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Nevada Test Site


The Nevada Test Site (NTS) is located in Nye County in southern Nevada about 75 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The site is about 1,350 square miles. After World War II, the United States began testing its nuclear weapons in the Pacific Ocean, more specifically in the Bikini Atoll, a chain of island in the South Pacific. In 1950, President Truman called for an acceleration in the development of nuclear weapons. To support this effort, the government needed a location where testing could take place that would not require the extensive logistic efforts and inordinate amounts of time traveling to remote areas of the Pacific. The area in Nevada was chosen because it met certain criteria such as low population density, favorable year round weather conditions, and reasonable access. Despite the harsh climate, the area around the Nevada Test Site was home to a large array of plants and animals. The site is a transitional zone between the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert. Species from both deserts, including those native to one but not the other, are found in the area.

Nuclear Tests

From 1951 until 1992, there were 928 nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site. Many of the tests that occurred used plutonium and other materials produced at Hanford. The nuclear tests carried out at the NTS can be divided into two main eras. The first is the atmospheric testing that took place from January 1951 through October 1958. The second was the underground testing that took place from 1961 until 1992. Although there were a few surface, near surface, and crater tests conducted from 1961 to 1968, the vast majority of nuclear weapons tests have been carried out underground since 1961. Of the 928 tests, only 100 of those were atmospheric and the other 828 were conducted underground. Most of the underground tests were conducted under the Yucca Flat, but there were a few tests that took place under Buckboard, Pahute, and Rainer Mesas. All testing at the site stopped when the United States entered into a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing in October of 1992.

The atmospheric tests were visible to the residents of Las Vegas, whose population was less than 50,000 at the time. The Atomic Energy Commission distributed an information guide to the residents near the testing ground. Beginning with the line "You are in a very real sense active participants in the Nation's atomic test program." It went on to explain what was happening on the site and attempted to reassure the safety of the tests. The program claimed that any radioactive clouds created from the tests "does not constitute a serious hazard to any living thing outside the test site."

Test Site contamination

The atmospheric tests left heavy fallout. Some areas of the Nevada Site are still so radioactive that anyone entering must wear hazmat suits. The underground tests would vaporize a large chamber which left a radioactive cavity. The tests conducted near or on the surface resulted in the creation of large craters. These explosions deposited radioactive material into the ground and sometimes directly into aquifers. The DOE estimates that more than 300 million curies of radiation has been deposited in the ground of the test site. This makes the Nevada Test Site the most radioactively contaminated place in the nation. The fallout from these atmospheric tests released approximately 150 million curies of iodine-131. The main peaks of contamination occurred in 1953, 1955, and 1957.

A third of the underground tests were conducted in aquifers, while others were hundreds or thousand feet above the water table. Federal scientists claim that the contamination above the aquifers should remain suspended in the perpetually dry soil, although critics argue there is no evidence to prove this. In the "hottest" zones, radioactivity in the water reaches millions of picocuries per liter. Although radiation levels in the water have declined, the longer-living isotopes will continue to pose risks for tens of thousands of years.

Many of the test bombs were part of the Plowshare program, which began in 1958. The goal of the program was to develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosives. Over a span of fifteen years the AEC conducted thirty five Plowshare tests. The excavation tests were designed to demonstrate that nuclear devices could quickly and cheaply move massive amounts of earth that could be useful in digging of canals and harbors. The largest of these tests was the Sedan Test. Buried 635 feet below ground level, the 104-kiliton blast lifted a large dome of earth 290 feet in the air and moved 6.5 million cubic yards of earth and rock. The crater that was left behind was 1,200 feet across and 320 feet deep. The lip of the crater towered as high as 100 feet into the air. This explosion also caused a radioactive cloud to move toward Salt Lake City. The inability to contain the radioactivity and disappointing results eventually caused the program to be canceled in the mid 1970s.

People affected by Fallout

In 1979 the New England Journal of Medicine released a report that stated, "A significant excess of leukemia deaths occurred in children up to 14 years of age living in Utah between 1959 and 1967. This excess was concentrated in the cohort of children born between 1951 and 1958, and was most pronounced in those residing in counties receiving high fallout." By October of 1982, nearly 1,200 people filed a law suit against the Federal Government accusing them of negligence in testing atomic weapons at the Nevada test site. They claimed that the testing had caused leukemia and other cancers. Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, who had been at the University of Chicago with Enrico Fermi and also worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 29 years, testified of behalf of the downwinders. He said that that radiation protection measures in the tests were substandard and "not in the spirit" of what was known at the time about the health hazards of radiation. He said the AEC had set radiation safeguards and other standards by selectively using information that supported the conclusions that they had already made.

In August of 1997, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) released the results of a nationwide study of iodine-131 fallout from nuclear bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s and 1960s. The study concluded that fallout spread across the country, resulting in a radiation dose from iodine-131 to residents in the 48 contiguous states. The doses were estimated to be highest for people who were young children during the 1950s, who drank milk, and who lived to the north or east of the Nevada Test Site, especially in parts of Montana and Idaho. The following year, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Academy of Scientists (NAS) issued a report assessing the NCI's study. The report concluded that some people who received more exposure are at higher risk for developing thyroid cancer. There was some debate about whether the government should sponsor a systematic screening program for thyroid cancer. The IOM/NAS study felt that the risks involved could outweigh the benefits. They recommended an informational program on the Nevada tests and the risks of thyroid cancer following exposure to radiation. However, the Advisory Committee on Energy-Related Epidemiologic Research (a federal citizens' advisory committee) wanted further evaluation on the government offering thyroid cancer screening for people exposed to Nevada Test Site fallout. The committee also wanted the government to take a proactive approach and provide screening for hypothyroidism and other noncancerous thyroid and parathyroid diseases. A third demand was for the government to complete dose reconstruction for Nevada Test Site fallout (to include dose estimates for other radionuclides, such as strontium-90).

The exact amount of cancer caused from the fallout of the testing in Nevada cannot be exactly pinpointed. Since the large levels of radioactive iodine-131 were deposited across such a large portion of the United States, there is the potential for the fallout to have produced 10,000 to 75,000 cases of thyroid cancer.


Under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, any person who lived downwind of NTS for at least two years, especially those living in Nevada, Arizona, or Utah counties, between January 21, 1951 to October 31, 1958 or June 30, 1962 to July 31 1962, and was also suffering from certain types of cancers or other serious illness that have been deemed to be related to fallout exposure, can receive $50,000 as compensation. As of June 2007, approximately $561 million dollars has been paid out to 11.220 people who had lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site and suffered from radioactive exposure.

Contaminated Water

Due to the recent boom in population in Nevada and their current water crisis, there has been an increased interest in determining how much damage the tests actually did to groundwater and aquifers at the site. In 2009, federal officials ordered a new environmental assessment of the 1,375 square mile area. This would be the first step toward a demand for monetary compensation for the replacement of lost water or a massive cleanup. Although Nevada has not pressed for compensation or replacement water so far, public officials say they are considering such action.

Recent studies estimated that the underground tests polluted 1.6 trillion gallons of water. This is a comparable amount to what Nevada is allowed to withdraw from the Colorado River over a 16 year time period. The amount would fill a lake 300 miles long, a mile wide and 25 feet deep. If it wasn't contaminated the water would be worth approximately $48 billion dollars.

Although the contaminated water is migrating southwest from the high ground of the test site, the DOE has no plans to clean it up. They state that extracting it would be too expensive. They also claim that even if the radioactive material was removed, it would then have to be transferred for storage someplace else. They believe that best they can do is focus their efforts on monitoring the water. The DOE has 48 monitoring wells at the site and began drilling nine deep wells in 2009. The water moves about 3 inches to 18 feet a year. At this rate it will take 6,000 years for it to reach the nearest community. Since the contaminated water does not pose an immediate threat, the DOE does not feel that Nevada is a high priority for cleanup. Of the DOE's $5.5 billion annual nuclear cleanup bill, only about $65 million is spend on cleaning up Nevada. Approximately $1.8 billion dollars is spent at Hanford every year.

Despite the contaminated water not being an immediate threat, Nevada state officials don't want to leave a large portion of their state permanently uninhabitable due to contamination. In recent years county officials have applied for permits to pump clean water near the western boundary of the test site. These have been denied based on protests from the DOE. The DOE argues that if too much clean water is pumped out of the ground from adjacent areas, it could accelerate the movement of tainted water. Local officials are frustrated as they feel that they need more access to water so they can help the state's economy. There are several companies who want to construct solar generation plants, but cannot get the authorization because there is not enough water.

Federal scientists note that the size and complex geology of the area make it a difficult place to study. Due to these factors, there are many things still unknown about the site. Government geologists have calculated that the forward plume of radioactive water under the Pahute Mesa should have crossed over the boundary of the site even though it has not been detected by monitoring wells. There are some scientists who worry that the contamination could reach deeper aquifers and move much quicker than forecasted.

Site of Protest

The Nevada Test Site has often been a target of anti nuclear protests. Most of these were conducted by the American Peace Test (APT) and Nevada Desert Experience (NDE). In March 1988, APT organized a ten day long "Reclaim the Test Site" event which was attended by more than 8,800 people. Nearly 2,067 of these people were arrested, including 1,200 who were taken into custody in one day. This set a record for most civil disobedience arrests in a single protest.


In 2010, the Nevada Test Site was renamed the Nevada National Security Site. The National Nuclear Security Administration said that this was done to better reflect its current mission. This includes training personnel for the military and Department of Homeland Security and for testing technology for the detection of weapons of mass destruction.


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