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On October 10, 1963, the nuclear test ban treaty took effect. The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the agreement not to detonate nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in the water, or in outer space. For Nevada, it marked the end of an era.
After World War Two, the Atomic Energy Commission wanted to test its bombs on American soil. The idea was to find somewhere with enough space under federal control and the right climate. In December 1950, President Harry Truman set aside part of the Nellis Bombing and Gunnery Range to be the atomic proving ground … the Nevada Test Site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site.
[Hear More: Learn about a time when Las Vegas residents welcomed atomic testing and atomic tourism was at its peak on KNPR's State of Nevada.]
Aboveground atomic testing started in Nevada on January 27, 1951. A B-50 Superfortress dropped a one-kiloton device, codenamed Able, on Frenchman Flat. A mushroom cloud appeared for the first time in the Nevada desert … but not for the last time. Overall, there would be one hundred aboveground tests in the next twelve years.
For Nevada, the tests brought scientists, contractors, workers—in other words, payroll. They led to the creation of the town of Mercury to house Test Site workers, who developed their own community. The tests were good for Nevada’s image. Here was a state that served as America’s capital of vice, and now we were helping the U.S. fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Journalists from around the world came to Nevada and presented it in a different light.
[Hear More: What was it like as a one kiloton bomb detonated 10,000 feet overhead? Find out on KNPR's State of Nevada.]
Speaking of image … Las Vegas turned the aboveground tests into a tourist attraction and the mushroom cloud into a symbol. During my time at Las Vegas High School, a mushroom cloud decorated one of the yearbook covers. The mushroom cloud became part of the Clark County seal. Hotels and motels set up parties or places to watch. They even provided food to the spectators. Don English of the Las Vegas News Bureau took the iconic photo of downtown Las Vegas with a mushroom cloud in the distance. A beauty contest produced a Miss Atomic Blast. Beauty salons offered the Atomic Hairdo: for seventy-five dollars, a woman could emerge with a mushroom-cloud shaped style with silver glitter sprinkled on it. If you went to the right bar, you could get the atomic cocktail—brandy, vodka, champagne, and sherry.
[Hear More: Artist Steven Liguori recreates iconic bombshell on KNPR's State of Nevada.]
Sadly, it wasn’t all fun and games. The federal government assured Nevadans that they were in no danger. They were. In 1953, the wind sent clouds from a series of tests over southeastern Nevada and southern Utah. Hundreds of sheep died, and cancer spread among the cast and crew of The Conqueror, a movie being shot in the area. Test Site workers often suffered the effects of radiation. There would be more controversy later over the effects of fallout from some of the eight hundred underground tests conducted after the approval of the test ban treaty. If you want to understand the opposition to nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, this is one of the reasons … that the federal government claimed the atomic tests were safe when they weren’t.
There has been a lot of fine scholarly research, including an oral history project by UNLV and the book Bombs in the Backyard by Dina Titus, then a political science professor and now a congresswoman. The National Atomic Testing Museum also tells the story of a time when atomic bombs lit up the desert and changed our lives.