- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2021

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Seventy years ago, an atomic blast detonated in a remote, sprawling swath of desert known as Frenchman Flat was seen and felt in Las Vegas, 65 miles to the southeast.

“VEGANS ‘ATOM-IZED,’” a Las Vegas Review-Journal headline read the next day, Jan. 28, 1951, in big, bold, all-capital letters across the front page.

Coverage featured reports from people awakened by the shockwave, or who witnessed a blinding, white flash, or described a “borealis effect” spread over the whole sky to the northwest.

There were more than 1,000 atomic tests in Nevada’s desert between 1951 and 1992, including about 100 above ground, but this one was the first in that succession. It was also the first such test in the U.S. since an experimental atomic explosion in New Mexico six years earlier.

The blast ushered in a new era of Nevada history that previously had been relegated to the perceived uncouth behavior of gambling, prostitution and easy divorces.

“It legitimized Nevada; we were just kind of an outlaw state,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who in 1986 published a book, “Bombs in the Backyard,” that looked at the Nevada Test Site through a political and cultural lens.

“I think it will always be seen as contributing to us winning the Cold War and rightfully so,” she told the Review-Journal .

Beyond providing a significant economic stimulus, atomic testing was viewed by many as patriotic during a tense Cold War era, and it fit easily into popular culture: There were hairdos, movies and Miss Atomic Bomb pageants.

That view of Nevada’s relationship with nuclear weapons has largely persisted over time to become part of nostalgia, Titus said.

But political attitudes about nuclear testing have shifted over the decades, as has the tendency of the public to trust government assurances about safety, according to Titus and local historians.

Titus has led opposition in Congress to storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, and last year introduced a bill to prevent then-President Donald Trump from restarting explosive nuclear weapons testing.

Meanwhile, the cultural reverence of Nevada’s atomic past slips with each new generation.

“Time is passing us by, and that’s why we need to keep the history and the importance of testing in Nevada, at least among the young people,” said Chuck Costa, vice president of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, which operates the National Atomic Testing Museum. “To me, that’s key.”

At the time, testing was a relatively easy sell: America had to protect itself from foreign aggression, and its “good bombs” had to be better than those possessed by the Russians, who were testing nuclear weapons themselves, according to University of Nevada, Las Vegas history Professor Michael Green.

Add in the McCarthy-era suspicions that communists were hiding in America, and “even if you were inclined to question this, many would be leery of that,” Green said.

Even workers at the test site who years later were struck by illnesses, such as cancer, maintained a sense of pride over their contributions to the country’s defense, according to Amy Austin, regional outreach director for Nuclear Care Partners, which provides in-home care and lobbies for former atomic workers who have fallen ill.

“I’ve never once met a former worker who said they regretted it and wouldn’t make the decision to go work and serve their country in that fashion if they had to do it all over,” she said about her nearly seven years with the nationally accredited group. Austin called the workers unsung heroes.

Ruben Mendoza, a regional business development specialist for Nuclear Care Partners, which operates in at least 16 states - Nevada is its largest branch - said he has helped thousands of former workers over the past seven years.

There were between 8,000 and 15,000 workers on any given day at the Nevada Test Site, a massive area bigger than Rhode Island, according to Mendoza. He said now there is a concentration of cancers in Nevada and surrounding cities.

“It’s definitely taken its toll,” he said.

The site is now known as the Nevada National Security Site and still hosts underground subcritical experiments - meaning “no self-sustaining nuclear fission chain reaction will occur” - to gather data about nuclear weapons, according to its website.

Titus said the onus is now on officials to find a broader use for the land, such as cybersecurity or hazardous cleanups, to become an economic engine as opposed to simply a relic.

As for its legacy, UNLV History Department Chairman Andy Kirk said nuclear testing in Nevada was “the biggest science experiment in human history.”

It would be the defining story of almost anywhere else, but it fades to the background in a city like Las Vegas so well-known for its cultural aspects.

Kirk, who has conducted extensive oral history about the test site and authored the graphic novel “Doom Towns,” viewed testing as fitting into a larger narrative in the American West, not unlike subsidized railways and Hoover Dam: A vast region is used by the U.S. government for major projects to both the great benefit and sometimes harm of its residents.

But he also noted he often finds that students do not know much about it.

“The story is way too important to have it fade,” Kirk said. “There’s just no way to understand modern Las Vegas without knowing the story of nuclear testing.”

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