MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Over the weekend, about a hundred people gathered in the Nevada desert to commemorate the world's first explosion of a nuclear weapon and to party. A biodiesel-fueled mushroom cloud illuminated the remote desert site. The art protest event was organized to simulate the explosion known as the Trinity test, the original detonation of a plutonium bomb nicknamed Gadget that took place 60 years ago to the day. Our technology correspondent Xeni Jardin traveled to what's known as the Simnuke gathering this weekend. She brought back this report. And if you're near a computer, go to npr.org. You can follow along and see videos and photos on our Web site.
XENI JARDIN reporting:
The long trek to the site of Simnuke in Nevada's Black Rock Desert traverses bumpy dirt roads and gravely trails near the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation. It's a slow, rough drive about 100 miles north of Reno in 105-degree heat. You don't encounter many humans out here. The location of the Simnuke Project was a closely held secret, still cryptic once revealed. We're told that once we get to the bullet-riddled sign that once read `Susanville,' we should make a left. Finally, many sagebrushes, three railroad tracks and one bald eagle later, we find ourselves on a flat, white plate of alkaline dust surrounded by gray-olive mountains.
(Soundbite of wind blowing)
JARDIN: This place probably looks like the New Mexico site where 60 years ago Robert Oppenheimer led the Trinity test. Simnuke founder and peace activist Camron Assadi says that's no accident.
Mr. CAMRON ASSADI (Simnuke Founder): This location works really well because the hills are reminiscent of the Jornada del Muerto, where they did that. And, you know, it's kind of in a--it feels like you're in a crater, so it's a very sort of concentrated little zone.
JARDIN: And what Simnuke organizers wanted to pull off was an event that somehow recreates what it might have felt and looked like at that place 60 years ago. Oh, yeah, and have an open bar, downbeat techno music and a place to camp out for the night. The vibe was very Burning Man, the annual counterculture festival which also takes place in the Nevada desert. The first person who greeted us when we arrived was not wearing any pants, or underpants. You get the idea.
But for Simnuke organizers, the day had both serious political meaning and technological challenges. About a dozen pyrotechnicians and engineers have been toiling on the project for three years. Preparation included several test explosions as well as some hard-core math; intricate measurements of temperature and flow dynamics.
(Soundbite of machinery)
JARDIN: At 3:15 AM, the Simnuke team were fine-tuning their machinery. Liquid nitrogen pushes the fuel through a complex network of hoses hooked up to a semicircle of six giant fans spread about 30 feet in diameter. The mixture of gasoline and converted grease from Chinese, Mexican and Italian restaurants is ignited by a propane pilot light. The resulting explosion is about 1/10,000th the size of the 1945 Trinity blast. Back then, only one nuclear bomb existed in the world; today, there are about 30,000.
(Soundbite of machinery)
JARDIN: To create the mushroom cloud effect, the timing between the fuel, the hoses, the fans has to be precise. Right. Things did not go smoothly.
Mr. ASSADI: Yeah. As you can see, our liquid nitrogen cylinder is freezing up and coming out really slow, so it's taking its time. That's why the light's on it. So...
JARDIN: So that's why it's taking longer than you expected because the tank...
Mr. ASSADI: Yeah, I was hoping to be like sitting back and relaxing by the time this hour rolled around.
JARDIN: But much anxious tinkering later, everything was ready to go. At around 4:30, the machinery begins to hum and sunlight creeps over the hills. Shivering Simnukers gather behind a glowing blue security line. Some were there to create their own spectacle.
SUGAR BUNNY (Simnuke Participant): I'm Sugar Bunny.
JARDIN: Sugar Bunny, you're pulling on a copper-colored sleeve that has wires poking out of it with kind of coily things at the end. What are you doing here?
SUGAR BUNNY: I'm going to set myself on fire.
JARDIN: She was body painted and nude, festooned with a few frayed scraps of satin.
Other people like John(ph), who drove in eight hours from San Francisco, had a little less of an idea of why they were there.
JOHN (Simnuke Participant): I don't know so much about the project. I got a call on the phone that said, `Simulated nuclear blast. Leave in 15 minutes,' and so I did.
JARDIN: And then a short burst of fireworks signaled it was time.
(Soundbite of fireworks)
Unidentified Woman: Whoo!
JARDIN: We stood about 300 feet away. Suddenly, all at once, around 5:29, a low-pitched rumble, an intense rush of heat and a billowing orange column of flame, the iconic mushroom cloud, just like the image you've seen so many, many times.
(Soundbite of simulated nuclear explosion)
JARDIN: People were instructed not to clap. One guy didn't get the memo.
Unidentified Man: Whoo!
JARDIN: But when the smoke finally cleared, was it more than just a party? Even if not all the participants got the deeper significance behind that fire cloud, the technology worked. Simnuke technician Argari Patris(ph) and the other socially conscious geeks behind this event considered it a success.
Mr. ARGARI PATRIS (Simnuke Technician): If any of them got it, I'm happy.
JARDIN: For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.
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