There were Indian arrowheads and bottles turned purple by the sun. A few of grandma’s precious Indian baskets were on display. He had his favorite books and many family photographs, a gun cabinet with his hunting rifles, and a desk where he wrote letters, paid bills and had on file some of his favorite possessions: his certificates of participation in the many nuclear bomb projects from the decades he worked at the Nevada Test Site.
It was there, at grandpa’s desk, that I learned about Jackass Flat and Frenchman Flat, there that I started to appreciate the importance of the test site to many thousands of Nevadans and to the nation itself. He was just a construction painter, my grandfather, but he spoke with great reverence about playing a small part in such an enormous effort to keep America safe.
From camp cooks to atomic scientists, a generation of Nevada workers earned good livings at the test site, which marks its 60th anniversary this year. The economic fortunes of Tonopah and Beatty rose and fell with the action at the test site. Nuclear test bans that seemed so good for America and the safety of the world were considered bad news for test site employees.
From Jan. 27, 1951, when the first atomic bomb was dropped from an airplane over Frenchman Flat, until the final nuclear test was conducted in 1992, more than 1,000 tests were conducted above and below ground. At the height of the testing buildup during the Cold War, Mercury was a bustling town — although not one tourist could visit.
Test site workers paid a heavy price for their efforts in the nuclear testing age. Cancer claimed many, and today survivors and their families struggle to receive compensation from the government. A program designed to divvy up benefits to workers’ families is a frustrating revolving door in a house of bureaucratic mirrors.
The test site once employed more than 11,000 workers. Now just 3,000 work there as part of the next generation of activity at the test site.
Even the name has been changed. In August 2010, it was renamed the Nevada National Security Site to reflect its growing role in the development of strategies in the areas of counterterrorism, homeland security and treaty verification. It’s also the home of the National Center for Nuclear Security. According to an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, more than 24,000 first responders already have trained at the site.
Many journalists and politicians have noted with head-slapping irony the dramatic difference in public perception between the venerable test site and the volatile Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project. While the test site is appreciated by most — give or take a gathering of anti-nuclear protesters — Yucca Mountain is hopelessly bogged down in radioactive politics at the highest levels. When Senate Majority Leader and Yucca Mountain enemy Harry Reid won re-election last November, the repository’s fate was sealed tighter than a lead-lined casket.
For all his work to dismantle Yucca Mountain, Reid has used his Washington clout to speed the transformation of the old test site into the new national security operation. Last July, Reid announced more than $43 million in federal funding to be used for “expanding the mission of the Nevada Test Site to include nonproliferation and arms control agreement verification research to help advance the president’s weapons nonproliferation objectives.”
In a generation, and by any name, the test site has evolved from the nation’s top atomic testing facility into its premier nuclear-verification training center. In other words, its mission continues to help keep America and the world a safer place.
It’s 60 and going strong. Grandpa would be proud.
John L. Smith writes a weekly column on rural Nevada. He also writes for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-383-0295 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.