Archaeologists Explore Cold War Nuclear Test Site

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Twisted Relics

Aboveground testing was confined to three areas—Frenchmen Flat, Yucca Flat, and Pahute and Rainier Mesas, where the archaeologists do most of their work.

When determining whether something is worthy of being deemed an historic site, the more destruction that occurred, the better, said Bill Johnson, an archaeological team leader from DRI. "The more damage, the greater its integrity—it actually looks as though it was subjected to a nuclear weapon."

At Yucca Flat, a 700-foot (213-meter) tower that once stood at Ground Zero holding a bomb is now a gnarled, twisted mass of huge I beams and steel cables covered in glass formed from molten sand.

The parched lakebed of Frenchman Flat was exposed to 14 explosions. Here, a few hundred structures have been found. One survivor 1,150 feet (350 meters) from the blast site is a battered but intact Mosler bank vault—all the documents inside at the time were unharmed.

"These structures convey fear—frightening times, terrifying power," said Johnson.

"There is a mystique to the Atomic Age, and Bill's work creates a link between the mythology and the physical remains," said historian Mandy Whorton, formerly of DOE, now with the environmental research firm Harding ESE, in Golden, Colorado, who has studied early radar sites in the Arctic Circle, Greenland, and Alaska.

Ghost Towns, X-Files, and Lunar Landscape

Johnson's colleague Beck ventured into a huge structure known as the Reactor Maintenance Assembly and Disassembly building, where scientists worked to develop nuclear rocket engines.

"The building was filled with water and there was no electricity—it was my most 'X-files'-like moment," Beck said. Wrapped in bright yellow suits and armed with flashlights and Geiger counters, "we walked through mini hot cells and tracks that had been used to move radioactive material around."

At Yucca Flat, Johnson has explored an Atomic Age ghost town—the disintegrating skeletal remains of a Japanese village. The village was never subjected to a nuclear explosion; instead a bare nuclear reactor spewed radiation into these houses to help determine the exposure levels of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. Scientists used the dosage information for medical studies and treatment regimens.

When the testing moved underground in 1963, the program became more secretive, said Beck. But the results of the subterranean program could not be completely hidden. An aerial view of the Site reveals a cratered surface caused by underground explosions. The landscape is so moonlike that one crater, the Schooner Crater, was actually used to train Apollo astronauts for moon walks.

A-bomb Mannequins

One of the more bizarre artifacts yet to be discovered is a family bomb shelter equipped as if for a "Leave It to Beaver" family, with fully dressed mannequins, TVs, furniture, and a kitchen full of canned goods.

"It would be like opening King Tut's tomb" to find that 1950s time-capsule shelter, Johnson said.

He's already tracking one set of mannequins. The strongest clue is that they were dressed in clothes from J.C. Penney. In 1955, J.C. Penney stores in Nevada displayed the mannequins before and after an A-blast, a store manager at the time has told Johnson.

"You just know those mannequins are sitting in a J.C. Penney basement somewhere," Johnson said.

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