Little Bits of History

Nuking Ourselves

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 25, 2013
Grable nuclear test

Grable nuclear test

May 25, 1953:  America bombs Nevada. The Nevada Test Site is located about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The 1,350 square miles region is desert with mountains and is owned by the US Department of Energy. They began testing nuclear devices on January 27, 1951 with a one-kiloton (4 terajoule) bomb. Between 1951 and 1992 there were 928 announced nuclear tests, 828 of them underground. Some tests included multiple explosions. There have been 1,021 detonations, 921 of them underground.

This day’s test was called “Grable” and was the first and only testing of nuclear artillery. It was part of an overall series of tests called “Operation Upshot-Knothole.” The Atomic Cannon fired a 280 mm shell while many high-ranking officers watched. Nuclear artillery is nuclear weaponry launched from the ground. They can be delivered by guns, rockets, or missiles. They include nuclear landmines, depth charges, torpedoes, demolition munitions, anti-aircraft weapons, and artillery. They have been developed by the US, USSR, France, and India. Dirty bombs, or radioactive dispersal devices, are speculative weapons and not included as artillery.

Mushroom clouds billowing up from nuclear explosions and seen in films around the globe, are usually images filmed during the era of aboveground testing. The last of these was held on July 17, 1962. Underground testing continued until 1992. The site remains under the Department of Energy. They offer tours of the grounds after visitors pass a rigorous screening process. There are restrictions during the tour (no pictures, no guns, no samples removed from the site). The usual screening process takes 6 weeks, longer for foreigners.

The Nevada Test Site has 28 separate areas with 1,100 buildings. There are 400 miles of paved roads and 300 miles of unpaved roads. There are also 10 heliports and 2 airstrips included. There are no longer nuclear tests taking place, but research continues with subcritical testing of America’s aging nuclear arsenal. They also maintain a nuclear waste complex in Area 5 for low-level radioactive waste with a half life of less than 20 years.

“We are now getting more than 600 cases of cancer a year and more than 250 deaths because of these tests. There are 31 possible cancers linked with nuclear matter and some can take 20 to 30 years to develop.” – Roland Oldham

“The U.S. has no plans to conduct a nuclear test. President [George W.] Bush supports a continued moratorium on nuclear testing.” – Irene Smith

“It’s a lot easier to hit one of our own targets on a test range than it is for them to actually intercept nuclear-tipped missiles in a combat environment.” – John Pike

“Without going through a lot of detail, the issue of ownership of the land area occupied by the Nevada Test Site, and for that matter very large sections of Nevada and Utah, is very complex (going back to the Ruby Valley Treaty) and in our eyes has been resolved.” – Kevin Rohrer

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Operation Upshot-Knothole was a 1953 series of eleven nuclear test shots. The maximum yield was 61 kilotons of TNT or 260 TJ (terajoules). There were two UCRL tests that were classed as a “fizzle” meaning they didn’t work so well. There was a total of 252.4 kilotons exploded between March 17 (Annie) and June 4 (Climax). Harry was the name of the test run on May 19 and it resulted in extreme contamination of downwinders, these are the unfortunate people who are exposed to radioactive material contamination or nuclear fallout from nuclear testing. Operation Ivy (two tests in November 1952) preceded this series of tests and they were followed by Operation Castle (six tests between March and May of 1954).

Also on this day “Swede” Momsen – In 1967, submariner Swede Momsen dies.
Halley’s Comet – In 240 BC, Halley’s Comet was first documented.
The Fastest Man in the World – In 1935, Jesse Owens ran quickly.