Originally created 11/21/00

Area tested atomic devices



Other sites designed and built the atomic bombs of the Cold War. But the Nevada Test Site was where the nation ensured that its weapons of mass destruction worked.

For four decades, scientists detonated 925 nuclear devices at the site, a 1,350-square-mile expanse of desert only 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The site was founded in 1951 as the Nevada Proving Grounds.

At the time, the United States already had detonated nuclear devices at the tiny Pacific atolls of Bikini and Enewetak, but the Korean War forced the nation to seek a test site within its own borders, according to a history published by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Atomic Energy Commission - the precursor to today's Energy Department - preferred the site largely because of its size, its low rainfall and small population, and because it was already owned by the government.

President Truman approved the site Jan. 11, 1951. Within three weeks, scientists conducted the first test there, "Able," detonating a bomb with the explosive force of 1 kiloton of dynamite.

Hundreds of such tests would ensue during the next four decades. Bombs were dropped from airplanes, perched atop towers and buried in shafts and detonated, to test both their explosive potential and the ability of structures and vehicles to withstand the blasts.

But as the Cold War dragged during the decades, treaties narrowed the scope of the Nevada Test Site's blasts. A 1963 treaty prohibited atmospheric detonations, pushing tests underground. A 1974 treaty, finally ratified by the United States in 1990, limited nuclear test explosions to yields less than 150 kilotons.

The test site saw its last blast Sept. 23, 1992. Less than two weeks later, President Bush signed a moratorium on weapons testing that continues today.

As an alternative to tests, the Energy Department now plans to simulate explosions of nuclear devices using supercomputers at several sites.

But the hundreds of blasts that occurred already had exacted their toll on the environment. Soil and water beneath the site are contaminated with americium, cesium, plutonium, strontium and other radioactive elements.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.