Establishing a Cold War Continental Testing Site in Nevada

On January 27, 1951, Nevada became the United States’ cold war continental nuclear proving ground when a one-kiloton nuclear device was detonated over Frenchman Flat. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chose the Nevada Test Site after carefully considering complex factors involving science, national policy, geopolitics, safety, and public relations. The Nevada Test Site, formerly the Nevada Proving Grounds, is located approximately sixty-five miles north of Las Vegas.

The country’s original continental nuclear proving ground had been the Trinity site, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the world’s first nuclear weapon had been tested on July 16, 1945. In August 1945, World War II ended with the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The wartime Manhattan Project, which created and tested the powerful new weapons, had been under the U.S. Army’s control. Postwar, extensive debate took place among policy-makers as to whether the development of nuclear weapons should be under civilian or military control. At the beginning of 1947, the Atomic Energy Act went into effect, transferring Manhattan Project functions to the civilian AEC. Many scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory during the war returned to their positions at universities and other research facilities. Others remained to further develop nuclear weapons alongside newly recruited scientists and engineers.

Another important postwar debate was whether or not a permanent continental atomic testing and proving ground like Trinity should be established. Some national leaders and policy-makers, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower and President Harry S. Truman, had grave concerns about a continental location due in part to the public’s fears about radioactive fallout and the safety of a weapon of unprecedented destructive power. Over time the AEC, along with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and the joint Army-Navy Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP), collaborated in exploring the feasibility of establishing a continental test site.

The first postwar U.S. tests were conducted in the Pacific and revealed the logistical and technical complexity of nuclear testing at such a great distance from the mainland, requiring long and complex supply lines and movement of personnel. Laboratory scientists and administrators saw the benefit of a more accessible mainland proving ground that would support the flexibility needed for experiments in this groundbreaking scientific field. Their work was not only to develop and refine designs for atomic or fission weapons, but also for the first thermonuclear weapons, or hydrogen “super” bombs. Simultaneously, the military needed to understand the effects of nuclear weapons on its own equipment and troops in the field, as well as on the enemy’s.

In 1948, a study code-named Project Nutmeg explored the benefits and drawbacks of several potential test site locations around the United States. After the preliminary analysis and reports, concerns persisted about domestic and international relations regarding safety and security. It was decided that the question of a continental test site should only be revisited in the event of a national emergency.

In August 1949 the Soviet Union conducted its first atomic test, beginning the nuclear arms race in earnest and bringing the potential for nuclear war much closer to reality—for the first time the United States could be the target of nuclear weapons. In early 1950, physicist Klaus Fuchs, who had worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos as part of the British team, was convicted of espionage in England. Revelations of his spying raised U.S. fears as to whether he had provided the Soviets with information that would accelerate their development of a hydrogen “super” bomb. Then, in June 1950 the Korean War began, causing grave concern among U.S. officials about the continuation of large-scale nuclear testing programs in the Pacific.

The capability of developing and testing new weapons free of the logistical complexity of the Pacific campaigns became a priority. The AEC and AFSWP immediately renewed the search for a continental test site. First, they narrowed the potential sites to five locations: Alamogordo/White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, site of the Trinity test; Camp LeJeune, North Carolina; The Las Vegas-Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range, north of Las Vegas, Nevada; Central Nevada, near Eureka; Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground/Wendover Bombing Range. The choice was then narrowed to Dugway, Las Vegas, and Alamogordo. Fallout patterns, prevailing winds, downwind populations, security, public awareness and relations were factors in the final decision. The Utah location was judged to be too close to the population centers within a 125-mile radius and El Paso, Texas, lay just outside that radius from Alamogordo. Holmes and Narver, an engineering firm under contract to the AEC, conducted a survey of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range, identifying possible north and south areas for the proving grounds. They concluded that the south site, which included the large, dry lake beds at Yucca Flat and Frenchman Flat, was preferable.

On December 18, 1950, President Truman approved the establishment of a nuclear test proving ground in Nevada at the south site in the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range. In spite of the logistical challenges of continued Pacific testing, the decision was also made to move forward with the Greenhouse test series, to be conducted at Enewetak Atoll in spring 1951. This series was scheduled to include the world’s first thermonuclear test explosion. However, the Los Alamos laboratory and the AEC first wanted to use the Nevada proving ground to conduct tests and experiments related to Greenhouse.

On January 11, 1951, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission announced what had up until then been top secret information—the establishment of the test site where nuclear explosions would take place. Many local officials, including those of neighboring states, were completely unaware of the highly classified weapons program and had to be briefed.

Given the extremely tight schedule for conducting the Ranger series in advance of Greenhouse, there was little time to develop infrastructure at the Nevada site. Instead of detonating from specially-built towers, as had been the case for the 1945 Trinity test, the nuclear weapons would be dropped from B-50D bombers out of Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The original acronym for the first Nevada test was FAUST—First Air Drop United States Test—although the official code-name of the five-test series was Ranger. On January 27, 1951, the Ranger Able shot was released from the aircraft at approximately 20,000 feet above Frenchman Flat and detonated at about 1,000 feet. Able’s yield of one kiloton, the smallest of any nuclear detonation to date, ushered in more than forty years of nuclear testing in Nevada. The Nevada Test Site hosted 1,021 of the 1,149 nuclear detonations conducted by the United States during the cold war.

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