The Seattle Times Web Edition: 50 Years from Trinity

Part 2: Nevada Test Site

IMAGE: A man peers over the edge of the enormous Sedan crater
The Sedan crater at the Nevada Test Site is nearly a quarter-mile wide and 320 feet deep. One purpose of the 1962 Sedan test was investigating whether nuclear weapons could be used to excavate canals and harbors. The crater is a national historic site.

THE PAVED ROAD that leads to the mammoth Sedan nuclear crater at the Nevada Test Site, about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, is rippled and bouncy. The shock waves from 828 underground nuclear explosions have made the road undulate like a ribbon that has been twitched.
   Sedan is a striking example of nuclear might.
   It was one of 27 nuclear bombs detonated as part of Operation Plowshare to see if such explosions would be useful for excavation, and consisted of a 104-kiloton bomb (equivalent to 104,000 tons of TNT, or nearly five times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945) buried 635 feet below the Earth's surface.
   The resulting explosion excavated 6.6 million cubic yards of earth, leaving a radioactive crater nearly a quarter-mile in diameter and 320 feet deep. To stand on the jumbled bank of earth on its rim, the radiation from the 1962 explosion having faded to near-background levels, is to get a disquieting reminder of the puniness of the individual in the face of modern power.
   Sedan was part of a long series. The first bomb set off at the Test Site was on Jan. 27, 1951. The last was on Sept. 23, 1991, after which President Bush imposed a test moratorium that has been extended by President Clinton.
   In those 40 years, weapons scientists set off 100 atmospheric explosions and 828 underground. Those underground created a mesquite moonscape of small craters formed when the bombs created an underground chamber and the land slumped.
   Over the years the atmospheric tests exposed a quarter-million assembled troops, plus communities downwind in Nevada and Utah, to an estimated 12 billion curies of radiation, or 148 times the release from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-plant meltdown near Kiev, Ukraine.
   The bursts were given colorful names such as Priscilla, Zucchini, Diablo, Buster and Mazama. Above-ground testing ended in 1962 and physicists moved underground, setting off bombs at the bottom of drilled shafts up to a mile deep. Movies of these tests show the ground jerking with a convulsion and then slumping into a crater, with clouds of dust rolling away in the wind.

THE ENTRANCE to the Nevada Test Site still has cyclone-fence pens to hold protesters who used to assemble at the gate and get arrested. Military police, tired of the caging, once bused a group of arrestees 60 miles out into the desert, dropped them by the side of the road, and drove off.
   Now, with the Cold War over, as many as 10,000 tourists a year take tours of the bleak site. What they see are the structural remnants of what became known as the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD: twisted bridge girders, smashed igloo bunkers and shattered windows, the glass still lying in the dust and glinting in the Nevada sun. Scientists built hangars and set out airplanes, cars, locomotives, fuel tanks and freight cars. What would it take to destroy, totally destroy, the Soviet Union? What would doomsday really be like?
IMAGE: Ground zero of the Met test site    The physicists studied their wreckage and produced classified estimates. In 1984, the World Health Organization estimated an all-out nuclear war would kill 3 billion people.
   Here at the Nevada Test Site a 1955 atomic cannon fired its only live shot. Here troops crouched in trenches as close as 2,500 yards to see how well they would react and maneuver after an explosion. Here pigs were penned and exposed to the horrific heat because their skin resembles that of humans. Here the Environmental Protection Agency maintained a 36-acre farm to measure the impact of later underground tests on vegetables and cows. (Radiation turned out to be negligible.)
   Nature is slowly reclaiming the blast sites. A tuft of grass has sprouted at ground zero of the Met explosion of 1955. Mesquite and sage grow in the old blast zones. We watched a coyote jog along a spring lake near the site of the 37-kiloton Priscilla test. Birds nest in the twisted I-beams of a trestle once wrenched by an explosion half a mile away.
   In 1955 scientists built a mock village around a 29-kiloton test called Apple. The houses were built of brick and wood, painted, furnished and occupied by mannequins obtained from J.C. Penney.
   Film showing the ignition and disintegration of most of those houses has become a standard memory of the atomic age: the siding bursting into smoke and flame, the house leaning away from the force of the blast and finally blowing away in a whirl of debris. This from an explosion of popgun force, compared to the standards of today's weaponry.
IMAGE: Mannequins before the blast    Ground zero of Apple is still too radioactive, 40 years later, to allow visitors to prowl about. Two of the houses are still standing, however, one just over a mile away and another a mile and a half from the bomb site, preserved like mummified husks by the desert air. On the nearest house the paint was blasted off, and shutters town away, the windows shattered and the interior chewed up. The basic frame survived, however. The brick chimney is twisted but still standing.
   Photos show the mannequins thrown and slumped like rag dolls and table settings knocked askew, the nose of "father" clipped off by a piece of flying debris.
   It is disturbing to visit these relics of the Cold War, just as it is disturbing to visit a prison or landfill or other reminders of society's less savory necessities, or insanities.
   There is also a drabness to them. The nuclear complexes were mostly sited in lonely or desolate places to maintain security. While the weapons are technologically impressive, the atomic reservations are bleak compounds of windowless concrete reactors and factories and hasty government-spec architecture: places frozen in the 1950s and 1960s.

OF THE 16 major nuclear complexes that cropped up around the United States, the loveliest by location is probably Los Alamos, a piney plateau in northern New Mexico selected by Robert Oppenheimer because he had spent time there at summer camp as a youth.
   Lavish residences and mobile homes alike claim some of the prime perches on the rims of canyons that cut the plateau. Other scientists live in pleasant suburban neighborhoods. But there is no substantial downtown or civic core. Los Alamos revolves around its fenced lab.
   The laboratory shares with Lawrence Livermore in California and Sandia labs in Albuquerque the responsibility for designing and devising tests of nuclear warheads, and there is an uneasy sterility about the place. White-male stereotypes have been beaten to death and yet Los Alamos is unmistakably, even to this white male, an overwhelmingly "guy" kind of place: a techno-freak haven for boys who like things that go boom, even underground.
IMAGE: A blasted house at a Nevada test site    The enthusiasm for this raw power can be slightly infectious, even during a brief visit: I found myself musing that once, just once, it would be awfully interesting to stand in the Nevada desert and see one of these things go off.
   All those interviewed at Los Alamos believe their work has saved the world from a disastrous war, rather than threatened one.
   "I've always considered nuclear weapons to be defensive," said computer expert Mike Sohn. "The reason there have been no major conflicts in the world the last 50 years (comparable to the world wars) has been the presence of the bomb."
   "We feel we are defending the nation," added Ken McKenna, who works to counter proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. "We don't know why Saddam (Hussein) didn't use biological weapons, but the conjecture is he didn't because the (American) response would have been overwhelming and devastating to his country."
   Our nuclear posture is changing. The U.S. nuclear arsenal peaked at about 30,000 warheads, and the Soviet arsenal, once estimated to be as few as 20,000 warheads, has been revealed since the end of the Cold War to have reached 45,000. Both stockpiles are slowly being cut to meet a START II arms-reduction limit of 3,500.
   That is still more than enough warheads to destroy either country. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara once suggested a hundred bombs might be a sufficient deterrent.
   Warheads are being disassembled at the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas. It takes several days to a few weeks to safely take a warhead apart in the earthen bunkers there called Gravel Gerties.
   Since 1988, according to the Department of Energy, the number of U.S. strategic warheads on deployment has been cut 47 percent and the number of nonstrategic, or battlefield, nukes by 90 percent.
   U.S. ground forces are no longer nuclear-armed. Neither are Navy surface ships. Submarine and land-based missiles have been de-targeted, or aimed at the ocean instead of Russia (though both sides could re-target their warheads in a matter of minutes or hours.) Strategic bombers have been taken off alert, nuclear submarines have gone from "alert" to "modified alert," and several weapons systems proposed in the 1980s have been canceled.
   The Trident submarine fleet, once planned to have 20 boats, will have only 14. The Air Force is cutting 28 B-52s and keeping 66. There has been a 70 percent cut in military personnel with access to nuclear weapons.
   By 2010, planners hope to achieve an annual nuclear-weapons budget (which does not include the ships and planes and missiles that deliver warheads) of $2.5 billion, a third of what it was in 1989. Research funding at the federal government's nuclear-weapons labs has been cut 42 percent since 1989, and money for nuclear testing has been cut 50 percent.

IMAGE: Particle accelerator THIS TREND poses the obvious question of why America needs a Los Alamos at all anymore. Why not let nuclear wizardry wither? Through decades of work, scientists whittled the 10,000-pound Fat Man to cruise-missile-sized 259-pound packages with more punch, more accuracy and more reliability. Isn't that good enough? Can't we quit fiddling with nukes?
   South Africa built seven nuclear bombs and then decided they were more trouble than they were worth and dismantled them. Argentina and Brazil backed away from bomb-building efforts. India appears to be letting its nuclear capability deteriorate. The breakaway republics in the former Soviet Union appear willing to leave their nukes to the Russians, rather than have the headache of maintaining them. Why can't the major powers do the same?
   Scientists reply that nuclear weapons will remain a necessary component of U.S. defense into the foreseeable future, particularly for a nation that doesn't want the expense of sustaining a huge conventional military to deter attack.
   "I think the genie is out of the bottle forever," said Bob Kelley, who works on emergency response to terrorist bomb threats.
   The scientists' logic is that nukes are necessary as a threat, that the threat is effective because the bombs are so terrible, that they are terrible because they work, and that with nuclear testing shut down, we must devise new means to ensure they work.
   In other words, reliable bombs mean fewer wars: the "peace through strength" philosophy voiced through the Cold War.
   There are practical problems in sustaining a credible stockpile. Warheads have an effective shelf life of perhaps 10 years, after which their reliability becomes too uncertain. In the past this did not pose much of a problem because new weapons so rapidly succeeded old. But if technology is frozen, the stockpile must be periodically inspected and rejuvenated.
   An essential component of hydrogen bombs, tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, has a half-life of only 12.5 years, meaning in that time that half of it decays. It must be replenished in warheads. The United States is disassembling bombs quickly enough to retrieve enough surplus tritium until 2011 or so, but we will run out unless a new reactor source is started, probably in South Carolina.
   Plutonium, another basic bomb ingredient, has a half-life of 24,000 years and won't run out anytime soon, making the world's surplus of plutonium a security headache. But it emits alpha radiation that can affect the conventional explosives that trigger an atomic weapon and create pockets of helium gas in itself.
   What this means in terms of weapon performance is unclear. The old method was to cart an aging weapon to Nevada and try to set it off, measuring its energy output. "We used to say Nevada equals truth," said computer-expert Sohn.
   The testing was necessary. Despite the success of the first atomic bombs, subsequent, more sophisticated ones did not always work as planned. Tom Seed, a physicist at the Nevada Test Site, noted that in one recent series of 12 underground explosions, six weapons "underperformed" and had to be reworked.
IMAGE: Supercomputer at Los Alamos    With testing ruled out, physicists now want to simulate explosions on computers that don't exist yet. A modern Pentium computer that can be bought at a discount store is two to eight times more powerful than the ones used in the 1960s and 1970s to design most of the current U.S. stockpile. But to simulate the complexities of a three-dimensional nuclear explosion requires computers a billion times faster than the Pentium, explained Sohn. Such machines are not expected to be delivered for another seven years.
   Also planned is improved bomb analysis by X-ray and setting off microscopic nuclear explosions in a proposed $1.8 billion National Ignition Facility proposed for Lawrence Livermore labs in California.
   Jackie Cabasso, a nuclear critic with the Western States Legal Foundation, said such elaborate measures are designed not to maintain present warheads but perfect new ones without underground testing. She charges that the program is more a welfare program for underemployed bomb designers than a safeguard of our stockpile.
   "Experienced designers are an endangered species," admitted Sohn. The Los Alamos cadre is in its 40s and 50s. Younger physicists stay away not just because of moral qualms but because weapons laboratories no longer offer the job security and cutting-edge computers and instrumentation that once lured designers.
   The trend worries Defense Department officials. "You cannot mothball intellectual capital," Secretary William Perry said last year. "That's the basis for (continuing) the research-and-development program. It would take decades to reconstitute critical elements of the (defense) industrial base if we had to do it from scratch."
   Difficulty in restarting weapons design is exactly what peace advocates would like to see. A withering of bomb expertise might not put the genie back into the bottle but could force the United States to look to other means to ensure its security.
   The question then becomes what makes the world the safest. Complete nuclear disarmament by the major powers, risking blackmail by rogue dictators or terrorists? Dependence on aging nuclear stockpiles so unreliable that perhaps their military use would be too much of a political gamble to be exercised? Or maintaining, and regularly updating, a nuclear stockpile frightening enough to discourage war but catastrophic if it were used?
   With the "new world order" far from clear, this is a political question presidents will probably be wrestling with for years.

Continue to Part III

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