The 40th anniversary of the first nuclear weapons test in Nevada passed quietly Sunday, with the public’s focus on a high-tech war half a world away.
It was another war, in Korea, that brought the nation’s nuclear testing program to a remote desert site 65 miles northwest of here.
The number of tests at the Nevada Test Site has grown from the handful planned in January, 1951, to 707 today. The site serves as the only nuclear weapons testing facility for the United States and Great Britain.
Efforts by anti-nuclear activists to halt testing are being fought by those who believe that the presence of nuclear weapons has prevented a catastrophic clash between the world’s superpowers.
Nick Aquilina, manager of the U.S. Energy Department’s Nevada Operations Office, sees nuclear weapons as a “peace-establishing device,” but admits that if they “could be uninvented, we would all prefer that.”
The nuclear genie was let out of the bottle in 1945 when a bomb code-named “Trinity” was detonated in the New Mexico desert. Later that year, atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II.
The United States, Soviet Union, France, Great Britain and China have developed and continue to test nuclear weapons. Israel is also believed to have nuclear weapons and delivery capability.
Officials believe Pakistan and South Africa may also have limited nuclear capability.
U.S. officials have said they believe that Iraq’s nuclear weapons research facilities have been crippled or knocked out during the Persian Gulf War.
The Soviet Union has called for an end to testing and the issue was raised in the United Nations earlier this month. The United States and Britain have vowed to veto any U.N. resolution aimed at ending testing.
“As long as the policy of this country is nuclear deterrence, we need to continue testing,” Aquilina said last week. “Nuclear deterrence is a cornerstone to our defense posture.
“Without testing there is always the opportunity for a technological surprise. And testing is needed to certify the nuclear weapons in our stockpile. Without testing we would lack confidence in our stockpiles.”
Anti-nuclear activists disagree, and have turned out by the thousands over the last decade to protest at the site.
“We think it is incredible for President Bush to say Americans face a threat from Saddam Hussein’s nuclear potential when they face such a great threat from our own arsenal,” Bill Walker, a spokesman for the Las Vegas-based American Peace Test, said before a major protest at the site Jan. 5.
“A year ago, we were looking forward to a new era of peace and cooperation,” Walker said. “Now, people are saying. ' Where is that peace dividend?”’
DOE officials say 2,500 turned out for the Jan. 5 protest while activists estimate the number at 3,000 to 4,000. More than 700 were arrested on misdemeanor trespass charges, then released.
The most recent test was conducted Nov. 14, 1990. The joint U.S.-British test was delayed a few hours while officials searched for four anti-nuclear activists who hiked to a spot near ground zero. The four -- three women from England and a man from Colorado -- were arrested on trespass charges and fined $1,000 each in U.S. District Court. They have refused to pay the fines.
The first test in Nevada, Jan. 27, 1951, involved an atomic bomb dropped from a B-29 lumbering across Frenchman Flat, a remote valley 75 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The atmospheric blast set off burglar alarms here and frightened most of the town’s 35,000 people. Some worried that the Soviets had blown up Hoover Dam.
Today, weapons with 150 times the punch of the 1951 blast are detonated 1,400 to 2,200 feet deep in the belly of the desert. Larger tests, near the 150-kiloton limit, cause a swaying motion in high-rise buildings in Las Vegas, up to 120 miles from ground zero.
Most of the city’s 800,000 residents pay scant attention to the blasts, which now number 12 to 15 year.
Only a handful of tests were envisioned when President Harry S. Truman, worried about security, ordered testing moved from the Pacific to Nevada at the height of the Korean War.
Today, most nuclear devices tested are buried deep in shafts. Some are detonated in tunnels carved into mesas. Those shots are designed to test the survivability of U.S. space hardware against nuclear attack. Some Star Wars research is believed involved in the tunnel tests, although DOE officials will not confirm that.
Sections of the 1,350-square-mile test site resemble the moon’s surface, with hundreds of craters dotting the desert floor. The craters are a signature of underground tests, where the ground has subsided to fill the cavity created by the nuclear blasts.