When Las Vegas was America’s atomic testing site

The historical footnote often forgotten

When it comes to a unique location that is renowned for something, it is very easy to overlook the fact that there can be many different chapters in its history. Las Vegas is currently known as the gambling capital of the world, but few recall the days of the 1950’s where a curious chapter unfolded in this luminous desert destination. Many remember Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley selling out shows in Las Vegas, but they weren’t the only attraction in town during that time. Shortly after the second world war, with the U.S government keen to test and develop the atomic bomb which proved so devastating in Japan, they decided that a large area of desert within sight of Las Vegas would be the ideal place. The Nevada Test Site was located about 65 miles (105km) northwest of the city of Las Vegas.

Welcome to Atomic Soldier

Image: Las Vegas News Bureau


The first tests began in 1951 under the codename “Abel” and went on to include “Operation Teapot” in 1955 which tested the blast effects on different building types, and also the more sinister “Operation Desert Rock” where soldiers were positioned 7 miles away from the blast in order to examine the effects upon them. Different delivery systems were also examined, along with effects of detonating at different heights above the ground. The testing went on unchecked for 12 years, with one bomb being detonated per month at the height of testing.


What began as an unusual spectacle soon became a potential money making opportunity, as Binions and Desert Inn hosted parties at which people could watch a huge bomb go off in the distance. Atomic bomb merchandise started flying off the shelves too, and thousands of jobs were created by the testing site itself. Estimates suggest that the whole project brought USD$176 million in revenue to Las Vegas.


Image: Las Vegas News Bureau


What began as a military operation had spiralled into a tourism one as 1960 approached, and while the financial positives were welcomed, people soon began to feel that changes were necessary. Worrying reports of livestock being harmed or taken ill in the surrounding area began to surface, and in 1963, the “Limited Test Ban Treaty” was signed, scaling back the amount of testing done at the site.


Image: Las Vegas News Bureau

While the Las Vegas atomic site undoubtedly helped America to outrun Russia in the cold war arms race, it has also perhaps permanently changed human history. Nuclear bombs created now are incredibly more powerful than the ones which levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it is near impossible to contain knowledge and destructive technology within friendly hands forever.

Article by Craig B.

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