Atomic Testing Museum
Las Vegas, Nevada
For years, employees of the Nevada Test Site -- the Connecticut-size chunk of land north of Las Vegas on which America blew up its atom bombs -- were forbidden to speak about their work. That ended in 1992, and the Atomic Testing Museum (renamed in 2012 the "National Atomic Testing Museum") is now their megaphone
The museum takes you through the history of nuclear experimentation in Nevada, which turns out to be freakier than you probably knew. Displays, for example, explain the BERN Tower experiments, which hung lumps of powerfully radioactive cobalt above a simulated Japanese village; the moon buggy trials that went on in the bomb craters of Yucca Flats; and the farm on which barnyard animals were exposed to radiation to learn how much a human-size animal could stand, and to "evaluate food chain safeguard measures that can be taken in event of nuclear war." In other words: how much radioactive cow is okay to eat?
The entrance to the museum is through steel doors, and the ticket booth is a replica of a Nevada Test Site guard station. Once you "clear security" (i.e. pay admission) you can enter, past a life-size cardboard photo of "Miss Atomic Bomb of 1957." All of the tour guides wear white lab coats.
This blend of seriousness and whimsy is everywhere. The museum opens with a dramatic three-screen video of Nazis and Einstein and The Bomb -- the implied reasons why we have a Nevada Test Site -- then it's on to goofy stuff in the Atomic Age Gallery: 1950s-era atomic comic books, juice glasses, Christmas ornaments, etc.
The Underground Testing Gallery is entered through a ten-foot diameter shock absorber -- where you'll see examples of artwork created by Nevada Test Site employees of the equipment at the Nevada Test Site, next to displays of Nevada Test Site equipment. The replica fallout shelter seems cozy, while the Indigenous Peoples exhibit, "This has always been our Home," seems, well, sad.
In the Atmospheric Testing Gallery, one learns that the names for each explosion -- hundreds are listed on a wall -- followed themes, "such as cheeses, ship parts, or ghost towns." The blasts and mushroom clouds, easily seen from Las Vegas, became tourist attractions in their own right and actually helped to spur the growth of the city, as did President Truman's designation of the area as critical to national defense, making it eligible for federal housing and infrastructure money.
Much at the Atomic Testing Museum makes nuclear energy seem exciting and fun. Ground Zero Theater, for example, is a simulated Nevada Test Site bunker that startles you with rumbling seats and a blast of air -- not hot air, which the museum felt would be too realistic -- when the bomb explodes.
The school kids in our audience gleefully joined in the countdown: 3...2...1...ka-BOOM! It's an atomic bomb! Yay!
Hands-on stuff is here as well: a Geiger counter that you can swipe across your arm, a nuclear warhead that you can touch, a "What Does Low-Level Waste Look Like?" display that shows that it's just a hammer, wood, gloves, bricks, and a spool of thread. The museum ends with a piece of the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Center, noting that the experience gained with radiation at the Nevada Test Site will help future generations "deal with terrorist incidents involving Weapons of Mass Destruction."
Out in the gift shop, Maggie Smith, the museum operations manager, told us that its biggest-seller is the Einstein action figure, and that not everything for sale -- such as the atom bomb earrings -- met with her approval.
We asked Maggie if anyone had ever complained about health problems from all of those bomb blasts. She pointed to the security guard, told us that he used to guard the Nevada Test Site, and said, "He's just fine, and those guys had to hang around the longest of anyone."