Area 51, 25 Among Yucca Mountain's Nuclear Neighbors

PHOTO: Sedan Crater was formed with a 100-kiloton nuclear explosive device.
Nevada Division of Environmental Protection

A recent court decision has renewed the possibility that Nevada's Yucca Mountain may yet become the nation's repository for nuclear waste, of which the General Accounting Office estimates the U.S. has a rich abundance: some 75,000 metric tons and growing.

If it comes to rest here, it will feel right at home: Yucca's neighbors include properties rich in contamination and nuclear history, many of them within the Nevada Test Site, home to nuclear explosions and experiments since 1951. Between 1951 and 1992, according to the Test Site, 828 documented atmospheric or underground nuclear tests have occurred.

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Just an irradiated stone's throw from Yucca is Area 25, otherwise known as Jackass Flats, measuring 254 square miles. It once was home to Project Rover, tasked with developing a nuclear-powered rocket. Its Nuclear Rocket Development Station (now abandoned), consists of three giant facilities linked by a remote-control railroad--remote control so that its human operators could move radioactive fuel around at a safe distance.

Here are Area 25 and others of Yucca Mountain's novel nuclear neighbors.

PHOTO: Sedan Crater
Nevada Division of Environmental Protection
Sedan Crater

Sedan crater, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, hugs the shore of Groom Lake (evaporated) within the Nevada Test Site--as does its neighbor to the northeast, mystery-shrouded Area 51.

Measuring 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet in diameter, it is large enough to be visible from space and was called into being instantly on July 6, 1962, the result of a 104-kiloton blast that expelled 12 million tons of earth.

It was the handiwork, indirectly, of Edward Teller, whose unique whimsy spawned Project Plowshare, the purpose of which was to find non-military uses for nuclear explosives, including earth-moving. In those politically incorrect days, Teller planned to use a multi-megaton hydrogen bomb to create a deep-water harbor on Alaska's coast. Other proposed Plowshare projects included a nuclear widening of the Panama Canal and constructing a new waterway through Nicaragua to be called the Pan-Atomic Canal.

A 1963 Plowshare project, "Carryall," would have used 22 nuclear explosions to cut a roadway through the Bristol Mountains in California's Mojave Desert to create Interstate 40.

The Sedan Crater explosion was the largest in Plowshare history and exposed more than 13 million Americans to radiation, according to All Around Nevada. It marked the end of the excavation program and any hopes of irradiating harbors, roadways and canals.

PHOTO: House destroyed by nuclear explosion
EG&G for the Atomic Energy Commission
Civil Defense

During the Cold War, the Nevada Test Site was used to test what effect nuclear blasts might have on a wide variety of features of civilian life, including homes, offices, shelters, vehicles, landscaping and civilians. The blasts did not improve them.

Structures made of various materials, including simulated homes and office buildings, were built to then-prevailing standards of U.S. and European design. These would be placed at a variety of distances from ground zero. Mannequins were used in lieu of people.

High-speed cameras captured the effect of the blasts.

As in the photo here, some structures were destroyed outright, instantly, by the temperature and shock waves. Paint would be seen boiling off the buildings, which swayed helplessly, first pushed away from the blast, then sucked in the opposite direction by the cyclonic suction of the rising mushroom cloud.

Such testing resulted in guidelines and construction codes optimistically intended to increase the survivability of civilian (and military) structures in the event of a nuclear attack.

PHOTO: Nuclear rocket engine test
JPL/NASA
Nuclear Rocket Engine

During a visit to the Nevada Test Site, your reporter innocently asked if there hadn't been some program in the 1960s to develop a nuclear aircraft engine. "There sure was," said my guide. So, encouraged, I asked if maybe there hadn't also been an attempt to develop a nuclear rocket. "You bet," said he, pointing to a distant ridge. "It's right over there, in Jackass Flat." Could we go see it? We could.

We summited the ridge and looked down into a valley the size of Manhattan island. Spread out below us was what looked like the set from a 1950s George Pal movie--the very kind of complex from which Tang-drinking men would have gone to Pluto and beyond.

Three far-flung collections of buildings--each the size of a small city and connected by what the guide explained had been a remote-control railroad--made up what had been the Nuclear Rocket Development Station, site for Project Rover and Project NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application). The goal was to develop a flight-rated engine that would develop 75,000 pounds of thrust by using nuclear energy to super-heat liquid fuel.

The engine worked. In 1962 President Kennedy, arriving in a black Lincoln Continental and wearing Ray-Bans, dropped by Jackass Flat to kick NERVA's tires.

The site continued testing engines until the early 1970s, when it lost its funding.

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