MERCURY - The Nevada Test Site does not rank among the Las Vegas area's top tourist attractions.
The scenery is raw, with bony mountains providing most of the topographical personality. Save for the occasional Joshua tree, there's little vegetation any taller than knee-high. And the only way to visit as a civilian is once a month on a big tour bus - one that I escaped for only a few minutes of a 250-mile expedition lasting more than eight hours.
Besides, how many tourist attractions can you name where you are required to wear a dosimeter, a gadget to measure any nuclear radiation you might pick up?
"If we get a reading you will be notified," said John Spahn, a retired worker and guide, who handed me a plastic badge embedded with the device. "I carry a dosim eter with me at all times. But in all the years I've been doing this it's always been zero."
Although there is no nuclear testing done at the site today, the place is true ground zero for any student of Cold War history.
The tour provided by the Department of Energy is available to almost anyone, free of charge, as long as you apply at least six weeks in advance.
On the 65-mile drive northwest from Las Vegas to Mercury, Spahn played an old 28-minute video that provides an overview of US nuclear testing history, seen from the government's perspective while testing was underway. Although nuclear experiments following the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were conducted at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, the government realized that testing in such remote areas presented logistical challenges. The solution was an expanse of arid, uninhabited land larger than Rhode Island, established by President Truman in 1950.
Testing in Nevada started a month later and continued through the Cold War era, in most cases announced to the public. It stopped in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush issued a moratorium. Today the Department of Energy contracts Bechtel to run the operation. There are more than 1,200 people working at the site. But as the years distance us from the arms race, the site's day-to-day agenda has evolved.
"The Department of Defense sends troops here for desert survival training; there's emergency response team training - for a plane crash incident, for dealing with a dirty bomb," said Spahn, as we approached Mercury. There's also the ongoing monitoring of the area's radiation, and disposal of low-level nuclear waste.
But it's the nuclear history we're eager to see. At the security gate a humorless armed guard climbs onto the bus and inspects the driver's license or passport of all 31 passengers. Cameras and cellphones are confiscated until the end of the tour.
And then we're in. The land is classified into different blocks, or areas, used by varying government agencies. The most famous is Area 51, a secret military installation with a mysterious history, including tests of the U2 spy plane in the 1950s. It's a zone we won't be visiting, Spahn said.
We drive through Area 5 and soon arrive at News Nob, a gentle rise lined with wood benches for the generals, members of Congress, and the news crews who filmed the first nuclear test here in 1951, from a distance of 7 miles. For the first decade detonations were "atmospheric," producing the bomb's trademark mushroom cloud. In 1952, a bomb named Annie was the first to be televised for a national audience, and soon scheduled nuclear tests were a draw for Las Vegas. Tourists filled hotels to see the glow, the cloud, even feel the heat of the blast.
Our bus rolled along and down an easy grade toward Frenchman Flat, a dry lakebed, the site of Annie and 13 other blasts, where Spahn told us - to our surprise - we would be allowed off the bus for a few minutes. We were instructed to not kick up the dust, nor to pick up any rocks, but that any radiation on the surface was at extremely low levels.
One purpose of the early tests was to determine what would happen to physical objects in an explosion. Stepping off the bus to face an improbable, freestanding railroad trestle laid the evidence bare: Positioned 1,800 feet from the blast, its steel girders were bent and twisted. Concrete bunkers looked untouched, but an aluminum building was crumpled.
"If we ever get into a nuclear exchange don't take cover in a metal structure," said Spahn.
Troops were sent into trenches less than 2 miles from the detonations - as many as 6,000 for one event. Spahn said that it wasn't so much to observe physical effects of the radiation, but to assess psychological reaction.
Back on the bus we drove past several rows of grim cages, where animals had been strapped in to measure the effects of radiation from close in. "Pig skin is similar to human skin, rabbit eyes are like human eyes," said Spahn. "I don't know what they used the dogs for. They had glass panes set up to simulate the impact on animals from shattering glass. Some of the film of these experiments is quite grisly."
While I have not viewed film of animal experiments I have seen footage that depicts what happened to a "typical American community," complete with cars, furniture, and houses made of wood or brick. Food was brought in, windows were covered in blinds. A few remnants of this ersatz town remain. Visiting the locations of the filmed experiments is a disquieting fusion of Hollywood backlot tour and sci-fi nightmare.
In 1963, after 100 above-ground detonations at the Nevada site, President Kennedy signed a Limited Test Ban Treaty, which ended atmospheric tests. Nuclear experiments went underground.
Holes were drilled more than a mile deep and as wide as 12 feet in diameter. The device was lowered down the shaft and the hole filled with sand and plastic to contain the explosion. At detonation the soil immediately surrounding the blast would be vaporized, forming an underground cavity of molten rock that would usually collapse, causing a subsidence crater at ground level.
The craters pockmark the flat landscape in every direction. In one case the road dips into a site named Bilby Crater, where an explosion created a 600-foot-wide cavity. Arriving at the lip of the crater we startle a good-sized coyote who bolts over the rim and disappears into brush.
The big crater, however, is Sedan, in Area 10, the farthest north our tour will travel.
Sedan was designed to test the feasibility of thermonuclear devices being used for massive peacetime earthmoving projects, like building harbors or dams. We're allowed off the bus, to a wooden platform at the crater rim where we gaze at the gigantic scar left by a 104-kiloton hydrogen bomb: a quarter-mile across and 320 feet deep. The 4.7-magnitude quake was felt in Vegas and beyond.
More than 980 detonations were conducted here. The last one was triggered in September 1992. Spahn said that, in 1992 dollars, the costs ranged from $50 million to $100 million for each experiment. I couldn't help asking why so many were required.
"Well, they needed to see that the designs worked. But some of it was muscle flexing," Spahn said.
And part of why Bechtel is here is so that a US president retains the option to reinstate testing.
Not all "presidents" agree with this option. As recently as April, actor Martin Sheen, who played President Josiah Bartlet on TV's "The West Wing," was among activists cited during a protest outside the gates of Mercury.
The Nevada Test Site, and the controversies that surround it, appear to be alive and well.
David Swanson, a freelance writer based in San Diego and a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler, can be reached at email@example.com.
(Correction: Because of reporting errors, a number of elements in a story on the Nevada Test Site in Sunday's Travel section were incorrect. Although members of the public were once required to wear a dosimeter, a gauge that measures radiation, when touring the site, they no longer have to; only the tour escort is required to wear one now. The site, which was managed by Bechtel Nevada in 2005, when the reporter's visit took place, has been managed by National Security Technologies since 2006. There are two historic points from which news and senior military officials viewed early experiments, not one. The viewing area that overlooks Frenchman Flat does not have a name.)