I like museums and visit often. One of the more interesting and equally disturbing places I’ve spent a few hours was the National Atomic Testing Museum. This is located in Las Vegas and shares space with the National Nuclear Security Administration. Having lived in a neighboring state for many years, and run amuck through much of the west, I thought I knew most of what there was to know about past government practices with testing nuclear bombs. I was wrong.
The museum has taken great effort to layer transparency over what was considered a secretive national interest for many decades. There is a sense of disquiet that creeps over the visitor the deeper you get into the displays, until your skin fairly crawls. The journey is chronological and includes comprehensive materials from popular culture as well as governmental archives. Public interests and concerns are annotated and often dismissed by the records.
In some cases the sense of disregard is chilling.
There are a lot of maps. Some illustrate the geographic range of the test sites. Others display the impact of hundreds of detonations at various levels and depths. Yes, hundreds…over a thousand. The pictures of people demonstrating the loss of skin pigmentation after exposure to blasts was stomach-churning.
The Cold War was alive and well during the height of the U.S. fascination with atomic devices. The rhetoric and propaganda, suppurating with alarmist announcements, are evidenced in the documents on display. Still it surprised me to see direct evidence of the government’s complete disregard for public safety. The maps showing the range of radiation exposure extend far beyond the practical boundaries of the test sites. I’ve worked in some of those lonely places. In retrospect I should have taken along a Geiger counter.
My generation celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. We rejoiced at the promise of Perestroika. As college students we flocked together and drank, danced arm-in-arm with young people who’d newly escaped borders locked down by old-fashioned thinking. I can’t grasp the level of fear that gripped a nation and made the detonating of nuclear bombs a reasonable thing. A desirable enterprise. A necessity to protect our way of life.
Testing began at the Pacific Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands shortly after World War II. The displays about this period are particularly poignant. Official test reports speak of terrifying results, unimaginable damage caused by underwater detonations – and yet the endeavor continued. Government officials decided a new place was needed to conduct underground experiments and the Nevada Proving Grounds were born. Testing went on for decades.
The last detonations occurred in 1992 although the government has considered resuming tests since 2006. The radiation levels at the most affected locations will remain toxic for tens of thousands of years. Water is contaminated and that of course, filters into the food chain.
Here’s a fascinating link dating from February 1955 about Atomic Test Effects in the Nevada Test Site Region. Read a bit and see if this would allay your concerns. I think the public was more trusting in the past.
Could this happen again? Sure.
I can’t understand the justifications that convince the general public to support such ideas, and because of that, this is a museum I’ll visit again. I want to grasp how these fears (groundless or otherwise), become pivotal supports for such destructive behavior. This is one part of history that leaves a lasting legacy – the medical results of which will be tempered for generations to come. Between 1945 and 1962 more than two hundred nuclear atmospheric tests were conducted. Thousands of individuals were exposed in various ways, to radioactive fallout. So many that the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed in 1990. More than 20,000 claims have been approved and that number will continue to rise.
A visit to the National Atomic Testing Museum is alarming and disturbing but also fascinating. The facility is interesting and the photographs are stunning, the personnel are wonderfully informed and enthusiastic. You will leave better informed than perhaps you want to be.
You should visit the next time you’re in Las Vegas. The more adventurous types can even apply to participate in a tour inside the restricted area, guided by the National Nuclear Safety Institute. Let me know how that goes.