NSA members were able to enjoy a rare treat recently – a combination of history and entertainment – with a tour of the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS). The site, the size of Rhode Island and known until 2010 as the Nevada Test Site, was the location of hundreds of nuclear weapons tests during the Cold War.
Tour guide Ernest Williams led the way. Williams, a veteran of the Army and of the Nevada Test Site, witnessed dozens (hundreds?) of atmospheric and below-ground tests at the Nevada Test Site and other sites around the world. His accounts of the history of the site and nuclear testing, much of them from first-hand experience, were both very informative and extremely entertaining.
The tour departed from the National Atomic Testing Museum, “the only Congressionally mandated national museum in Nevada, and one of only 37 national museums in the nation created by congress and enacted by public law,” according to its website. For security reasons no cameras, phones or recording devices were allowed on the tour.
Fourteen atmospheric (above-ground) and over 800 below-ground nuclear tests occurred at the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1992, when the United States ceased all full-scale nuclear testing. Sites on the tour revealed the awesome power of the weapons tested there.
For each atmospheric test a variety of structures were constructed to assess the ability of different materials and methods to withstand a nuclear attack. Many of these structures remain in place today, each testifying to the capacity, or not, of that particular structure to endure the blast.
Other areas of the site resemble the surface of the moon, containing dozens of craters, the remnants of underground tests. The underground nuclear explosions vaporized tons of earth, causing the material above to settle dozens, sometimes hundreds, of feet below where it had been prior to the test, leaving these craters in their wake.
The NNSS conducts only a few public tours each year so the NSA was extremely fortunate to have been able to have this opportunity.