Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nevada Test Site: Ho-Hum

A great example of the trivialization
of what has gone on at the Test Site.
The Nevada Test Site tour was an eye-opening endeavor in many ways. Seeing the remnants of our nuclear testing regime was shocking. What struck me over and over from the moment we left Las Vegas on the bus early in the morning was the "ho-hum" attitude of our tour guides, the nonchalance with which they presented a selected set of facts and other statements about the test site and the long-term effects of radiation and nuclear waste.

I suppose that to live with yourself as a NTS lifer, you must force yourself to believe that what has gone on there over the past 60 years has been of great benefit to the country, or at least not particularly damaging. I will give some examples of how this attitude came across.

"This will be a DOE site forever," the nuclear waste site manager told us. The test site is located on land taken from the Western Shoshone. The tribe has many sacred sites within the boundaries of the test site. To have scarred the land so extensively and to leave poisons that will last for untold generations is an insult to the Western Shoshone past, present and future and all of us who share this earth. It would cost an estimated $7.3 trillion to properly clean up the test site.

"I’m not sure." The radioactive waste dump at the Nevada Test Site accepts waste from around the United States as well as from other parts of the site itself. One of my colleagues asked the manager of the dump how much radioactive waste is stored there. She said that she was not sure, and she did not indicate that this lack of knowledge led her to lose any sleep at night. They also seem to have no plans to mark the disposal site so that people centuries from now might understand the dangers inherent in the masses of waste buried there.

Other examples of the sterilization of the subject included:

  • The tour guide’s explanation of how nuclear tests were named. He said that they had "a lot of fun with it" – they named tests after wines, cheeses and cars. The lab guys would bring in a bottle of the type of wine that the test was named after to celebrate.
  • Explaining the Sedan Crater, he said that the explosion moved enough dirt that in a concrete equivalent would build two Hoover Dams with enough left over for a large housing development. He also showed us an old Livermore Lab propaganda video about this explosion that applauded the fact that "only" 4% of the radiation was released into the atmosphere. To his credit, after the video our guide said that he is glad the US never utilized earth moving nuclear explosions because with radiation, "four percent of a hell of a lot is still a hell of a lot."
  • "Tritium is not so bad." Our guide repeatedly downplayed the gravity of tritium in the groundwater. For example, he said that some workers didn’t mind being exposed to tritium-laced water because they could just flush it out of their bodies by drinking a couple of six-packs of beer.
As discouraging as it was to experience first-hand the trivialization of the world’s most destructive and deadly weapons, it was also enlightening to see the site firsthand. More than anything, this experience has reinforced my belief that nuclear weapons testing must be banned forever and that we must urgently achieve a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of all nuclear weapons.


  1. I agree that it is disturbing to hear that the guide takes such a "lighthearted" view of the sight and it's historical context. The only explanations I can think of for this are poor job training and of course, denial.

  2. That kind of attitude is common among the nuclear industry and people who work with radiation.

  3. But project Rulison was within 3miles and 8,000 ft down of human habitation... the original idea for fracing... and the nuclear era was the beginning of our pathological state...

  4. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.-J. Robert Oppenheimer

    At least the leader of the Manhattan Project understood they had just created the most devastating weapon in human history. Apparently these tour guides do not see the obvious.

  5. I've always been fascinated by the NTS since I read Joan Didion's novel "Play It As It Lays". The female protagonist is a difficult Hollywood person, but deep down she is a refugee, displaced from her childhood ranch home by the testing program.

    Here is a song I perform in that deals with the Site's impact on the locals:


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