Considering all the pain and suffering in Utah and Nevada over four decades of nuclear testing, A. Ray Olpin's graphic account of his 1953 visit to the Nevada testing site seems ironic. Olpin, a venerated former University of Utah president, wrote about it in a fascinating diary housed in the U. archives.
Nevada's nuclear testing became a way of life in the Eisenhower years, when Ike enunciated the now-standard argument that military strength should command enough respect to dissuade any other nation from aggression. Thus, he said, "we develop weapons, not to wage war, but to prevent war."What a dramatically damaging way to prevent war.
The Nevada Test Site covers 1,350 square miles of desert 75 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Several hundred nuclear explosions have occurred there since the program began in 1951 with a spectacular series of above-ground tests sending a flash of light over half a million square miles in four states.
Tests continued until the dangers of atmospheric radioactivity forced the 1963 Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. But the work at the test site continued - underground.
The desert became contaminated with plutonium 239, buried deep in more than 300 pools of lethal radiation. The Nevada Test Site is almost permanently radioactive, because the half-life of plutonium - the time required to eliminate radiation danger - is 24,000 years.
Recent ground cracks have led some scientists to contend that repeated testing has caused structural damage, increasing the likelihood of future release to the atmosphere of radioactive materials.
Yet, the government invited A. Ray Olpin and others to watch an explosion on May 25, 1953 - convincing evidence that those in power were either ignorant or cynical of radiation dangers.
Olpin said they gathered in the early morning hours on bleachers "seven miles from the gun and about seven miles from ground zero," the point of detonation of the bomb. Favorable winds carried the atomic cloud over Milford, Utah, and north of St. George, "about 150 miles at 40,000 feet."
Told that the brilliance of the explosion would be 20 times as powerful as the sun, guests donned dark glasses so black they "could hardly see the sun through them."
The explosion, said Olpin, brought a brilliant flash, "but we forgot the brilliance because of the heat of the explosion which struck us simultaneously with the light. After three to five seconds we took off our glasses and we saw a picture that is beyond description. All of the smoke and the dust which had risen provided a fountain-like appearance, and the stem or neck leading up to the ball of fire was narrow because the ball of fire raised so rapidly. The mushroom shaped effect was maintained for quite a long period of time."
Olpin's party had lunch, then returned to observe the damage within 800 yards from ground zero. The radiation was 500 milliroentgens per hour and they "had to turn around rapidly and hurry out." A milli-roentgen is a thousandth of a roentgen, the basic unit of measure as applied to nuclear radiation. Government personnel apparently thought they had kept their visitors within a safe distance, even though there is no harmless amount of radiation exposure.
Olpin witnessed an unforgettable scene of destruction - blackened telephone poles and trees, walls blown out of buildings, army tanks and railroad trains tipped over and burned, block houses and heavy bridges destroyed, and timber and metal trusses mangled.
"It was a well-placed shot," he said, "and everybody was happy. When one thinks of the terrible destruction that a single shot from a cannon could cause, you tremble indeed if we ever have all-out war again. This weapon would be very effective because it would certainly destroy large populations and buildings of cities in one short explosion."
Indeed. And that was 1953! Reading Olpin's diary sends a chill up the spine - about the constant danger of war - and all the people who unwittingly got too close to the tests. And what about the continuing danger of radiation to the rest of us - for about 24,000 years?