65°F
weather icon Clear

County honors 65th anniversary of first nuclear test

Jan. 27 the 65th anniversary of the first detonation of a nuclear device at the Nevada Test Site. To commemorate it, on Feb. 2, Nye County Commission Chairman Frank Carbone proclaimed the importance of that event to the history of Nye County, the state of Nevada, and our country in an official proclamation.

It is a modest way to recognize one of a very few locations on earth where human beings first learned to release the energy of the atom.

Birth of the Bomb

In the early morning on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated on a bombing range near White Sands, New Mexico. It had the equivalent yield of 19,000 tons of TNT. Three weeks later, on Aug. 6, a bomb known as “Little Boy” was dropped from a B-29 named the Enola Gay on Hiroshima, Japan. On August 9, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Two days later, Japan surrendered.

Following World War II, the United States continued its development of nuclear weapons, testing them in the South Pacific. American authorities declared it would take a national emergency for testing to occur within the United States. The outbreak of the Korean War in the summer of 1950 presented such an emergency. U.S. officials stepped up production of the materials necessary to make atomic bombs and assigned higher priority to development of an H-bomb. But where were the bombs going to be tested?

Nevada Test Site

A site in southern Nevada was soon chosen. On Dec. 18, 1950, President Harry S. Truman designated a portion of the Las Vegas–Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range for nuclear weapons testing. Located 65 miles north of Las Vegas in Nye County, the site initially consisted of about 640 square miles. Eventually it was expanded to about 1,350 square miles, about 40 miles long and 28 miles wide. The area’s sparse population was a major factor in its selection.

On Jan. 27, 1951, the first atomic test, named Able, was set off at the site. It was a 1-kiloton bomb dropped from a bomber over Frenchman Flat. Over the next 10-plus years, 99 more atomic tests were conducted in the atmosphere above the Test Site. In 1962, following the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, testing moved underground. The treaty prohibited testing in the air, in outer space, or underwater. In all, 828 nuclear devices were tested underground at the Test Site.

Despite all that activity, only 110 square miles of the Test Site are reported to have been contaminated by the tests, and only 4.6 square miles of surface are said to be contaminated by gamma radiation. Other forms of research also took place at the Test Site, including programs to develop nuclear rocket engines and radioactive waste management technologies.

In the mid-1980s, when activity at the Test Site was still going strong, 9 percent of the workforce in southern Nevada is said to have been either directly or indirectly dependent on Test Site activities. Total employment was more than 18,000 and it contributed $1 billion a year to the southern Nevada economy.

During the mid-1950s, my father, brother, and I operated a mine in Reveille Range, located north of the Test Site. Our camp was located on the west side of Reveille Valley, where we could look down the valley onto the Test Site. From our ringside seat, we witnessed any number of nuclear detonations, most in the early morning hours.

I remember one time, after eating lunch in the shack we called home, emerging into the daylight and being startled to see a big mushroom cloud down the valley, silhouetted against the gorgeous blue Nevada sky.

My father and I went to work on the Test Site in 1958. He worked in tunnels there for 20 years until he retired. I worked there and at the test range out of Tonopah during the summers to earn money for college.

I doubt I would have been able to complete college without that employment.

Powerful Presence

The Nevada Test Site represents a powerful presence in human history. Its meaning is deep and profound. It was there that human beings began to learn to control the enormous energy present in the atom – first with uranium and plutonium, then with hydrogen. The development of weapons of war based on release of these energies by the United States and the Soviet Union prevented, I believe, the outbreak of a third world war, and does so today. I believe that without the threat of use of nuclear weapons, there would have been a high probability of a terrible ground war in Europe between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nations tend to practice restraint if they think they might be obliterated by an opponent’s nuclear weapons.

It was at the Nevada Test Site that people went a long way toward harnessing the enormous power of the atom. In that energy source lies the future of humanity.

Native Americans and numerous cultures around the world have what are called sacred sites. A sacred site is a locality or environmental feature that is believed to be profoundly special and deeply meaningful. Examples include sites where human beings are thought to have first appeared on earth, where the gods may make themselves known, or where great events occurred, such as the discovery of fire.

Sacred sites include Jerusalem and the place in Mexico where the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego.

I believe the Nevada Test Site might well qualify as a sacred site.

Bob McCracken has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and is the author of numerous books in the Nye County Town History Project.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST
Nye County approves jail bond refi

With interest rates in America so low and Nye County finally free from a bond clause that prevented it from doing so, earlier this year the county began the process necessary to refinance the bond that had been taken out to fund the construction of the Nye County Detention Center in Pahrump.

Serenity Health issues apology to Pahrump community

After nearly eight full months of providing COVID-19 testing to the local community without any reported problems, officials with Serenity Health have issued a formal apology to the community following a vexing night in which the health care provider ran out of testing materials and area residents who had been waiting in line were told they would not be able to receive a test that evening.

A more thankful, less stressful holiday

In a year that’s already proven “interesting,” Thanksgiving will be no exception. Lots of folks are hosting smaller gatherings, meaning fewer people to bring dishes or help in the kitchen. Some may be making their very first Thanksgiving dinner. To assist in making this a low-stress, enjoyable holiday for all, I offer a few tips.

$500k in chip sealing set for Pahrump roadways

In August of this year, Nye County commissioners gave the green light to resurrect the county’s long-dormant chip sealing program and with approval of a list of selected roads granted and the construction contract officially awarded, the 2020 Chip Seal Program is now ready to roll.

Local man facing child sex charges

A Pahrump man was arrested this month over allegations surrounding child pornography.

Pahrump Gunfighters forced to cancel show

For many years the Pahrump Gunfighters have entertained and thrilled the local community with their Old West shows and skits at Dusty Flats on West Stagecoach Road.

Kellogg Park concrete contract awarded

What once was bare land covered in nothing more than sparse desert vegetation is slowly but surely giving way to what will one day be the town of Pahrump’s fifth park, Kellogg Park.

Walmart more than doubles number of personal shoppers

Saying that more than ever the company knows how important it will be for customers to use time-saving services such as pickup and delivery, Walmart has more than doubled the number of personal shoppers versus last year.

Nevada flu vaccination data dashboard launched

Nevada’s influenza vaccination data dashboard is now live providing weekly updates of information from Nevada WebIZ, Nevada’s Immunization Information System. This new tool will help Nevada’s fight against influenza, a critical step in the fight against COVID-19.

BLM postpones wild horse gather at Fish Creek HMA

The Bureau of Land Management Mount Lewis Field Office is postponing the 2020 Fish Creek wild horse gather to later this year or early 2021 because of operational concerns with COVID-19 related to this particular gather.