Vegas Museum Recalls Relics of Atomic Age
LAS VEGAS (AP) — It’s chilling to walk by a dented Army helmet with big tinted goggles on the brim, a frayed "atomic cocktail" recipe book and then come face to face with a family of mannequins, frozen in time in a fallout shelter.
Baby boomers will recognize the Civil Defense character Bert the Turtle and know by heart the instructions droning in black-and-white on the family’s boxy Packard Bell TV: When sirens sound, find shelter. Don’t look at the light. Duck and cover.
A digital countdown across the way tells when the steel doors of a cement-walled Ground Zero Theater will open.
Curators of the new Atomic Testing Museum hope the setting stirs the imagination for those with no memory of mushroom clouds and the role the Nevada Test Site played in the development of nuclear deterrence.
"Nuclear weapons aren’t gone," museum Director William Johnson says as he leads the way through the $3.5 million facility that opened last month just east of the Las Vegas Strip. "The world is just a different place now."
The museum traces a half-century of nuclear weapons testing in a nation that grew to love or hate the bomb. It describes developments that let scientists peer into the first millionth of a second of a nuclear blast before instruments vaporized, and it charts research that continued after earthshaking explosions ended in 1992 at the test site.
It also has drawn criticism as revisionist history among advocates who call it a forum for nuclear apologists, and it has reopened wounds for "downwinders" sickened by fallout from atmospheric atomic blasts.
"Once you’ve been a victim of nuclear weapons you’re less enthusiastic about it," said Michelle Thomas, 52, a lifelong resident of St. George, Utah. "I don’t hate or fear anyone bad enough to want to see happen to them what happened to us."
Johnson doesn’t deny that testing caused problems. He points to exhibits describing the plight of downwinders and of test site workers sickened by silicosis, and to a reading room and nuclear testing archive containing more than 310,000 documents.
"I want people to come here and learn," he says. "But if there’s only one message taken away, it’s that the Cold War was a war. It was a struggle with the Soviet Union."
The story is told with a timeline, artifacts, interactive and touch-screen displays and several films, including the 10-minute presentation in the Ground Zero Theater.
Visitors sit on varnished wooden seats modeled after the warped, weathered benches still on News Nob, a rocky outcrop overlooking Yucca Flat where journalists observed atmospheric nuclear tests beginning with "Charlie" in April 1952.
Light bursts as the big screen shows a nuclear test. The room rumbles with embedded speakers. Air blasts tousle the hair, imitating a shock wave.
"It’s almost like you’re sitting there. That’s real stuff to me," says Mike Margalski, 49, a maintenance engineer who wants to experience what his father did as an Army soldier exposed to more than one nuclear test in the early 1950s. Eugene "Geno" Margalski died of prostate cancer in 1996, at age 65.
"My dad never ever talked about it until just a few days before he passed away," Margalski says. "He talked about going out and walking in it while they came around with Geiger counters."
But this is no theme park. It is as somber as the 230,000 deaths and injuries in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945; as sober as the concept of "mutually assured destruction" that shadowed the world for half a century afterward.
The entry to the 8,000-square-foot museum resembles a guard gate. Up a gentle ramp is a copy of Albert Einstein’s August 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt suggesting that uranium might yield "a new and important source of energy."
An inert model of the most common B61 nuclear bomb – 12-feet-long, gray, unimposing – rests on its side next to displays of the "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" devices dropped on Japan.
Through a 10-foot diameter steel "decoupler" portal and down a tunnel lined with faux rock is the underground testing gallery. Visitors whisper when they stop to reflect or remember.
Some exhibits have a "gee-whiz" element – chronicling how scientists tested nuclear rocket engines, shrank the size of nuclear devices and measured the effects of radionuclides on plants, animals and food.
This being Las Vegas, the museum also chronicles how tourists sipped cocktails on casino rooftops, gazing at blast clouds on the horizon at the test site, 65 miles to the northwest.
The museum, a partnership between the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation and the Desert Research Institute, is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
Administrators foresee schoolchildren marveling at the column of instruments used to measure underground nuclear explosions, working a manipulator arm like the one scientists used to handle radioactive materials and hearing the clicks of a Geiger counter measuring low-level radioactivity.
"I would hope they come away with an understanding of what is radiation and why we did testing," says Loretta Helling, a former Energy Department public affairs specialist who spent eight years curating the collection. "We try to have a balanced view in there."
Preston Truman foresees the museum ignoring unpleasantries while teaching "that everything was good and beneficial and that America won the Cold War."
"In 50 years, when all the people who had a negative opinion are dead, it will be just that – one-sided history," says Truman, who founded and directs an advocacy group called Downwinders.
The 53-year-old Truman’s first memory as a child is sitting on his father’s knee in Enterprise, Utah, watching a mushroom cloud at the Nevada Test Site. He figures that was 1955, a year in which the government conducted 18 atmospheric tests.
"We’re children of the bomb. We saw the flash. We heard the bangs. A couple of times, the shock waves broke out windows that they paid for," he says. "We got radiated and we got lied to."
Thomas remembers a fine ash falling like snow across St. George. When fallout warnings sounded, her mother would don an old straw hat, pull on rubber dish gloves and tie a dish towel around her own mouth to pluck laundry from the outdoor drying line.
"She would wash the sheets twice in hot water so her kids wouldn’t have to sleep with radioactive fallout," Thomas says.
But Thomas began to develop maladies as a junior in high school: ovarian cysts, breast cancer, a benign salivary gland tumor. She was diagnosed in 1974 with polymyositis, an autoimmune system disease similar to lupus. She and two siblings each received a one-time "downwinder" payment of $50,000 under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990.
"I think we’ve learned that the government is fallible and may not be entirely upfront," Thomas says. "But it was considered unpatriotic in those days to question the government."
Johnson, 47, recalled hearing the wail of Friday morning Civil Defense sirens as a child in Miami.
He says the museum tried to put the nation’s 1,054 above- and below-ground nuclear tests in context. Of the 928 detonated at the test site, 100 were atmospheric tests. Seven tests were exploded elsewhere in Nevada, three each in New Mexico and Alaska, two each in Colorado and Mississippi and 106 on Pacific islands. Three tests were conducted on South Atlantic islands.
The number of nuclear tests peaked at 96 in 1962 – the year the United States and the Soviet Union stared each other down with their fingers on the button during the Cuban missile crisis.
"The paradigm of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was that the Northern Hemisphere was going to be blown to bits," Johnson recalls. The scientists, technicians and administrators at the test site, he says, "were thinking they were saving the world."
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