Boom! Nevada's nuclear legacy (pictures)

For decades, hundreds of nuclear weapons were tested at the vast Nevada Test Site. CNET Road Trip 2012 stopped by for a chilling tour.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
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Priscilla test

MERCURY, Nev.--On June 24, 1957, a 37-kiloton atomic bomb detonated less than a hundred miles from Las Vegas. But this wasn't war, and no people were killed by the weapon that was three times the size of the nuclear device dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

In fact, this was a test, known as the Priscilla test, that was conducted on what was then called the Nevada Test Site, a highly secure, 1,375-square-mile facility in the desert and mountains north of Las Vegas.

Now called the Nevada National Security Site, it's been years since any nuclear weapons were tested there. But from 1951 to 1992, 1,021 atomic bombs were detonated here, including 828 below ground. And today, the site is part history lesson and part U.S. Department of Energy research center.

As part of Road Trip 2012, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman took a trip out to see the effects of some of those nukes, and left with a newfound appreciation for the most destructive weapons humankind has ever created.

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Bank vault

A big part of what went on at the former Nevada Test Site was the government's evaluations of the effects of nuclear weapons on just about anything they could think of -- pigs, building, parking garages, houses, and much more. Radiating out from "ground zero," the spot of each detonation, scientists built all kinds of things and looked to record how they were impacted by the atomic fireball, and/or the overpressure blast created by the bomb.

This is the remnants of a bank vault that was built some distance away from the 1957 Priscilla blast. Although the base structure survived the detonation, the side of it was severely damaged. However, bank notes that were placed inside (there was a thick vault door in place at the time) were largely undamaged.

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Concrete mound

This is the side of a concrete dome with a six-inch reinforced cement shell that was facing away from the blast. This side clearly did OK. The other side did not fare as well (see next photograph).

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Front wrecked

This is the side of the concrete dome that was facing the blast. As the photo shows, the six-inch reinforced concrete shell caved in and was almost entirely destroyed.

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Rail trestle

Another structure built in the Weapons Effects Area near the Priscilla Test was a rail trestle. Though more of it survived than can be seen today, it was severely damaged by the blast.

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Bent metal

Looking up at the remains of the rail trestle, it is possible to see the effects of the 37-kiloton blast. The curved steel I-beams were straight before the explosion.

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Parking structure

Because it was built into the ground and was made from thick concrete, this parking structure -- which had a car inside it -- was not damaged by the Priscillla blast.

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Aluminum structure

One of the purposes of the tests was to see how different materials and types of structures performed in an atomic blast, because the government was interested in learning how American communities could be protected in the case of an attack by the Soviets. This structure demonstrated that aluminum did not hold up well in the face of an atomic detonation.

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Black and white Priscilla blast

Another look at the Priscilla blast, this time in black and white. It was one of 93 that were done above ground at the former Nevada Test Site. Of those, some weapons were installed on the top of towers, while others were shot from cannons, and still others were floated in the air by balloons.

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VIP bleachers

It was possible to see the blasts from the tests in Las Vegas. But many military and government VIPs -- not to mention reporters -- went to the Nevada Test Site to watch up close, and this became something of a spectator sport, it is said. Here, a few miles away from Frenchman Flat, one of the flat, dry pieces of desert where tests were conducted, a set of bleachers was erected from which VIPs could watch -- while either wearing the equivalent of a welding mask or looking away at the moment of detonation to avoid being blinded.

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House illuminated

In this famous photograph, a demonstration house is seen about 3,500 feet away from a 1953 detonation called "Annie," a 16-kiloton weapon. All the light in the picture is from the blast, which took place just a fraction of a second earlier.

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House destroyed

The same house, seen less than two seconds later, being completely destroyed by the blast from the Annie weapon. Another house built about 7,500 feet away from ground zero of that detonation was very badly damaged, and later completely demolished.

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Apple 2 house

Scientists wanted to know how typical 1950s-style houses would hold up in the face of a nuclear blast, so they built several out in the desert of the Nevada Test Site -- now known as the Nevada National Security Site -- to find out. The houses, some two-story, some three-story, included a basement and a bomb shelter. They also constructed an electrical transformer station, a propane tank filling station, a radio station, a weigh station, and other small structures, according to a Nevada National Security Site fact sheet.

This house was constructed about a mile from the 1955 detonation of a 29-kiloton weapon called Apple 2, that had been placed atop at 500-foot tower. The house, although it appears to have been singed on the outside, and some of the interior was damaged, largely survived intact.

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The only major visible damage to the house was to the top half of the brick chimney, which shifted by several inches. A brick house a bit further away from the blast also survived with little more than cracks visible to the naked eye.

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Sedan crater explosion

Fifty years ago, on July 6, 1962, the U.S. Department of Energy's predecessor, called the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, exploded a 104-kiloton thermonuclear weapon 635 feet underground. But rather than directing the energy of the blast downward, as was the case with most of the underground tests done at the site, in this case, the energy was focused upward.

The idea at the time was that nuclear devices could be used for certain peaceful means such as giant excavation projects. And it was true: the detonation displaced about 12 million tons of dirt, and caused a crater 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet across.

"The Atomic Energy Commission established the Plowshare Program as a research and development project to explore the technical and economic feasibility of using nuclear explosives for industrial applications," according to a NNSS fact sheet. "The Plowshare Program, began in 1958 and continued until 1975, operated under the auspice that relative inexpensive energy available from nuclear explosions could possible prove useful for a wide variety of peaceful purposes. Between (1961 and 1973), the United States conducted 27 Plowshare nuclear explosive tests." The thought was that the program could be useful for excavating canals, harbors, highways, or railroad cuts through mountain ranges, as well as open pit mining, and other uses. But the resulting radiation made such sites unusable, and the program was eventually abandoned.

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Sedan crater from above

An aerial view of Sedan Crater, which was the result of the 1962 detonation. The crater is 1,280 feet across and 320 feet deep.

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Sedan crater up close

Today, monthly tours take visitors to a number of locations at the Nevada National Security Site, including to a viewing platform alongside Sedan Crater. Trying to capture the quarter-mile wide hole in the ground in one photograph is nearly impossible.

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Poster with craters

A publicity poster left at the Nevada National Security Site showcases the results of the many underground nuclear tests done there. Each of the craters seen in the poster is the result of one of the tests.

In an underground test, a hole was drilled straight down, from a few hundred to a couple thousand feet deep. A rack of diagnostic equiopment along with the weapon was dropped into the shaft, and then the hole was plugged with various materials so that no radiation would rise above the surface.

The detonation would initially vaporize the dirt and rock, but as it cooled, it would subside, causing craters like these.

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Controlled area

Though much of the Nevada National Security Site is said to be safe from radiation, actual test sites are still considered unsafe, and signs indicate where visitors and workers alike must avoid.

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Icecap, as this tower is known, was "the modular tower built for...a joint United Kingdom [and] Los Alamos National Laboratory undergound nuclear test scheduled for the spring of 1993," an NNSS fact sheet explains. "What was scheduled to be the 929th test came to a halt when President [George H.W.] Bush signed the Underground Nuclear Testing Moratorium on October 3, 1992."

Left as a monument to such tests, the 152-foot-tall tower "sits on top of a shaft which was originally drilled to a depth of 1,600 feet...The nuclear device would have been attached to the bottom of the rack and kept cold by using dry ice -- hence the name 'Icecap.' Subzero-degree air from the dry ice would have chilled the nuclear device to minus-42 degrees, simulating the temperatures a missile system would encounter in space."

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Device setup

High in the tower, the rack on which the bomb would have been placed can still be seen, along with a mock bomb.

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Diagnostic trailer with special feet

Ringing the Icecap site is a series of diagnostic trucks, each of which was meant to take various measurements related to the detonation. The trucks were parked outside of the expected subsidance crater, and were connected to the tower by thick cable. As well, they had specially-designed feet that were meant to cushion the trucks from the force of the blast, allowing the measurements to take place without being affected

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Russian monitoring

By this stage in the nuclear testing era, the Soviets and the Americans had agreed to allow monitoring of each others' tests. Alongside the icecap site, this small shaft and wiring was meant for the Soviets to measure the test.

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Plug system

This shows the kinds of materials that were used to plug a shaft at the bottom of which would be an underground detonation.

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These are MDARS, robotic security vehicles that can roam the Nevada National Security Site today. They have mounted cameras on them and are used especially at night to secure the site, where top-secret nuclear projects are still worked on, although not nuclear weapons.

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Underground tunnels

One of the current missions at the Nevada National Security Site is to conduct what are known as "subcritical experiments." This is because the U.S. still maintains a large stockpile of nuclear weapons, and under the U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration's Stockpile Stewardship Programs, the government must "maintain the safety and reliability" of that stockpile.

At a site called U1a, scientists have created a large network of underground tunnels where they conduct these experiments. Each test is performed in a side tunnel, and generally, a small amount of plutonium will be bombarded with some kind of material in order to smash it and release energy. This is what is known as the subcritical experiment. After finishing each experiment, that side tunnel is closed off and filled with concrete.

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Water monitoring

Contaminated soil from throughout the NNSS is gathered up and taken to an area where it is buried, cataloged, and monitored. Vegetation is planted above it, and large blue cisterns are placed above the site to monitor ground water below for radioactivity.

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Delta plane

Another current mission at the Nevada National Security Site is to help train first responders from around the U.S. in how to deal with a possible dirty bomb or other radiological weapon that might be found in a wide variety of different scenarios, from crashed airplanes to derailed trains to local storefronts.

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