When one thinks of Las Vegas and Vegas tourism, one doesn’t usually think of the atomic bomb and nuclear testing. However, atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site approximately 100 miles north of Las Vegas has been a part of our history since the 1950s. You may not know that during “Operation Nutmeg” Nevada was chosen to host the tests on weapons of mass destruction because the location of Mercury, Nevada was not near any major population areas.
To explore this bit of Nevada history, today I went with my family to the Atomic Testing Museum, which is located just off the UNLV campus at 755 East Flamingo Road in Las Vegas. The museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and a surprisingly good museum for Las Vegas.
Standard admission is $12 per person, but there are a slew of discounts for Nevada residents, military personnel, government employees, senior citizens, students and children. As locals, we ended up paying $9 per person.
The museum features 11 different galleries, and from the museum’s entrance one generally walks through these galleries in chronological order to learn about the nuclear age from the 1940s to the present. In the ‘Entry Gallery’ and ‘The Atomic Age Gallery,’ one can learn about why the U.S. pursued a nuclear testing program in light of what was going on in the world during World War II and the Cold War.
In subsequent galleries there are a number of artifacts from the Nevada Test Site such as Geiger counters and radioactivity calculators. The connections between propaganda and atomic testing are also apparent in the museum – complete with Cold War-era Disney films, comic books and atomic cocktails. There is also a gallery that contains info on the geology of the region and another gallery tells the cultural history with prehistoric and historic archaeological artifacts.
Two small theatres show interesting short films about the history of above-ground testing and the use of the Nevada Test Site for scientific experiments beyond atomic testing. In light of the current ‘War on Terror,’ one of the current uses of the test site is to train first responders in how to mitigate the effects of a potential nuclear attack on the United States.
Overall the museum is very informative, and knowledgeable docents are around to answer questions about the exhibits. However, I felt the museum touched mostly on the ‘pros’ of the nuclear testing program, and barely brought to light the effects of radioactive fallout on human health, desert wildlife, the environment and climate change.
In addition to the permanent galleries, there is the Harry Reid Exhibit Hall with occasional temporary exhibitions, the Dina Titus Reading Room that serves as a public library/research area on atomic testing history in Nevada, and a museum store that sells an array of books, DVDs, astronaut ice cream and atomic testing memorabilia. After going through the museum, I felt I wanted to learn more about the history of atomic testing and so I purchased a copy of the book Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes. Perhaps this will be a future book club selection.
For more information about museum hours, special events such as lectures, and up-to-date entrance fees visit www.atomictestingmuseum.org. Note that photography is not permitted (hence, no pictures on this blog posting) and that aside from a few vending machines, food is not available on the museum premises. Allow at least 90 minutes to go through the museum.
My favorite part was the cartoon explaining unstable atoms.