen today. While most of the larger tests were conducted elsewhere, NTS was home to tests in the 500-to-1,000-kilotonne-of-TNT (2,100 to 4,200 TJ) range, which caused noticeable seismic effects in Las Vegas.
The site was scheduled to be used to conduct the testing of a 1,100-ton conventional explosive in an operation known as Divine Strake in June 2006. The bomb is a possible alternative to nuclear bunker busters. However, after objection from Nevada and Utah members of Congress, the operation was postponed until 2007. On 22 February 2007, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) officially canceled the experiment.
Destruction and survivability testing
NTS also performed "piggyback" testing of effects of nuclear detonation during the above-ground tests. Vehicles, shelters, utility stations, and other structures were placed at various distances from the "Ground Zero" detonation point of each weapon.
Homes and commercial buildings were built to standards typical of American and European cities. Other structures included military fortifications (of types used by both NATO and the Warsaw Pact), civil defense, and "backyard" shelters. In a typical test several buildings might be built using the same plan with different types of paint, landscaping, cleanliness of yards, wall angles, or distances from Ground Zero. Mannequins were placed in and around vehicles and buildings.
High-speed cameras were placed in protected locations to capture effects of radiation and shock waves. Typical imagery from these cameras shows paint boiling off of the buildings, which then are pushed away from Ground Zero by the shock wave before being drawn toward the detonation by the suction caused by the climbing mushroom cloud. Footage from these cameras has become iconic, used in various media and available in the public domain and on DVD.
This testing allowed the development of guidelines, distributed to the public, to increase the likelihood of survival in case of air- or spaceborne nuclear attack.
Each of the below ground explosions—some as deep as 5,000 feet—vaporized a large chamber, leaving a cavity filled with radioactive rubble. About a third of the tests were conducted directly in aquifers, and others were hundreds or thousands of feet below the water table.
When testing ended in 1992, the Energy Department estimated that more than 300 million curies of radiation remained, making the site one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the United States. In the worst affected zones, radioactivity in the tainted water reaches millions of picocuries per liter. (The federal standard for drinking water is 20 picocuries per liter.) Although radiation levels in the water have declined over time, the longer-lived isotopes will continue to pose risks for tens of thousands of years.
The Energy Department has 48 monitoring wells at the site and recently began drilling nine deep wells. Because the contaminated water poses no immediate health threat, the Department has ranked Nevada as a low priority for cleaning up major nuclear weapons sites, and it operates far fewer wells than at most other contaminated sites.
Protests and demonstrations
From 1986 through 1994, two years after the United States put a hold on full-scale nuclear weapons testing, 536 demonstrations were held at the Nevada Test Site involving 37,488 participants and 15,740 arrests, according to government records.
American Peace Test (APT) and Nevada Desert Experience (NDE) held most of these. In March 1988, APT held an event where more than 8,000 people attended a ten-day action to "Reclaim the Test Site", where nearly 3,000 people were arrested with more than 1,200 in one day. This set a record for most civil disobedience arrests in a single protest. American Peace Test was collectively run by a group of individuals residing in Las Vegas, but leadership for the group was national. It originated with a small group of people who were active in the National Nuclear Weapons Freeze. APT was a breakaway organization beginning in 1986, with first public events held in 1987.
In the years that followed 1994, Shundahai Network in cooperation with Nevada Desert Experience and Corbin Harney continued the protests of the government's continued nuclear weapons work and also staged efforts to stop a repository for highly radioactive waste adjacent to the test site at Yucca Mountain, 100 mi (160 km) northwest of Las Vegas.
The test site offers monthly public tours, often fully booked months in advance. Visitors are not allowed to bring in cameras, binoculars, cell phones, or pick up rocks for souvenirs.
While there are no longer any explosive tests of nuclear weapons at the site, there is still subcritical testing, used to determine the viability of the United States' aging nuclear arsenal. Additionally, the site is the location of the Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Complex, which sorts and stores low-level radioactive waste that is not transuranic and has a half life not longer than 20 years. Bechtel Nevada Corporation (a joint venture of Lockheed Martin, Bechtel and Johnson Controls) ran this complex until 2006. Several other companies won the latest bid for the contract. They then combined to form a new company called National Security Technologies, LLC (a joint venture of Northrop Grumman, AECOM, CH2M Hill and Nuclear Fuel Services). AECOM, known earlier as Holmes and Narver, held the Nevada Test Site contract for many years before Bechtel Nevada Corp. had it.
The Radiological/Nuclear WMD Incident Exercise Site (T-1), which replicates multiple terrorist radiological incidents with train, plane, automobile, truck, and helicopter props is located in Area 1, at the former site of tests EASY, SIMON, APPLE-2, and GALILEO.
Landmarks and geography
The town of Mercury, Nevada, is located on the grounds of the NTS, and at one time housed contingents from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories. Area 51 is north of NTS and the proposed high-level nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain is at the southwest corner. The BREN Tower, a 1,527 ft (465 m)-high tower is located in the NTS at Jackass Flats.
Cancer and test site
A 1979 study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that:
A significant excess of leukemia deaths occurred in children up to 14 years of age living in Utah between 1959 and 1967. This excess was concentrated in the cohort of children born between 1951 and 1958, and was most pronounced in those residing in counties receiving high fallout.
In 1982, a lawsuit brought by nearly 1,200 people accused the government of negligence in atomic and/or nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s, which they said had caused leukemia and other cancers. Dr. Karl Z. Morgan testified that radiation protection measures in the tests were substandard.
In a report by the National Cancer Institute, released in 1997, it was determined that ninety atmospheric tests at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) deposited high levels of radioactive iodine-131 (5.5 exabecquerels) across a large portion of the contiguous United States, especially in the years 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1957—doses large enough, they determined, to produce 10,000 to 75,000 cases of thyroid cancer. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 allowed for people living downwind of NTS for at least two years in particular Nevada, Arizona or Utah counties, between 21 January 1951 and 31 October 1958, or 30 June and 31 July 1962, and suffering from certain cancers or other serious illnesses deemed to have been caused by fallout exposure to receive compensation of $50,000. By January 2006, over 10,500 claims had been approved, and around 3,000 denied, for a total amount of over $525 million in compensation dispensed to "downwinders". Additionally, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 provides compensation and medical benefits for nuclear weapons workers who may have developed certain work-related illnesses.
Uranium miners, mill workers, and ore transporters are also eligible for $100,000 compassionate payment under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, while $75,000 is the fixed payment amount for workers who were participants in the above-ground nuclear weapons tests.
Nuclear test series carried out at the Nevada Test Site
The Test Site is broken down into areas. Some of the areas and their uses include the following:
Area 1 held 8 nuclear tests for a total of 9 detonations. Four early atmospheric tests were conducted above Area 1 in the early 1950s, as well as three underground tests in 1971 and 1990. In 1955, a Civil Defense experiment (called Operation Cue in the press) studied nuclear blast effects on various building types; a few structures still stand.
Heavy drilling equipment and concrete construction facilities are sited in Area 1. Non-destructive X-ray, gamma ray, and subcritical detonation tests continue to be conducted in Area 1.
Area 3 held 266 nuclear tests for a total of 288 detonations, more than in any other area of the NTS.
As part of Operation Tinderbox, on 24 June 1980, a small satellite prototype (DSCS III) was subjected to radioactivity from the "Huron King" shot in a vertical line-of-sight (VLOS) test undertaken in Area 3. This was a program to improve the database on nuclear hardening design techniques for defense satellites.
The final nuclear test detonation at Nevada Test Site was Operation Julin's "Divider" on 23 September 1992, just prior to the moratorium temporarily ending all nuclear testing. Divider was a safety experiment test shot that was detonated at the bottom of a shaft sunk into Area 3.
In 1995 and 1997, plutonium-contaminated soil from "Double Tracks" and "Clean Slate 1" of Operation Roller Coaster (1963) was picked up from the Tonopah Test Range and brought to the Area 3 Radioactive Waste Management Site as a first step in eventually returning Tonopah Test Range to an environmentally neutral state. Corrective action regarding the contaminated material from the "Clean Slate 2" and "Clean Slate 3" tests has yet to be agreed upon.
Area 4 held 40 nuclear tests for a total of 44 detonations.
It is home to the Big Explosives Experimental Facility (BEEF).
Area 5 held 19 nuclear tests. Five atmospheric tests were detonated, starting on 27 January 1951 at Area 5 as part of Operation Ranger. These were the first nuclear tests at NTS. Further tower detonations were studied at Area 5, and the "Grable" shot which was fired from an artillery piece located in Area 11 exploded in Area 5. The Priscilla test was conducted at Area 5 on 24 June 1957.
Five underground tests were setup at Area 5; four of those suffered accidental release of radioactive materials. On 16 March 1968, physicist Glenn T. Seaborg toured the upcoming "Milk Shake" shot of Operation Crosstie. Milk Shake's radioactive release was not detected outside of NTS boundaries.
Area 6 held 4 nuclear tests for a total of 6 detonations. The only two towns to be established within the boundaries of NTS prior to 1947, BJ Wye and Mule Lick, are located in Yucca Flats, in Area 6.
The Device Assembly Facility (DAF) was originally built to consolidate nuclear explosives assembly operations. It now serves as the Criticality Experiments Facility (CEF).
The Control Point is the communication hub of the NTS. It was used by controllers to trigger and monitor nuclear test explosions.
Area 7 held 92 nuclear tests.
During Operation Buster, four successful tests were conducted via airdrop, with bomber aircraft releasing nuclear weapons over Area 7.
It is also the site of Matthew Rileys book called Area 7.
Shot "Icecap" planned for 1993 was abandoned in Area 7 following 1992's testing moratorium. The tower, shaft and wiring remain in place, along with a crane intended to lower the nuclear test package into the shaft.
Area 8 held 13 nuclear tests for a total of 15 detonations.
Area 8 hosted the "Baneberry" shot of Operation Emery on 18 December 1970. The Baneberry 10-kilotonne-of-TNT (42 TJ) test detonated 900 feet (270 m) below the surface but its energy cracked the soil in unexpected ways, causing a fissure near ground zero and the failure of the shaft stemming and cap. A plume of fire and dust was released, raining fallout on workers in different locations within NTS. The radioactive plume released 6.7 million Curies of radioactive material, including 80 kCi of 131I.
Area 9 held 115 nuclear tests for a total of 133 detonations.
In Area 9, the 74-kilotonne-of-TNT (310 TJ) "Hood" test on 5 July 1957, part of Operation Plumbbob, was the largest atmospheric test ever conducted within the continental United States; nearly five times larger in yield than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A balloon carried Hood up to 460 meters above the ground where it was detonated. Over 2,000 troops took part in the test in order to train them in conducting operations on the nuclear battlefield. 11 million Curies of Iodine-131 (131I) were released into the air.
Area 10 held 57 nuclear tests for a total of 71 detonations.
The first underground test at NTS was the "Uncle" shot of Operation Jangle. Uncle detonated on 29 November 1951 within a shaft sunk into Area 10.
The "John" shot of Plumbbob, on 19 July 1957, was the first test firing of the nuclear-tipped AIR-2 Genie air-to-air rocket designed to destroy incoming enemy bombers with a nuclear explosion. The 2-kilotonne-of-TNT (8.4 TJ) warhead exploded approximately three miles above five volunteers and a photographer who stood unprotected at "ground zero" in Area 10 to show the apparent safety of battlefield nuclear weapons to personnel on the ground. The test also demonstrated the ability of a fighter aircraft to deliver a nuclear-tipped rocket and avoid being destroyed in the process. A Northrop F-89J fired the rocket.
The "Sedan" test of Operation Storax on 6 July 1962, a 104-kilotonne-of-TNT (440 TJ) shot for the Operation Plowshare which sought to discover whether nuclear weapons could be used for peaceful means in creating lakes, bays or canals. The explosion displaced twelve million tons of earth, creating the Sedan crater which is 1,280 feet (390 m) wide and 320 feet (100 m) deep.
Area 11 held 9 nuclear tests. Four of the tests were weapons safety experiments conducted as Project 56; they spread so much harmful radioactive material around the test sites that Area 11 has been called "Plutonium Valley". As is the case with Area 1, background radiation levels make Area 11 suitable for realistic training in methods of radiation detection.
The Rainier and Aqueduct Mesas within Area 12 held 61 nuclear tests, one of which involved two detonations.
There is no Area 13 within NTS, though such a name is attached to a section of Nellis Air Force Range which abuts the northeastern corner of Area 15. Project 57's weapons safety test was conducted here on 24 April 1957, spreading particles emitting alpha radiation over a large area. In 1981, the hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil of Area 13 were carried into NTS and stored at a waste facility. A 1998 reassessment of Area 13 found that buried metal debris exists in a landfill onsite. Data regarding Area 13's fate are still under review.
Area 14 occupies approximately 26 square miles in the central portion of the NNSS. Various outdoor experiments are conducted in this area. No atmospheric or underground nuclear tests were conducted in Area 14.
Three underground detonations took place in area 15 in the 1960s..
Pile Driver was a notable Department of Defense test. A massive underground installation was built to study the survivability of hardened underground bunkers undergoing a nuclear attack. Information from the test was used in designing hardened missile silos and the North American Aerospace Defense Command facility in Colorado Springs.
The abandoned Crystal and Climax mines are found in Area 15. Storage tanks hold contaminated materials.
From 1964 to 1981, the Environmental Protection Agency operated a 36-acre (150,000 m2) experimental farm in Area 15. Extensive plant and soil studies evaluated the uptake of pollutants in farm-grown vegetables and from the forage eaten by a diary herd of some 30 Holstein cows. Scientists also studied horses, pigs, goats, and chickens.
Area 16 held 6 nuclear tests.
No nuclear tests took place in Area 17.
No nuclear tests took place in Area 22. Area 22 once held Camp Desert Rock, a staging base for troops undergoing atmospheric nuclear blast training; as many as 9,000 troops were camped there in 1955. Desert Rock Airport was enlarged to 7,500 ft (2,300 m). length in 1969 by the Atomic Energy Commission. It is a transport hub for personnel and supplies going to NTS and also serves as an emergency landing strip.
No nuclear tests took place in Area 23. The town of Mercury, Nevada lies within Area 23. The area is the main pathway to and from NTS test locations by way of U.S. Route 95. An open sanitary landfill is located to the west of Mercury, and a closed hazardous waste site abuts the landfill. Mercury is also the main management area for the site which includes a bar and several restaurants, a bowling alley, movie theater, motel, large cafeteria, printing plant, hospital and medical center, warehousing, fleet management, liquidation and recycling center, engineering offices, dormitories and other administrative areas for both the O&M contractors, LLNL, LANL and SNL personnel.
No nuclear tests took place in Area 26.. Area 26 is the most arid section of NTS. An old abandoned mine, the Horn Silver Mine, was used for waste disposal between 1959 and the 1970s; some of the waste is radioactive. Water flow past the shaft could pose a human health risk, so corrective action has been planned.
An eight square miles complex was constructed in Area 26 in support of Project Pluto. It consisted of six miles of roads, the critical assembly building, the control building, the assembly and shop buildings, and utilities. Those buildings have been used recently as mock reactor facilities in the training of first responders.
No nuclear tests took place in Area 27. The section contains underground storage bunkers as well as assembly bays and lab space. The Super Kukla Reactor Facility was built in Area 27; it's now entombed in place.
The Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research (JASPER) facility was installed in Area 27, beginning in April 1999 when a former weapons assembly complex was decommissioned and repurposed to house the JASPER two-stage high-energy shock gun. By September 1999, facility modifications were finished, and in April 2003, all qualification testing using non-nuclear materials was complete. By May 2007, a series of tests comparing new plutonium weapons pits with old ones had confirmed that the plutonium cores in US weapons stockpiles were less subject to deleterious aging effects than previously anticipated.
Area 28 no longer exists; it was absorbed into Areas 25 and 27.
No nuclear tests took place in Area 29. The rugged terrain of Area 29 serves as a buffer between other areas of NTS. A helipad is present at Shoshone Peak.
Area 30 occupies approximately 59 square miles at the center of the western edge of the NNSS. Area 30 has rugged terrain and includes the northern reaches of Fortymile Canyon. It is used primarily for military training and exercises.
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- ^ One multiple test took place in Colorado; the other 62 were at NTS
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- ^ Western Shoshone spiritual leader dies
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- ^ National Security Technologies "About" Page
- ^ Counter Terrorism Operations Support - WMD Incident Site
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- DOE Nevada Test Site
- The Nevada Test Site Oral History Project
- Origins of the Nevada Test Site
- Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
- Account of NTS fallout in 1955 (PDF)
- Study Estimating Thyroid Doses of I-131 Received by Americans From Nevada Atmospheric Nuclear Bomb Test, National Cancer Institute (1997)
- Images of the Nevada Test Site on the atomic bomb website
- Location maps:
- Annotated bibliography for the Nevada Test Site from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
- 'Exposed' spreads anti-nuke message
- Nevada Test Site aerial photos by Doc Searles, all licensed Creative Commons
Nuclear weapons tests of the United States Operations
- Hardtack I
- Hardtack II
- Little Feller
- Project 56
- Project 57
- Project 58
- Project 58A
- Roller Coaster
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