Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Mystique of the Nevada National Security Site

[Image: Exercise_Desert_Rock_I_%28Buster-Jangle_Dog%29_002.jpg]

The Mystique of the Nevada National Security Site

By John Hall
The Daily Magi
November 4, 2043

The Nevada National Security Site (N2S2), previously the Nevada Test Site (NTS), is a United States Department of Energy reservation located in southeastern Nye County, Nevada, about 65 mi (105 km) northwest of the city of Las Vegas. Formerly known as the Nevada Proving Grounds, the site, established on 11 January 1951, for the testing of nuclear devices, is composed of approximately 1,360 sq mi (3,500 km2) of desert and mountainous terrain. Nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site began with a 1-kilotonne-of-TNT (4.2 TJ) bomb dropped on Frenchman Flat on 27 January 1951. Many of the iconic images of the nuclear era come from NTS.

The Nevada Test Site contains 28 areas, 1,100 buildings, 400 miles (640 km) of paved roads, 300 miles (480 km) of unpaved roads, ten heliports and two airstrips. The most recent test was a sub-critical test of the properties of plutonium, conducted underground on December 7, 2012.

Established as a 680-square-mile (1,800 km2) area by president Harry Truman on December 18, 1950 within the Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range.

Between 1951 and 1992, there were a total of 928 announced nuclear tests at Nevada Test Site. Of those, 828 were underground. (Sixty-two of the underground tests included multiple, simultaneous nuclear detonations, adding 93 detonations and bringing the total number of NTS nuclear detonations to 1,021, of which 921 were underground.) The site is covered with subsidence craters from the testing. The Nevada Test Site was the primary testing location of American nuclear devices; 126 tests were conducted elsewhere (many at the Pacific Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands).

During the 1950s, the mushroom clouds from these tests could be seen for almost 100 mi (160 km) in either direction, including the city of Las Vegas, where the tests became tourist attractions. Americans headed for Las Vegas to witness the distant mushroom clouds that could be seen from the downtown hotels.

On 17 July 1962, the test shot "Little Feller I" of Operation Sunbeam became the last atmospheric test detonation at the Nevada Test Site. Underground testing of weapons continued until 23 September 1992, and although the United States did not ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the articles of the treaty are nevertheless honored and further tests have not occurred. Subcritical testing, tests not involving the full creation of a critical mass, continue.

One notable test shot was the "Sedan" shot of Operation Storax on 6 July 1962, a 104-kilotonne-of-TNT (440 TJ) shot for the Operation Plowshare which sought to prove that nuclear weapons could be used for peaceful means in creating bays or canals—it created a crater 1,280 feet (390 m) wide and 320 feet (100 m) deep that can still be seen today. While most of the larger tests were conducted elsewhere, NTS was home to tests in the 500-to-1,000-kilotonne-of-TNT (2,100 to 4,200 TJ) range, which caused noticeable seismic effects in Las Vegas.

The site was scheduled to be used to conduct the testing of a 1,100-ton conventional explosive in an operation known as Divine Strake in June 2006. The bomb is a possible alternative to nuclear bunker busters. However, after objection from Nevada and Utah members of Congress, the operation was postponed until 2007. On 22 February 2007, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) officially canceled the experiment.

Each of the below ground explosions—some as deep as 5,000 feet—vaporized a large chamber, leaving a cavity filled with radioactive rubble. About a third of the tests were conducted directly in aquifers, and others were hundreds or thousands of feet below the water table.

When testing ended in 1992, the Department of Energy estimated that more than 300 million curies of radiation remained in the environment at that time, making the site one of the most radioactively contaminated locations in the United States. In the worst-affected zones, the concentration of radioactivity in affected groundwater reaches millions of picocuries per liter. (The federal standard for drinking water is 20 picocuries per liter.) Although radiation levels in the water continue to decline over time, the longer-lived isotopes could pose risks to workers or future settlers on the NNSS for tens of thousands of years.

The Energy Department has 48 monitoring wells at the site and recently began drilling nine deep wells. Because the contaminated water poses no immediate health threat, the Department has ranked Nevada as a low priority for cleaning up major nuclear weapons sites, and it operates far fewer wells than at most other contaminated sites.

The test site offers monthly public tours, often fully booked months in advance. Visitors are not allowed to bring in cameras, binoculars, cell phones, or pick up rocks for souvenirs.

While there are no longer any explosive tests of nuclear weapons at the site, there is still subcritical testing, used to determine the viability of the United States' aging nuclear arsenal. Additionally, the site is the location of the Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Complex, which sorts and stores low-level radioactive waste that is not transuranic and has a half life not longer than 20 years. Bechtel Nevada Corporation (a joint venture of Lockheed Martin, Bechtel and Johnson Controls) ran this complex until 2006. Several other companies won the latest bid for the contract. They then combined to form a new company called National Security Technologies, LLC (a joint venture of Northrop Grumman, AECOM, CH2M Hill and Nuclear Fuel Services). AECOM, known earlier as Holmes and Narver, held the Nevada Test Site contract for many years before Bechtel Nevada Corp. had it.

The Radiological/Nuclear WMD Incident Exercise Site (T-1), which replicates multiple terrorist radiological incidents with train, plane, automobile, truck, and helicopter props is located in Area 1, at the former site of tests EASY, SIMON, APPLE-2, and GALILEO.

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