Archaeologists Explore Cold War Nuclear Test Site

By Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
July 15, 2002

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Bright yellow radiation suits are not standard-issue attire for archaeologists. Nor is a Geiger counter. But these precautions are sometimes required for the researchers exploring the eerie A-bomb rubble and ghost towns left over from Cold War blasts at the Nevada Test Site, formerly the Nevada Proving Grounds, on 1,375 square miles of desert 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

From 1951 until a test moratorium in 1992, 928 nuclear devices were exploded at the Nevada site. Aboveground tests were allowed until 1963, and night explosions were visible all the way to Las Vegas.

Cold War Hot Zone Worth Preserving

"The Nevada Test Site was one of the battlefields of the Cold War," said Troy Wade, who spent 31 years with the program, starting as an explosives engineer and retiring as an assistant secretary of Energy for Defense Programs at the United States Department of Energy (DOE). "Just as artifacts from a World War II battlefield are worth preserving, so are these."

"I'm one of the diminishing number of people who saw atmospheric tests," Wade added. "It's hard to describe the feeling of awe, when you see blinding light, feel the intense heat, and brace against the shock wave—it was very intense and very scary."

The unnatural Dr. Strangelove-era desert landscape is littered with mock towns, bridges, bomb shelters, bank vaults, underground parking structures, empty animal pens, and railroads, which were exposed to atomic blasts to determine what could survive a nuclear attack.

To Wade, the twisted relics at NTS represent "a snapshot of the destructive power of these weapons." Wade is chairman of the NTS Historical Foundation, which is planning a research center and museum in partnership with the DOE and the Desert Research Institute (DRI), a nonprofit environmental institute in Las Vegas that's affiliated with the Nevada state university system. The museum will house historic films and photos as well as artifacts from NTS.

The DOE and DRI have sponsored an archaeological mission to survey and discover structures that are worthy of preservation. To date seven sites have received this "historic place" status, with many more pending.

Though one might expect the government to have extensive documentation of this site, the only way to find what lies here is to look, said Colleen Beck, an archaeologist at DRI.

"There are many things that exist in the plans but were never built and vice versa," said Beck. For example, archaeological surveys reveal crumpled aluminum shelters and animal pens that were not included in original plans.

Continued on Next Page >>


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