A Radioactive History: Atomic Vegas

Another interesting thing we did while we were in Las Vegas was visit the Atomic Energy Museum.

(Weird I know, but remember I said we were SCIENCE-y sort of people?  This kind of stuff is interesting to us!)

Turns out the atomic bomb was tested every three weeks for almost 12 years beginning in 1951.

…just 65 miles away from Las Vegas….


Betcha didn’t know that!

Hard to believe that isn’t it?

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce advertised the bomb detonations and the best places to view them.

Although some Las Vegans were concerned about the possible dangers of such activity nearby, a major government publicity campaign quelled many of their misgivings.

Las Vegans jumped at the chance to market themselves as a tourist attraction. Las Vegans began promoting their hometown as “Atomic City.”

Many tourists packed “atomic box lunches” and had picnics as close to ground zero as the government restrictions would allow. On the eve of detonations, many Las Vegas businesses held “Dawn Bomb Parties.” Beginning at midnight, guests would drink and sing until the flash of the bomb lit up the night sky.

The mushroom cloud associated with the bomb became an icon for Las Vegas, adorning postcards, candy, toys, showgirls’ headdresses and more. Las Vegas hotels offered  the Atomic Cocktail, the Atomic Hairdo and Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contests!

(I’m NOT making this up, folks!)

One journalist, writing for the Department of State Washington Bulletin in 1952, described witnessing the blast: “You put on the dark goggles, turn your head, and wait for the signal. Now — the bomb has been dropped. You wait the prescribed time, then turn your head and look. A fantastically bright cloud is climbing upward like a huge umbrella…. You brace yourself against the shock wave that follows an atomic explosion. A heat wave comes first, then the shock, strong enough to knock an unprepared man down. Then, after what seems like hours, the man-made sunburst fades away.”

In addition to generating tourism, the Nevada Test Site also brought thousands of military personnel, thousands of jobs and more than $176 million in federal funds to the region, two-thirds of which went back into Las Vegas’ economy. For twelve years, an average of one bomb every three weeks was detonated, at a total of 235 bombs. Flashes from the explosions were so powerful that they could reportedly be seen from as far away as Montana. Scientists claimed that the radiation’s harmful effects would have dissipated and been harmless once the shock waves reached Las Vegas, and they scheduled tests to coincide with weather patterns that blew fallout away from the city. However, as the tests continued, people in northeastern Nevada and southern Utah began complaining that their pets and livestock were suffering from beta particle burns and other ailments; by 1963 the Limited Test Ban was in effect, banning above ground nuclear testing at the site.

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