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Post-nuclear ghost town
History radiates from artifacts at Nevada Test Site
By Andy Walton
MERCURY, Nevada -- This was never a town in the conventional sense. It had housing for 1,200, a cafeteria, recreational facilities, and a post office -- but no local government, and only one employer. But for most of the Cold War, Mercury, Nevada -- at the southeast corner of the Nevada Test Site -- was bustling.
While most Americans thought about, worried over or waited for the unthinkable, the Nevada Test Site held dress rehearsals. It was home to 928 nuclear explosions during the years, scattered over an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
The most famous and photogenic blasts here were in the early days. The images of devastated mock-ups of houses, test animals seared by firestorms and troops charging under a mushroom cloud are among the most enduring scenes of the nuclear arms race. All were from the period from 1951 to 1962, when bombs were tested in the atmosphere.
When that ended with the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Nevada Test Site, or NTS, went underground and continued testing in deep tunnels. The explosions pockmarked the desert; even underground tests can leave craters. In aerial photographs, the range dubbed Frenchman Flat looks like a moonscape.
The underground tests ceased in 1992, after President Bush signed a moratorium on underground testing. President Clinton extended the moratorium, and U.S. adoption of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty eventually followed. The area surrounding the gates to the Nevada Test Site, where anti-nuclear demonstrators were once a permanent fixture, is dead silent.
Though Mercury was only sort of a town, large parts of the test site look like a genuine ghost town. Low wooden bleachers that once were packed with VIPs during atmospheric tests are warped and grayed by the sun and infrequent rain, with brush sprouting under and between the long benches.
On Frenchman Flat, about a dozen miles north of Mercury, two frame houses built as test subjects for the May 5, 1955, "Apple II" blast sit as empty, weathered hulks, the wood scorched bare by the test. Inside, the floors are littered with evidence of the site's thriving wildlife population, and spent rifle shells testify to past troop exercises in the area. A faded radiation warning sign sits face-up in the debris.
Less familiar-looking structures also survived the tests. A concrete building with several large bays, open at both ends like a coin-operated car wash, was used to test building materials. Most of the walls and doors tested on this structure are gone, though some segments of brick survive. Around the structure sit free-standing window frames, used to test the properties of different types of glass, with some shards of glass still evident.
The shattered structures scattered around the site leave the impression that Civil Defense planners left little to chance. All manner of shelters, from low reinforced-concrete domes to square bunkers and underground garages, are in various states of destruction -- almost exactly as they were just after the blast. One mock bridge support suspended between concrete pilings is tortured out of shape, while less durable bridge designs are simply gone. Low pens held pigs, whose skin is similar to that of humans, for burn experiments.
The "First National Bank of Frenchman Flat" is a free-standing bank vault, its concrete-and-steel outer walls sheared back like the peel of a half-eaten banana, the one ton iron door removed after the test. Site spokesman Derek Scammell says the contents of the vault (no real currency, of course) survived the test.
Some reminders of the site's history are simply surreal. On a centrally located hill, a gun turret from a battleship is mounted, its three guns replaced by one tube of instruments. During atmospheric tests, the turret could point its sensors at the test site and take measurements. Now, the turret provides a nest for fiercely territorial birds who have an active hostility for intruding reporters.
The "Huron King" chamber was used to test the effects of radiation on satellites and other space-based hardware. It sat atop a shaft in a 1980 "vertical line of sight" experiment, fitted with mechanical closures that sealed the pipe before the shockwave could damage the instruments. It was then hauled into the desert, where it continues to cool down.
At one test site that never was, a tower full of instruments waits to do its job. This was to be the site of an October 1993 underground test, canceled by the moratorium. The tower is astride a deep shaft, and the generators and other supporting gear on trailers are off to the side. All that's missing is a nuclear bomb, or "device" as they're generally called.
One of the projects that seems strangest, in hindsight, is the Plowshare Program initiated by the Eisenhower-era Atomic Energy Commission. Plowshare searched for peaceful uses of nuclear weapons technology, taking its name from a passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah: "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."
The most striking reminder of Operation Plowshare is the Sedan Crater, 1,280 feet across and 320 feet deep. It was an experiment in the use of nuclear explosions for excavation, to dig canals or dredge harbors. The Sedan test detonated a 104-kiloton device 635 feet underground, displacing 12 million tons of earth. Tons of that sand became airborne fallout, and the process was deemed unsuitable for digging. Occasional Plowshare tests, 35 in all, continued until 1973.
In search of a mission
Back in Mercury, the only missing element from a Central Casting ghost town are the tumbleweeds. The movie theater and bowling alley featured in old photos are gone. The NTS no longer fields a basketball team. The cafeteria, designed to feed a few hundred people at a time, is empty. Outside the cafeteria, about 20 newspaper boxes are a reminder of the days when breakfast crowds were better. Only a couple contain papers today.
Still, according to the Department of Energy, Mercury is the second-largest settlement in Nye County. There always seems to be a use for a thousand square miles of controlled space. In Area 5 of the site, the Hazmat (hazardous materials) training center teaches fire and rescue personnel to cope with accidental or intentional chemical threats. NTS is courting aircraft companies that need a vast open space where experimental aircraft can crash harmlessly. And a painstaking government process is looking at Yucca Mountain, on the site's western border, as a place to secure nuclear waste for the next 10,000 years, give or take a millennium.
Even nuclear testing of a sort goes on. Scientists from Los Alamos National Lab in northern New Mexico have conducted five "subcritical" tests here, measuring the reaction of nuclear materials to explosions that do not trigger a chain reaction. U.S. officials say the tests are within the treaty, and that they are necessary to protect the safety of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
Opponents are dubious of those claims, and some still protest outside the gates -- if only briefly. In April 1998, one group of protesters left after a day as anti-nuclear organizations turned their attention to a California nuclear waste dump.
The near-indifference from protesters is another sign that the Nevada Test Site, still literally under the desert sun, has seen its figurative day in the sun come and go.