Posted on: July 24, 2023, 08:04h.
Last updated on: July 20, 2023, 08:17h.
Director Christopher Nolan’s latest film, “Oppenheimer,” shines a light on the era of nuclear weapons testing in America. The biopic explores physicist Robert Oppenheimer’s role in creating the world’s first two atomic bombs. The US government started testing new nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas in 1951 after the atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. This gave rise to “atomic tourism.” Many people believe nuclear testing ended in the 1960s, 70s, or 80s. However, bombs continued to be detonated just 65 miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip until 1992. Joseph Kent, the director of curation and exhibits for the Atomic Museum in Las Vegas, explains that this is a common misconception among visitors.
The first detonation took place in January 1951 at the Nevada Test Site, which was originally known as the Nevada Proving Grounds. This was followed by 100 more explosions over the 1,355 square-mile plateau, which was created from the Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range. The site was chosen for its cost efficiency and logistical reasons, as Las Vegas had a small population at the time. The largest atmospheric test, Operation Plumbbob, occurred in 1957 and had the explosive power of five Hiroshima bombs. The goal was to develop more efficient and powerful weapons while also testing smaller ones that could target specific areas. In 1955, Operation Teapot was conducted to determine the effects of nuclear blasts on various objects and structures.
The mushroom clouds produced by the explosions became a popular tourist attraction. Las Vegas embraced its atomic identity, earning the nickname “the Atomic City.” Showgirl Lee Merlin even posed in a swimsuit featuring a mushroom cloud design. The iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign was also influenced by the atomic style known as Googie. In the early 1950s, the bomb captured the imagination of the American public, with atomic-themed logos and TV shows becoming popular. The tests were not top secret, and the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce published calendars with detonation times and recommended viewing locations. Viewing parties were hosted by various establishments, including the Desert Inn and the Atomic Café.
Although watching the tests from Las Vegas was considered safe at the time, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 offered compensation to residents of nearby Nevada, Utah, and Arizona who could link their cancers and illnesses to the fallout. The act provided a $100 million compensation package, with individuals eligible to receive $50,000 each for exposure to the nuclear fallout. Kent believes that people often try to normalize frightening things, making them seem less scary. If people had known the consequences of watching the tests, they might not have found it so thrilling.
Atomic tourism declined after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. This treaty prohibited nuclear weapons tests in the air, underwater, and in space. The public became more aware of the dangers of testing, leading to calls for a different approach or an end to testing altogether. The US conducted a total of 828 underground tests at the Nevada Test Site, although these were not widely known because they didn’t produce mushroom clouds or significant fallout. However, there was one notable incident in 1970 when a nuclear bomb was accidentally detonated underground, releasing radioactive fallout over Nevada and California.
Underground testing ceased in 1992 due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and a test moratorium imposed by Congress in response to Russia’s own moratorium. The Nevada National Security Site has since been used for counterterrorism and first-responder training, as well as the National Security Agency’s Stockpile Stewardship program. More recently, the site has received radioactive waste from Idaho. The Atomic Museum will be hosting a discussion with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s family in Las Vegas, and tours of the Nevada National Security Site can be booked.