Chapter 2: The Road To Nevada
Although the war was over, the United States' interest in nuclear weapons was only just beginning.
However, the balance of power was shifting. The Manhattan Project had been under military control but the following year, the decision was made to shift oversight to a civilian entity and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was created.
Another major post-war debate was whether or not a permanent continental atomic test site should be established somewhere within the United States. Some policy makers - including General Dwight D. Eisenhower and President Truman - had concerns about the idea for several reasons, including the fear of radioactive fallout and the safety of nuclear weapons.
"Baker" explosion from Operation Crossroads, July 25, 1946, Pacific Proving Grounds
Photo Credit: United States Department of Defense
The United States' first post-war nuclear tests were conducted in the Pacific Proving Grounds near the Marshall Islands and they revealed the challenges in testing such a great distance from the mainland. Issues were both technical & logistical and as such, people involved with the program began to see the benefits of a more accessible mainland proving ground.
In 1948, a study code-named "Project Nutmeg" explored the pros and cons of several potential test sites around the United States. After preliminary analysis and reports were released, concerns remained regarding safety & security so the decision was made to continue testing in the Pacific with the caveat that a mainland site would be re-visited in the event of a national emergency.
That so-called "national emergency" would come on August 29, 1949 when the Soviet Union conducted their first successful nuclear test.
The Russian test brought the potential for nuclear war much closer to reality, along with the realization that the United States could be target for nuclear weapons. Then, a little less than a year later, in June 1950, the Korean War began which caused grave concern among US officials about the safety & security of continuing large scale nuclear testing programs in the Pacific Proving Ground.
Finding a new continental site for testing nuclear weapons became an immediate priority. The AEC and the joint Army-Navy Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AF-SWOP) began to examine possible locations. After looking at potential sites in North Carolina, New Mexico (at the original Trinity site), Utah and Nevada as well as taking into account proximity to cities, prevailing wind patterns, downwind populations, security and public awareness & relations the decision was made to establish a nuclear test proving ground at the south site of the Las Vegas Bombing & Gunnery Range.
On January 11, 1951, the AEC officially announced what had been - up until then - top secret information: the establishment of a test site where nuclear explosions would be taking place. Many local officials, including those of neighbouring states, were completely unaware of the development of the program and would need to be briefed.
Aerial photo of explosion at the Nevada Test Site, 1951
Photo Credit: Timeline.com
Even though a continental site had been decided on, there were still plans for a series of tests in the Pacific in the spring of 1951 called "Greenhouse". One of the tests scheduled to be conducted there was the world's first thermonuclear test explosion. However, the AEC wanted to use the Nevada Test Site to conduct tests & experiments related to "Greenhouse". Originally called FAUST (First Air-Drop United States Test) the official codename became "Ranger".
Given the tight timeline for getting the "Ranger" tests completed ahead of "Greenhouse", there was little time to develop the Nevada site. So, instead of detonating the bombs from towers (as with Trinity) the weapons would be dropped by bomber aircraft flying from Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
On January 27, 1951, the Nevada Test Site officially became operational.
In the early morning hours, a B50D Bomber flew over Frenchman Flat, a dry lakebed covering 123 square miles of the site, and released its payload known as "Shot Able". The bomb detonated a little over 1000 feet above ground with a 1 kiloton force, sending Nevada into the atomic age.
That first blast, although small by comparison to previous nuclear tests elsewhere, was huge news for Las Vegas.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal used their largest font for the headline, "VEGANS ATOM-IZED" and according to the article, in the city of Las Vegas, the flash was followed by a mild earth tremor and a "blast of air, like a windstorm that was felt in an irregular pattern throughout the city."
Most slept through the early morning blast and although Las Vegas Police reported receiving several calls for about a half-hour following the test, there was no real panic or concern.
"Shot Baker", the second test at the site, just 24 hours later was approximately 8 times as powerful as "Shot Able"...and left a MUCH bigger impression on Las Vegas with people being shaken out of bed by the early morning blast. Shots "Easy" and "Baker 2" followed on February 1 & 2 with the grand finale of Operation Ranger - "Shot Fox" - happening on February 6, 1951.
"Shot Fox" of Operation Ranger series, Nevada Test Site, February 6, 1951
Photo Credit: National Nuclear Security Administration
"Fox" would be, by far, the largest shot in the Ranger series, anticipated to be up to 35 kilotons. With a blast of this size, there was concern among officials; "Baker 2" which had been around 8 kilotons, had produced some minor damage in Las Vegas...so what would be the consequences of a blast 4 times as large?
After deciding that the damage had been "unexplained and freakish blast effects", "Shot Fox" was given the go-ahead. However, a public notice was issued urging people to stay away from windows at the time of the blast - just in case.
Dropped during the early morning hours from an altitude of 29,500 feet, "Fox" exploded approximately 1400 feet above Frenchman Flat. Although it produced a smaller than anticipated blast of only 22 kilotons, the test was still spectacular with the mushroom cloud peaking at over 43,000 feet.
Las Vegas escaped relatively unscathed; the blast wave hit the city about 6 minutes after the actual detonation and splintered large windows at 2 car dealerships. Otherwise, it did little more than shake buildings & frighten residents. Gamblers reportedly ducked under gaming tables & some witnesses claimed to be blinded by the flash from the explosion.
With that, the first operation at the Nevada Test Site came to a close. At noon on February 6, AEC manager Carroll Tyler announced that "Ranger" was complete and the thanked the people of Nevada for their contributions to the program. At the time, the future of the Nevada Test Site was unclear but following the success of "Operation Ranger", the AEC swiftly made moves to make the site a permanent testing ground for nuclear weapons.
Over the course of the next 40 years, there would be over 900 tests conducted at the site, both atmospheric and underground with the final tests taking place in September 1992.
And although the Nevada Test Site had several effects on the city of Las Vegas - including economic & population growth - there was one type of "boom" that was rather unexpected.