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Nuclear Weapons Testing at
the Nevada Test Site:
The First Decade

by John C. Hopkins and
Barbara Germain Killian

Introduction to the Book

The brief Part I of this history starts by describing the first nuclear test, code named Trinity, which laid the groundwork for later US test activities and their organization. After Trinity, testing was conducted on the Pacific atolls of Bikini and Enewetak. These were huge operations conducted about every 2 years by a military Joint Task Forces which consisted of personnel from laboratories funded by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and personnel from the military. The AEC's focus was to obtain data on weapon designs. The military's was the effects that nuclear weapons had on a wide range of offensive targets (e.g., ships, planes, buildings, etc.).

Weapons design was advancing quickly, and the weapons scientists and engineers needed to obtain data more frequently than every 2 years. The war in Korea and the onset of the USSR's nuclear testing were also influencing the need for more nuclear weapons tests. How and why the Nevada Test Site (NTS) was selected is described in some detail to illustrate the thoughts and ideas that existed in 1950 and how the decision to test on the Continental US (CONUS) evolved.

Part II describes the 7 operations that were conducted at NTS between 1951 and 1958. These 7 operations consisted of a total of 111 nuclear tests. Topics covered include the:

  • Weapons-design reasons for the tests and some of the data acquired.
  • Participation of personnel from the Department of Defense 's Armed Forces Special Weapons Project organization, and a brief description of many of the 324 nuclear weapons effects (NWE) projects they conducted.
  • Military maneuver exercises (code named Desert Rock Operations) by the military which were conducted with personnel in the field during and after a test in order to assess their response to a nuclear explosion.
  • Federal Civil Defense Administration's (FCDA's) participation, which began in earnest in 1953 and consisted of:
    • 158 projects for defensive civilian applications,
    • Training in monitoring radioactivity, and
    • Providing the opportunity for journalists and the public to witness some nuclear tests.
  • Successes and failures that occurred during each operation.
  • Conditions for workers at the site including: housing, food, culture, development of the site, etc.

Additional chapters in Part II consist of descriptions of Cold War issues related to the nuclear capabilities of the US and other countries and of the issues that faced the nuclear weapons testing community and how the community evolved during this period .

The 14 appendices address such issues as: "Basic Concepts of Nuclear Weapon Design", "Location of troops During Atmospheric Tests", and "1954 Shot Criteria for NTS". The 8 attachments which were written by colleagues include: arms control, the Plowshare Program (peaceful uses of nuclear energy), the Vela Program (nuclear test detection), containment of underground tests, and some personnel sketches of experiences at the test site.

The quantity and quality of information gained by the US in the first decade of nuclear weapons testing at Nevada Test site was, and probably will remain, unique in the international history of nuclear weapons testing.