Stepping out of the infernal desert heat, I’m welcomed into the reception area by a Fat Man, one of America’s first atomic weapons. The US nuclear legacy is on display inside the National Atomic Testing Museum located on Flamingo Road opposite a Las Vegas strip mall.
The museum, a program of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation and affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, is one of the few places one can come face to face with an atom bomb.
Just two miles east of the glitz of the Las Vegas Strip, the building is a shrine, of sorts, to the 928 nuclear weapons tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1992. Through a mix of galleries, models, and animated displays, the museum presents a concise but thorough overview of America’s endeavor to develop, test, and use nuclear weapons.
Exhibits tell the story of scientists sworn to secrecy who raced against the Nazis to be the first to harness the power of the atom in the form of a bomb and how those weapons changed the world.
Visitors are confronted with nuclear weaponry the moment they step through the door. The Fat Man 3,500-pound steel armor ballistic casing on display is all but identical to the 21-kiloton plutonium implosion bomb used against Nagasaki in August 1945. The same weapon type code named ‘The Gadget’ had been tested for the first time less than a month earlier on July 16 at Alamogordo Bombing Range in New Mexico.
Throughout the museum, the scientists who developed and conducted 100 atmospheric and 828 underground nuclear tests in Nevada are lauded for their intellectual prowess and steadfast dedication to advancing America’s atomic mission, depicted as patriots and unsullied by questions of ethical ambiguity or moral compromise.
In one six-foot-tall display, nearly two dozen Nevada Test Site partners are thanked by name, including the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Department of Energy, the US Geological Survey, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Laboratories, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Services Nevada, and others.
The text at the center of the display reads, “For more than half a century, the highly skilled scientists, technicians and craftsmen of the Nevada Test Site, in conjunction with their national weapons laboratory partners and the management and operations contractor for the site, have helped solve some of the most difficult technical problems faced by our nation.”
A more critical assessment might suggest that they didn’t solve the most difficult technical problems, rather they created them.
BRINGING THE BOMB HOME
Between 1945 and 1992, the US carried out 1,054 nuclear tests, the overwhelming majority of them at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). Other tests were conducted in Alaska, Colorado, Mississippi, New Mexico, more than 100 in the Pacific, and three in the South Atlantic.
One museum panel explains why the US, which was already testing atomic weapons at the Pacific Proving Grounds (Marshall Islands), added an additional test site in Nevada. A quotation from Rear Admiral William S. “Deak” Parsons in 1948 offers an argument for introducing nuclear testing to the continental United States, saying that the continued testing of nuclear weapons far away (in the Pacific) “can contribute to an unhealthy, dangerous and unjustified fear of atomic detonations…”
The exhibit explains how the logistical problems of conducting nuclear tests in the Pacific (Bikini and Enewetak atolls) led to Project Nutmeg, the search for an alternative “proving grounds” in the continental United States. While high yield thermonuclear tests continued (the US conducted 18 megaton strength tests in the Marshall Islands), the US wanted a site closer to home where it could carry out relatively lower yield tests.
The commercialization of nuclear weapons comes in the form of Little Boy and Fat Man key chains, refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, mushroom cloud shot glasses, and an atomic bomb-shaped ice cube tray that belies the human and environmental toll these weapons have taken.
After considering four potential test sites in Utah, New Mexico, and North Carolina, the Nevada location was ultimately chosen. The site went through more than half a dozen names including “Emergency Proving Ground” and “Las Vegas Test Site” before settling on Nevada Test Site. The area was eventually increased to 1,375 square miles, larger than Rhode Island.
In 1951, when atmospheric nuclear tests began at NTS, the desert town of Las Vegas was still being developed as a gambling and entertainment resort where fortune and fun were the mission. But just 65 miles to the north, nuclear detonations were close enough to rattle windowpanes along the Las Vegas strip.
Through videos, photos, and artifacts, the museum contextualizes America’s mood during the early atomic age, showing how Las Vegas casinos and the chamber of commerce capitalized on the nuclear tests themselves, selling them as a form of entertainment. “Atomic cocktails” were served to tourists to conclude a night of carousing, just as nuclear blasts created an atomic “sunrise” visible in the distance.
In addition to depictions of bomb shelter test dummies, technical summaries of underground testing, and 1950s animation explaining nuclear fission and a cartoon “atomic genie” exploding as a hellish nuclear fireball, the museum also displays a B-53 thermonuclear bomb casing from the early 1960s. At 9 megatons, the B-53 was among the most powerful nuclear weapons developed by the US.
WHY NUCLEAR WEAPONS?
For all their ferocity and destruction, much of the museum’s panel narration describes nuclear weapons in relatively generous terms. One panel asks “Why Nuclear Weapons?” The answer (“to protect its citizens from enemies”) is followed by: “A common assumption is that America’s nuclear testing program was solely or even primarily intensified to increase the number or destructiveness of weapons. This is wrong.” It goes on to say that the early atomic bombs were “big, heavy, and dirty” but through stockpile modernization, nuclear weapons have become “smaller, radiologically cleaner, and safer weapons.”
This presentation of a kinder, gentler nuclear weapon may foreshadow a yet-to-be-built exhibit called “The Bomb without the Boom” that will tell the story of stockpile stewardship and nuclear modernization. The modernization of America’s nuclear forces is estimated to cost between 1.2 and 2 trillion dollars by 2046.
A JACKPOT FOR RESEARCHERS
One of the museum’s greatest assets, its Nuclear Testing Archive, could be easily missed by visitors unaware of the resources available for researchers. Nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein says the archive and the Department of Energy’s OpenNet offer a trove of documents available online or by request, adding, “It’s been a core part of my research for decades.”
For those interested in the finer points of atmospheric and underground nuclear testing, or scientific and political nuclear competition, the museum offers plenty to inspire further investigation. For everyone else, there is a museum store with a collection of merchandise, some kitsch, some curious. The commercialization of nuclear weapons comes in the form of Little Boy and Fat Man key chains, refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, mushroom cloud shot glasses, and an atomic bomb-shaped ice cube tray that belies the human and environmental toll these weapons have taken.
Crass souvenirs aside, the National Atomic Testing Museum is a valuable place to learn about the scientific and technical aspects of nuclear weapons testing and the central role of the Nevada Test Site. The museum has done a good job making a complicated subject accessible to the public.
WORDS LEFT UNSAID
That said, other than several passing references to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Marshall Islands, and to the health and environmental impacts of nuclear testing, one could visit and leave without understanding the ongoing suffering that continues to this day. The impact of nuclear weapons isn’t limited to Japan and the Marshall Islands, but includes “downwinder” communities across the US southwest as well as communities elsewhere in French Polynesia, Algeria, Xinjiang, Kazakhstan, Australia, and Kiribati, following tests by France, China, the Soviet Union, the UK, and the US.
Not surprisingly, there is no mention of the 130 tons of soil transported from the Nevada Test Site to Enewetak Atoll for experimental use (without local consent) in the 1958 final nuclear test in the Marshall Islands as reported in the Los Angeles Times.
There is also no reference — not even a whisper — of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in 2021 and now has 86 signatories and 66 state parties who have banned nuclear weapons.
In a city dedicated to gambling, luck, and games of chance, the National Atomic Testing Museum offers an up-close look at America’s nuclear enterprise which is arguably humanity’s highest stakes gamble of all.
Jon Letman is a Hawaii-based independent journalist covering people, politics, and the environment in the Asia-Pacific region.