(AP Photo)

The day is not a hot one, but gray and rainy. This weather is unusual for Las Vegas in October. The roads grow slick, but no one slows their cars. It is 2010, weeks before the Nevada Senate election between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle. I have driven the 440 miles from Salt Lake City, returning to my hometown to tour the Nevada Nuclear Test Site as research for my dissertation.

In the gift shop of the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, I finger postcards, adorned with images of Miss Atomic Bomb, a 1950s pinup girl wearing a mushroom cloud bathing suit. The store also sells Albert Einstein figurines as well as books with titles like How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb or Survival Under Atomic Attack.

Before boarding the tour bus, which will shuttle around the site, I am assigned a badge at the check-in table, “TEMP 68.” I wonder if it might also be a dosimeter, designed to measure my exposure to radiation, though the tour information packet does not include any information about radiation hazards tourist might encounter.   

The bus is a long-distance touring coach, with footrests and plush seats. It reminds me of my fourth-grade field trip to Spring Mountain Ranch when my class was ferried to see the secret passageways of the house once owned by actress Vera Krupp, and later by Howard Hughes. That was the year we studied Nevada History. I remember learning about Kit Carson and John C. Fremont and the ill-fated Donner party. I remember learning about Boulder Dam and Bugsy Siegel. I don’t remember learning about the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.

Correction, I scribble in my notebook: The Nevada National Security Site. The site was renamed in August 2010 to reflect the changing role of nuclear weapons in America’s post 9/11 national defense. This is what our guide, let’s call him “Frank,” tells us. He is a slight man with an animated voice. He offers unsolicited advice on various casinos and what shows to take in. This is Las Vegas, after all, where in the 1950s, the tests themselves became tourist attractions. Dignitaries and visitors drank champagne on grandstands, as the mushroom clouds rose on the horizon, some sixty miles northwest of the city.

The wild spectacle of the tests hid a darker and more dangerous history of nuclear testing, a contrast embedded in the fabric of Nevada itself. This is a land of paradoxes, where frontier libertarianism meets the glitz of the Las Vegas Strip, where Mormon populations flourish amidst legalized vice. The test site serves as a reminder of these contrasts. The nuclear blasts themselves might be contained in the vastness of the land. But despite the promises of politicians, real containment was never possible. Fallout spread across Nevada and parts of Utah and Arizona causing environmental degradation and disease. Fallout also manifested in the constant fear that the tests might end and nuclear war, the war to end all wars—the apocalyptic end of life—might begin.

THE TEST SITE COVERS an area of approximately 1,350 square miles of wide Nevada desert bookended on each side with mountain ranges. On the hour-long ride along I-95 to the site, Frank pops a video into a VCR. It is a highlight reel of the preparations for test days from the 1950s, when thousands of test site employees, government officials, and civilian spectators would gather to watch the blasts. “It was like a party,” Frank says, his voice full of nostalgia for the days when they were still “shooting nukes” in Nevada, still making, as the saying went, the desert bloom as a rose.

Frank thinks he knows what we want to hear. So he regales us with stories of downed alien aircraft hidden at nearby Area 51. But I’m here to learn about the 100 bombs detonated above ground, the 900 additional underground detonations. I want to know about stockpile stewardship, and the effects of nuclear testing on site workers and the people of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Though the Atomic Energy Commission once characterized the people of the Mountain West as a “low-use segment of the population,” the winds and storm clouds carried radiation over mountains ranges, killing livestock, damaging water tables, and ravaging human bodies with cancer.  

Soon, we turn from I-95 onto Mercury Highway leading to the test site. As the bus passes the security gates, I see two large holding pens on the side of the road. “The protestors come every August,” Franks says. “On the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And we let them. We wait until they cross the line and then we put them into the holding pens. And we don’t arrest them. Just hold them in there.”

Frank explains that the U.S. government stopped above ground testing in 1962 and ceased nuclear weapons detonations entirely in 1992. Frank makes it clear that he doesn’t think the tests should have ended. “If we don’t test the bombs,” he says, “how will we know if they are safe and reliable?” I look around the bus to see if anyone else reacts to his use of “safe” to describe nuclear weapons, but I don’t catch anyone’s gaze. Perhaps, like me, my fellow test site tourists are afraid to reveal that we aren’t nuclear enthusiasts, but skeptics who probably have more in common with the protestors than our guide. We stay silent though, fearing perhaps that if we reveal our sympathies, we too might end up in those pens.

One of the passengers does venture to ask the question on everyone’s minds, “Is it safe for us to be out here?” Frank replies, “Yes. Of course. The government wouldn’t let you out here if it wasn’t safe.”

A security guard performs a cursory inspection of the bus and its occupants before we head into Mercury, the test site’s small town, which during its heyday in the 1950s, had a post office, a bowling alley, and even a small non-denominational chapel. Today the town has empty streets and abandoned buildings. We pick up water for the day at one of the only operating businesses, the Mercury Cafeteria. “We have the most delicious water,” Frank says. “We have our own well.” I picture the flash of a nuclear explosion, seen in the hours of nuclear test footage I’ve watched. I see the ash rise slowly over the desert and then fall to the desert floor, seeping into the water table. I decide to go thirsty.

As we make our way into the test site itself, we see the bleachers, eroded from years of desert sun, where people watched the tests on the dry lakebed of Frenchman’s Flat. We pass another set of holding pens, which once contained pigs used to measure the effects of radiation exposure to skin and organs. We see craters produced by the underground tests pocking the landscape. 

It’s only once we’re far into the desert that Frank begins to talk politics. “If you’re voting for Harry Reid, raise your hand,” referring to the tight Senate race between Sharron Angle, the Republican, Tea Party-backed candidate, and Harry Reid, the incumbent Mormon Democrat. Only two of the 60 people on the bus indicate their support for Reid. Perhaps the other tourists are visiting from out of state. Or perhaps their politics are more aligned with those of Angle. Or, like me, perhaps they are baffled that a government employee would pose such a question while hosting a tour of a nuclear test site.

Frank suggests why for him, all politics—even a national Senate race—is still local. “Maybe if Reid gets kicked out of office, we can start testing again.”

THE TOUR’S CENTRAL ATTRACTION is Sedan Crater, the world’s largest man-made crater. When we arrive, we get off the bus and all take our turn on the platform at the crater’s rim. The crater is the result of Operation Plowshare, a Kennedy-era program that tested the effectiveness of nuclear weapons for civilian purposes, like moving large masses of dirt and rock. The crater’s size, 320 feet deep by 1,280 feet across, suggests that nuclear weapons could in fact move mountains. The 104-kilaton explosion displaced 6.5 million cubic yards of earth. The program’s name “plowshare” has Biblical resonance: passages in the Hebrew scriptures talk of beating or hammering swords into plowshares so that nations will no longer be at war. But even the “Peaceful Nuclear Explosions” (“to beat swords [or bombs] into plowshares”) led to water contamination, increased cancer rates, not to mention the destruction of the landscape itself.  

When I take my turn peering into the crater, whose size suggests the work of gods, or aliens, not twentieth-century Americans, I think about the “downwinders” of Southern Utah. The clean living of these mostly devout Mormon communities could not protect them from some of the highest rates of radiation-related cancer in the country. I think of my aunt Ginny who grew up in Teasdale, Utah, 400 miles to the east of the test site. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she applied for support from the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act just months after my visit to the test site. I also think of Sharon, my stepfather’s ex-wife, who worked for just one year at the test site in the early 1960s. For years, she’s battled multiple myeloma, another cancer often associated with exposure to radiation.

Before we are allowed to head back to Las Vegas, we are required to visit the Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility, where employees dressed in Hazmat suits test the wheels and exterior of the bus for radiation exposure. We are pronounced uncontaminated and are free to go.

The bus winds its way past Mercury, then past the security checkpoint and the now-empty holding pens. As we turn onto I-95, I overhear three other site tourists discussing what they’ll drink once they return to their hotel. One woman says, “Mai-Tais are my new favorite drink,” a drink popularized at the height of cold war. She turns to her friend and says, “Remind me that Mai-Tai’s are my new favorite drink.” I imagine that they also didn’t drink the water.

In April 2011, I return to Vegas and visit the Atomic Testing Museum. In the lobby, I gather information on Nevada’s radiation exposure compensation. Nevada’s bill, drafted and shepherded through Congress by Harry Reid, is more generous and comprehensive than Utah’s.

The long-feared apocalypse in the form of global nuclear war never came. Yet for many living the deserts and plains surrounding the Nevada National Security Site, an apocalypse—slower moving and more insidious than fire in the sky and cities turned to rubble—has occurred, as radiation infiltrated the land and the bodies of many residents of America’s southwest.

Rachel Marston lives and writes in Salt Lake City, where she is completing a novel about nuclear testing in the American West.