Carved out of the Las Vegas (Nellis Air Force) Bombing and Gunnery Range in 1950, the Nevada Test Site covers 1,350 square miles of desert in southern Nevada, approximately eighty miles from Las Vegas. The Nevada congressional delegation fought hard for the test site, hoping that it would bring a much-needed economic boost to Las Vegas. The Atomic Energy Commission selected the site because it was already under government control and offered the advantages of dry, clear weather, fairly predictable winds, and vast unpopulated space. It designated areas where specific activities could take place, among them Mercury, Yucca Flat, and Frenchman Flat.
Mercury first accommodated a temporary camp to house workers. As the testing program geared up, the firm of Homes and Narver designed the town as the administrative and residential center of the test site. Quonset huts initially sheltered most functions. Now the buildings include wood-frame structures, concrete block dormitories and offices, and a trailer park.
Frenchman Flat was selected because its dry lake bed was well suited to testing and analyzing the results of explosions and effects of radiation on structures. Between 1951 and 1968, fourteen atmospheric and five underground tests occurred here. The military tested various building materials and forms to see which could withstand nuclear blasts. Today the site has an eerie quality, with scattered remnants of various tests bathed in the brilliant white sun.
Yucca Flat also became the site of many atmospheric and underground tests as well as radiation tests. Training exercises involving army troops at Camp Desert Rock took place here, in addition to tests used to analyze the results of bombing civilian areas. Parts of a town, built to replicate a suburban neighborhood, remain.
Between 1951 and 1963, when the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty halted atmospheric testing, an average of twelve bombs per year exploded on the site. Underground testing continued until 1992. Since the 1992 moratorium on all nuclear testing, much of the test site has become something of a ghost town, though nonnuclear tests take place. Most scientific research now centers on the federal government's nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. This site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, could become the final resting place for all of the nation's highly radioactive nuclear waste.
The landscape of the test site appears remarkably untouched in areas that experienced atmospheric testing. Though dangerous areas are marked by signs warning visitors of high radiation levels, vegetation and animals have returned to these once-ruined areas. Underground testing has caused the most obvious physical damage. Subsidence craters, caused by the collapse of earth during the explosion of over 700 underground tests, form pockmarks across Yucca Flat. In the northwestern corner of the test site, rocky Pahute Mesa, the site of considerable underground testing, has shattered under the duress of numerous explosions.
The buildings at Mercury, like those at most other military installations, include Quonset huts, butler buildings, and concrete-block structures. Ordinary in appearance, the buildings and structures on the flats differ only in having been designed and built specifically for nuclear testing. Buildings of different materials and shapes, for example, aluminum domes of various thicknesses, were tested for resistance to physical damage during the detonation of bombs.
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