NEAL CONAN, host:
Until recently, records of Las Vegas' history with nuclear testing existed mainly in the dusty archives and scattered around the glassy surface of the Nevada test site north of this city. A few months ago, the Atomic Testing Museum opened to tell the story of the US entry into the nuclear age and the city's role in that program. To end this hour, we're gonna take you through that museum, sort of, and over 50 years of atomic history. Joining us is Troy Wade. He's chairman of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation and president of the Atomic Testing Museum.
It's nice to have you here on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. TROY WADE (Chairman, Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation; President, Atomic Testing Museum): Thank you. Nice to be here.
CONAN: First of all, when the museum opened back in February, it was a pretty quite debut. Were you worried about controversy?
Mr. WADE: I think not. We had--in the museum, we tried to treat the subject as fairly as possible. Nuclear testing is a controversial topic, and the museum deals with it in a way I think that is fair to all the questions. The museum has been very well received since it opened, and the visitors that have come there almost to a person have congratulated us on telling the story the way we did.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. It begins, well, at the entrance. There's a Wackenhut guard station just across the corridor here. That's the way you would have gotten into the test site, right?
Mr. WADE: The entrance to the test site is a replica of one of the guard stations that has existed for many, many years, and when you walk in the doors of the museum, you enter in 1950, and when you walk out of the doors it's 2005, so you are taking--you're taken on a very long stroll through--on a major battlefield of the Cold War and through a major piece of the history of Las Vegas.
CONAN: And, Michael Green, I wanted to bring you in on this. We have to remember that this program was an important industrial and population element for the city of--growth of the city of Las Vegas as well.
Professor MICHAEL GREEN (Community College of Southern Nevada): Very much so. You get a lot of good supplies coming through here. It contributes to a construction boom at the time, and it also ends up being a tourist attraction, as only Las Vegas could do it.
CONAN: Hmm. It's interesting, Troy Wade, at the time, you said, the base community when this camp was first developed was--What?--the third largest city in Las Vegas?
Mr. WADE: I went to the test site in 1958, and in the early '60s, which was really the big ramp up of this country in the Cold War, and when this country was switching from atmospheric testing to underground testing, the population of the test site was the third largest population in the state, Las Vegas, Reno and the Nevada test site.
CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line, and this is Bill, and Bill's calling from Olean, New York.
BILL (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon. I love your program.
BILL: And I just heard you talk about something pretty close to my heart. I was a test subject at Camp Desert Rock in 1953 during the series called Upshot-Knothole, and we were actually in a trench about four feet deep, I'd say, and hunkered down, of course, under instructions, and I think that's about a half a mile from the detonation itself. And I was listening to your one commentator there who was within two miles. But most of the people who were there as test subjects were in trenches very close to the ground zero actually.
CONAN: Troy Wade, is that right?
Mr. WADE: That's right. Varying distances. You have to remember that in the time frame that this gentleman is talking about and Mr. Luce, this country was trying to learn how to defend itself from what we were afraid was gonna be a nuclear confrontation, and so soldiers were asked to do things to prepare for that kind of a battle, things that, fortunately, never did happen. But those were part of the planning in those days.
CONAN: What did you experience when the bomb went off, Bill?
BILL: Well, the earth--I experienced the earth moving feet, not inches. Actually a few feet one way or the other. We were tumbled around there a bit, and within eight to 10 seconds, we were out of the trench and marching on ground zero to see what the test had done or what the detonation had done. And I might add there were many, many things out there on Camp Desert Rock at the time. There were live animals and there were, oh, like sheep and pigs. There were alarm clocks to go off, you know, just prior to that detonation, and the thing that I'll never forget is the great magnesium light, like I had my face and hands--my hands covered my eyes with military gloves, and it was totally black, but that light penetrated that even, it was so bright, and...
CONAN: Darrell Luce, I'm wondering how that compares to what your experience was.
Mr. DARRELL LUCE (Las Vegas Resident): Oh, my experience was--going down into the target area was two days after detonation, and it had been thoroughly checked out for radioactivity before I went in. As far as actually witnessing the detonations, I did witness three, but from a distance of about 18 miles away. And you could see the shock wave coming across the desert. It would raise the dust as the shock wave would come toward you, kind of like a tsunami.
CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
BILL: And thank you, sir.
CONAN: OK. We're talking today about the history of Las Vegas, Nevada, including at this point the Atomic testing program which occurred north of this city.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, Troy Wade, both Darrell and our caller, Bill, were talking about atmospheric tests, which were the first kinds of tests that were performed out at the test site. Fairly soon they moved underground--What?--after 1962?
Mr. WADE: 1963 was the treaty that prohibited testing in the atmosphere. Prior to that, most of the US testing was done in the Pacific. After the Soviets developed their nuclear weapons, atmospheric testing was moved to Nevada and ended with the last atmospheric test in '61. I have seen atmospheric tests and I can assure you that there is no feeling quite as awesome as watching the light--seeing the light and watching the fireball and recognizing what a dreadful weapon of war this really was.
CONAN: There's an exhibit in your museum that re-creates the experience of being in a bunker and watching it. It's an extraordinary experience. Let's get another question now from the audience here in Las Vegas.
Ms. AMANDA BINDER(ph) (Audience Member): Amanda Binder. I have a couple questions. First is, how important was the test site in bringing highly educated people to Las Vegas?
CONAN: Well, why don't we ask Michael Green that?
Prof. GREEN: It does play a role. It's not necessarily related, but in fact, we first started getting college classes offered here just after the test site opened, and that wasn't the sole motivator, but I think that had a little to do with it. But we do get the engineers, the physicists, some of whom are still among us, some went on to teach at the university and at the Community College, and it's really an important beginning for us in terms of attracting--I guess you'd just call it the PhD crowd.
CONAN: And you had another question?
Ms. BINDER: Yes. How significant was the loss, if any, when the atomic testing stopped?
CONAN: Well, why don't we ask Troy Wade about that?
Mr. WADE: Well, I think it was economically very significant. The last test was in 1992, and the workforce at the test site went dramatically down after that. It has stabilized now and, in fact, the future of the test site looks very healthy at the moment, working to keep the current reserve of nuclear weapons safe and reliable without testing, which is a big order. We still have a lot of work going on out there and a lot of PhDs and engineers.
CONAN: The most--one of the most startling things to see in your museum is a map of the test site and to realize that the test area is bigger than the state of Rhode Island.
Mr. WADE: Well, that's right. That's how it was chosen and, in fact, that's the strength it brings to this country today. The test site is 1,375 square miles, which is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, for example, and then it is surrounded by the Nellis bombing and gunnery range, so the combination of those two makes the test site probably the safest, most secure area for doing specialized kinds of testing in the US today.
CONAN: And we only have about a minute left, but I did want to ask you, underground testing stopped in 1992. What is the site used for now?
Mr. WADE: Well, the site's used for two things now, several things, but two main programs. One is to continue testing of components of nuclear weapons, and then for the reasons that I've just mentioned, the test site has--is playing an ever-increasing role in homeland security kinds of things: training first responders, training Special Forces. You can take advantage of the area and the security to get training that's not available elsewhere. Those are the two big programs.
CONAN: And the Atomic Test Museum opened earlier this year. To anybody who comes out to Las Vegas, it's well worth a visit.
Thanks to all of our guests. We appreciate it. Recently we just heard from Troy Wade, chairman of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation. Also our thanks to Alice Key, executive director of the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP during the 1970, Darrell Luce, who joined us to talk about his memories of the construction of Hoover Dam and also witnessing some of those atomic test explosions, and Michael Green, professor of history at Community College of Southern Nevada, who all were here on the panel.
We also want to thank the staff of Nevada Public Radio, including Jack Chappell and Florence Rogers, the staff of the Desert Research Institute, including Dr. Steve Wells and Ron Kalb, and the Las Vegas Centennial and Deputy City Manager Betsy Fretwell.
From the auditorium at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada, this is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.