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Know the West

The greening of the Nevada Test Site


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Deep inside the Nevada Test Site, in a moonscape of craters and radioactive ruin left by nearly 1,000 nuclear bombs, Stephen Zitzer lies face down, his hands plunged into a creosote bush. Stark, white upright pipes encircle him like soldiers. Each pipe silently puffs three times the normal environmental amount of carbon dioxide onto Zitzer and everything else inside the 80-foot ring of pipes.

Zitzer is studying the effects on the Mojave Desert ecosystem of elevated levels of carbon dioxide - the amount we can look forward to by 2070 as a result of global warming. With every shrub, perennial flower and winter annual in nine separate circular plots wired to a sophisticated computerized monitoring system, he and other research scientists are collecting data on plant growth, nitrogen intake and water use.

This is environmental science at the site of the world's most horrific experiment. The $900,000-a-year carbon dioxide project lies at the epicenter of America's $300 billion race to shield the nation with nuclear arms. Half a century after this remote, arid landscape first lured nuclear scientists to conduct their deadly research, it is drawing a new breed of researchers.

The carbon dioxide research is the first full-fledged environmental project at the test site, but others are in the works. Managers are considering research proposals on endangered species, habitat reclamation and renewable energy. Entrepreneurs are interested in building wind and solar farms on the desert floor.

"The time is right to embrace new forms of clean energy," says U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, "and this is the right place to do it."

Close, cheap, empty

The test site has been ground zero for America's nuclear weapons program since 1950. Defense officials thought the area would be a closer and cheaper alternative to the Pacific Islands, where they had exploded five nuclear bombs by 1948. At the time, the site seemed just as remote as the South Seas; the 1,350-square-mile area, 45 miles north of Las Vegas, is one of the biggest unpopulated areas in the country.

Here, scientists and military officials operated in near-total seclusion for over four decades. The 928 nuclear tests conducted between 1951 and 1992 ranged from a one-kiloton bomb dropped onto Frenchman Flat, a few miles from Zitzer's carbon dioxide rings, to a series of 1,000-kiloton explosions detonated in underground shafts. Although nuclear clouds routinely drifted off-site exposing thousands of people to radiation, until recently, federal officials denied any responsibility for the soaring cancer rates in downwind communities

Atmospheric testing ended in 1961 and underground testing in 1992, but the test site is still shrouded in secrecy. It took more than a month and countless phone calls to arrange my solo tour of the facility. But finally, I was on my way to the heart of Nye County, whose outline on a map bears an uncanny resemblance to a mushroom cloud.

The test site begins where the freeway from Las Vegas ends. The entrance is marked by an unimposing sign warning trespassers to keep out. The last time I was here - more than a decade ago - I jostled with other journalists at a cattle guard across the two-lane access road, where several thousand opponents of nuclear testing had assembled to protest. I watched Martin Sheen, Kris Kristofferson and wave after wave of demonstrators cross the cattle guard into the forbidden territory and, a few steps later, into Nye County paddy wagons. The crowd cheered as each bus filled and a uniformed sheriff's deputy yelled, "Take 'em away."

The entrance is quiet now. Two chain-link holding pens - one for men, one for women - are the only remnants of a decade of protests that all but ended with the 1992 international moratorium on nuclear-weapons testing. The cattle guard was removed in 1996 as a public safety measure, says Nancy Harkess, my guide for the day and a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which administers the test site for the U.S. Department of Energy

From the entrance, the road is a straight shot of two-lane pavement across a dun-colored desert relieved only by clumps of sage. Just outside the town of Mercury, the primary base camp for test-site employees, the uniformed guard at a heavily fortified gate checks my credentials, nods to Harkess and allows us to enter.

Mercury today is vacant and shabby. The cafeteria that served thousands daily is empty, the chef-prepared food all but replaced by a row of vending machines offering everything from Coke to "Nukables," Nevada Test Site special burritos, chimichangas and other hearty snacks.

The end of nuclear testing forced change on the test site. Most of its 12,000 workers became unemployed overnight, and its managers began scrambling to find new missions in a world apparently committed to ending the nuclear arms race forever.

In the optimistic aftermath of the test ban, federal officials envisioned the Nevada Test Site becoming a massive outdoor laboratory. They added it to the National Environmental Research Park Network, offering scientists a place to study ecological issues. Promoters hope new research projects will replace a past of science dedicated to destruction with science dedicated to renewal. They also hope to attract private funds for clean-energy projects.

They're off to a good start. Energy Department officials signed an agreement in January that will help create one of the world's largest wind-energy farms at the test site. Project planners envision 325 turbines spinning wind into power and generating up to 260 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply 260,000 households. Construction is scheduled to start next year.

Other efforts to transform the test site into a renewable energy facility include solar, gas-fired and blended power generation. With annual precipitation averaging 5 inches, and the temperature routinely soaring to over 100 degrees, it's an ideal spot to generate solar electricity, says Janice Wiedemann, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Test Site Development Corporation, which is responsible for bringing private industry to the test site. Plans for solar energy generation are currently on hold, however, after a private investor pulled out of the project.

Ground-level research

The carbon dioxide study is the first active on-site environmental research project. Launched in 1997, the study will determine how arid ecosystems, which cover more than 30 percent of the earth's surface, will respond to global warming. Because public access and grazing have been all but nonexistent since 1950, the test site offers a pristine natural desert environment - except for the potential radioactive contamination. Its heavily fortified perimeters also offer security for the sensitive equipment designed and operated by the Desert Research Institute, University of Nevada and Brookhaven National Laboratory.

To maintain these unspoiled conditions, Zitzer, a research ecologist, and other scientists built mechanical platforms and elevated walkways around each circular plot that allow them access to any location without disturbing the desert's cryptobiotic crust. It takes balance and well-placed feet to maneuver these narrow paths, but they offer a low-flying bird's-eye view of the project. Wires crisscross indigo bushes, cholla and grasses, connecting the leaves, twigs and stems of 65 different species of plants to the computers that monitor carbon dioxide levels, wind speed and direction. The scientists check plant growth and water intake manually.

They also collect data through plexiglass tubes below ground level that allow a special video camera to monitor root growth and structure. During the growing season, square-boxed leaf litter trays collect airborne plant debris for sorting and analysis. Steel tubes covered by Coke cans descend six feet underground to study the concentration of water in the soil at various depths.

Despite their complicated setup, the carbon dioxide scientists want the desert ecosystem to function with as little human interference as possible. As proof that it does, a jackrabbit hops into the ring just behind my tenuous spot on the elevated walkway. He freezes, then begins nibbling on a clump of grass. Scientists plan to use infrared photography to monitor the mammals that come and go inside the rings.

So far, they have found that annual desert grasses exposed to elevated levels of carbon dioxide produce more biomass and seeds. During wet years, the production increases by as much as 80 percent. That's not all good news for the native plant community. Cheatgrass, a European invader, responds to carbon dioxide far more than native plants. Scientists fear that increased carbon dioxide brought by greenhouse gases could shift the plant community from native shrubs to invasive grasses. That, in turn, could dramatically increase the frequency of fires across the Mojave Desert and Great Basin.

From the desert ecosystem project, Nancy Harkess drives across a hillside overlooking Frenchman Flat, where worn and weathered wooden benches are a reminder of the test site's history. Here, journalists and dignitaries outfitted in protective goggles sat at "News Knob" to watch the open-air detonations that blasted demonstration motel units, bank vaults and bridges across the landscape.

The road drops down to a barren expanse where another project is taking advantage of the test site's isolation and security. The Hazardous Materials Spill Center is a one-of-a-kind facility built to improve handling of such deadly substances as hydrofluoric acid and chlorine. Like the carbon dioxide project, it replaces computer models and laboratory experiments with real-life tests and training for first responders. Understanding how chemicals behave can protect the public from potential disaster; it can also help prevent or limit environmental contamination, says John Spahn, HazMat center program manager.

In addition to testing what Spahn calls "nasty stuff," the center tests anti-terrorist devices and conducts workshops to improve coordination among the various agencies that must work together in an emergency. "Every test is its own unique challenge. This is proactive environmental protection," he says.

A partial conversion

Despite Spahn's enthusiasm, the test site remains a spooky place, dominated by the ghosts of its nuclear past. The road is often rippled like ribbon, a result of the shock waves from 828 underground tests. The landscape is littered with coaxial cable, which connected the bombs to firing and recording stations. Two-story model houses, one brick, one frame, still totter in the sage a mile from the site of two 1955 atmospheric tests with triple the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb.

Underneath this abandoned landscape, nuclear research continues. Though all nuclear testing stopped nearly a decade ago, the facility must maintain a basic capability to resume tests "should the United States deem it necessary."

At a facility in Yucca Flat, home of 99 atmospheric detonations and hundreds of underground tests, scientists from Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories continue to research nuclear explosives. Their "subcritical" experiments are designed to avoid any chain reaction. They use less plutonium, for example, than it would take to result in fission.

Inside a circus-like blue-and-white air tent, Bob Miller, a Los Alamos representative, describes the work done at the enormous laboratory 1,000 feet underground. Scientists descend a shaft in an elevator to a network of tunnels, which give access to the chambers where experiments are conducted. Some explore the properties of plutonium as it ages in the nuclear weapons stockpiled around the country. Others test tritium, depleted uranium and other radioactive materials.

Scientists want to learn more about how these materials move, disperse and change through time, says Miller. Opponents of nuclear weapons say these experiments violate the test ban treaties, but Miller argues that it's an opportunity to learn more about the safety of the stockpile.

None of America's approximately 10,500 nuclear warheads are stored at the Nevada Test Site, but it is a major repository for low-level radioactive waste. Contaminated debris is shipped in from Rocky Flats, Hanford, Savannah River and other Department of Energy facilities for underground storage. Some is buried in the subsidence craters created when the surface of the earth spontaneously collapsed around underground test sites. Other hot waste is repackaged and buried in pits three times the size of a football field. Much of the radioactive waste is from the Nuclear Test Site itself, including the trucks and airplanes, buildings, furniture and J.C. Penney mannequins used to test the effects of nuclear bombs on ordinary communities.

Parts of the test site are so contaminated from nuclear testing they will never be free of radioactivity. They are in "stewardship," Harkess says: "Some will be in stewardship forever." We did not venture near them.

Scientists have found that plutonium from underground bomb tests has hitched a ride on microscopic specks of clay suspended in ground water and has traveled 1.3 kilometers in 30 years, much faster than they had expected.

Cleaning up the test site's legacy of contamination and havoc is a daunting task. Former Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary called the challenge similar to that of the Manhattan Project - requiring the same, if not greater, level of commitment, intelligence and ingenuity as the development of the first atomic bomb.

I watch a kestrel rise out of a creosote bush and catch a thermal as we pass close to Zitzer's scientific rings, on our way back to Mercury and Las Vegas. No one believes the carbon dioxide project or the wind farm will transform the test site or change its mission from defense to alternative energy. But these and other projects promise to convert at least some of the energy - natural and human - to uses more beneficial than destructive. If they succeed, the test site may one day be celebrated for developing nonviolent tools to address the world's problems, not just the nuclear bombs that have made it forever infamous.

Jane Braxton Little is a freelance writer in Greenville, California.


  • Center for Defense Information, 1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Suite 615, Washington, DC 20036 (202/332-0600);
  • Nevada Test Site (NTS) Development Corporation, Las Vegas, Nev. (702/257-7900);
  • U.S. Department of Energy, Nevada Operations Office, P.O. Box 98518, Las Vegas, NV 89193-8518 (702/295-0944).

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jane Braxton Little