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The Atomic Testing Museum educates visitors about Nevada’s role in nuclear experimentation.
Photo: Rick Mortensen (all)
The Ground Zero Theater is a stark, callous place with hard benches. Its entrance replicates walking into a test-site viewing area, the control point for watching nuclear-bomb detonations. The doors close, and even those not prone to claustrophobia might notice the distinct lack of fresh air in the room. A recorded voice begins a countdown, and on a large screen visitors see what workers did prior to and after the detonation—quiet at first, followed by a mushroom cloud. Most frightening? The steam, noise, and shaking emanating from the room, all affects of the test. It’s make-believe, but guaranteed to elicit gasps, and even screams. Visitors exit in stunned silence.
And to think all of this takes place less than 10 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip at the Atomic Testing Museum. The museum offers a dramatic, sometimes eerie history lesson that’s still highly relevant today. Nevada played a central role in the testing and development of nuclear bombs—conducting 928 above- and below-ground tests between 1951 and 1992, when a moratorium halted the testing of nuclear weapons. Nevada’s open land and good weather made it a prime choice for the dubious activities. A copy of the December 1950 letter written by President Harry S. Truman authorizing the Nevada Test Site is prominently on display.
Visitors are issued name tags and badges at the start of the tour, then freed to roam past continuous newsreels of—among other things—Adolf Hitler, actual bomb tests, and test-site workers heading to and from their shelters and campgrounds. Those who lived through World War II make up a significant number of visitors. “I remember when Hitler made those speeches,” says 92-year-old Agnes Fitzgerald. “And over there at that TV screen, the newspaper headlines and scenes of Harry Truman, I remember those days well.” Her 86-year-old sister, Theresa, looks with fascination at gas masks, helmets, and survival kits used by test-site workers. “A friend of mine worked at the site,” she recalls. “It’s important to [see this] and remember those dangerous times so we don’t repeat them.”
A sense of quiet awe permeates the museum, which opened in 2005. It contains hundreds of artifacts from the Nevada Test Site (still used for other programs such as hazardous chemical-spill testing, emergency response training, conventional weapons testing, and waste management and environmental technology studies), 65 miles from Las Vegas. Two test bombs dubbed Little Boy and Fat Man are among the most unnerving displays. A nearby simulated work station depicts a lifelike idea of bunker life.
The most eerie experience—and the most popular—is the aforementioned Ground Zero Theater, but there are plenty of other interactive displays. You can walk through replica silos, where bombs were stored and from which underground tests were launched, and test your own level of radioactivity.
About 2,500 Americans visit the museum monthly. “Canada and England comprise our next-heaviest tourist base,” says Dawn Ham, director of marketing and development. “We’ve also had visitors from Japan, Australia, Serbia, Ethiopia—all countries and age groups.” Educational field trips are encouraged for appropriate age groups. “Because of the museum’s subject matter we prefer fourth graders and above,” Ham adds.
Revolving exhibits, lectures, and book signings keep material fresh. Through January, an exhibit honors the 50th anniversary of the 1958 Anglo-American Mutual Defense Agreement, acknowledging our association with the British in opposing nuclear weapons.
There’s a small gift shop with books, photos, and quirkier items such as Atomic Fireball candies, popular in the 1950s and still delivering a nostalgic cinnamon kick. A poignant history walk around the museum’s exterior commemorates with plaques, names of former test-site employees, and others who were involved in the testing.
Atomic Testing Museum
755 E. Flamingo Rd., Las Vegas
Located on the first floor of Frank H. Rogers Science and Technology Building at the Desert Research Institute
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun., 1-5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day)
Admission: $12, adults (ages 18-65); $9, children (ages 7-17), seniors, students, Nevada residents, and military; Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation members and youth (ages 6 and younger), free
WORTH A VISIT
You’ve never heard of the Atomic Testing Museum? Here are a few more outside-the-norm Nevada institutions.
East Ely Railroad Depot Museum
1100 Ave. A, Ely
Has been restored to its original
The Historic McGill Drug Company
#11 4th St., McGill
An old small-town drugstore
frozen in time
Liberty Engine Co. No. 1
125 S. C St., Virginia City
History of firefighting in Nevada
Lost City Museum
721 S. Moapa Valley Blvd., Overton
Situated on prehistoric Puebloan ruins
The Neon Museum
821 Las Vegas Blvd. N., Las Vegas
A collection of old neon signs & associated artifacts