Being a native of Nevada, I’ve always been intrigued/mystified by the work that has taken place at the Nevada Test Site (now known as the Nevada National Security Site, or NNSS). So I was pleased to learn that the U.S. Department of Energy provides monthly general interest tour to the site, and that they are free and open to the public. Regardless of your personal stance on whether nuclear testing was justifiable, it is still a part of our history, and while I am still trying to understand both sides of the argument, I considered my visit to the site a visit to a historic site.
More information about how to book a tour to the Nevada National Security Site may be found at this webpage. While the tours are free, they appear to be quite popular and I booked my place over 9 months in advance. You must supply them with personal details such as personal address, place and date of birth, and employment details at the time of application, and they will run a security check on you. Our tour guide admitted that they will likely not turn anyone away from a tour, including foreign nationals.
A few other notes on logistics: The tours are operated once per month, including during the especially hot summer months. My husband and I had booked ours during the fall because we were afraid of the heat, however most of the tour is conducted on an air-conditioned bus so the weather shouldn’t be too much of a factor. Personally, I think that October-December are the best months weather-wise in southern Nevada, so if you’re from out-of-town and are interested in a test site tour in conjunction with a visit to Nevada, this is my recommendation.
Also, the test site is located approximately 65 miles north of Las Vegas, and you’ll depart for the tour from the Atomic Testing Museum. This museum in Las Vegas is interesting in itself and it’s a part of the Smithsonian consortium. We visited the museum last year.
Our tour guide for the NNSS was a retired chemist and former Nevada Test Site employee, so we got to hear first-hand from someone who had worked there. I got the impression that many on our tour came from science backgrounds, and much of the tour was science-based. Being a social scientist, I was especially interested in the history/culture of the NNSS. Highlights for me included seeing the News Nob benches from where journalists and dignataries watched the atmospheric tests, seeing “Ground Zero” from where the atmospheric tests were launched, seeing the remnants of the Apple II houses that were built specifically for the purpose of learning how they would be impacted by nuclear bombs, and learning what is was like to work at the NTS during it’s prime (I’m jealous that they had $5 lobster dinners and a subsized cocktail bar for employees).
On the tour, we also learned about some of the current work that’s being done at the NNSS. While nuclear testing ended in 1992 when the U.S. signed onto a nuclear test ban treaty, the site is still used for some scientific testing and for the storage of low-level nuclear waste. Our tour guide indicated the site will never be opened for public use due to all of the experiments that have been undertaken there.
Seeing the test site first hand somewhat demystified our nuclear history for me. although I’m still not convinced it was completely justifiable. For example, mid-way through the tour we saw a healthy flock of 40+ antelope traversing through the Nevada desert. I’ve always heard stories about how the tests have permanently harmed the fauna there, but I didn’t witness any of that. Our tour guide also indicated that a very small percentage of the test site land is still dangerous due to potential exposure from radioactive materials.
So if you’re the science/history nerdy type and are looking for an interesting and free activity to do in the Las Vegas area, I highly recommend this tour. Unfortunately no cameras are allowed on the tour, which is why this post has done without.