Thursday, September 18, 2014


…from the Pre- to Recent History tour
of Central Nevada and Utah

Fear drives mankind to do some pretty amazing and, one might add, crazy things.  In our quest for security we gate communities, surveil one another, hunt down communists – currently, it seems, we’ve replaced communists with terrorists – all of this while shucking, bit by bit, some of our personal freedom and privacy.

Back in the sixties, fear – quite possibly justified; I don’t know; I was too young to be paying close attention – drove the United States and the Soviet Union to build bigger and more powerful nuclear “devices.”  Devices sounds so much better than “bombs.”

The effectiveness of these weapons had been tested on hapless, remote islands in the Pacific until wiser heads determined that spewing radiation namby-pamby into the atmosphere might involve a drawback or two.

So the tests went underground.

To the untrained soul, the intermountain desert of Central Nevada is a wasteland: nothing but rock, sand, sage and the occasional jackrabbit.  What better place to dig a hole in the ground, drop in a “device” and set the damned thing off?

Through physical observation and seismic monitoring we could extrapolate power and capability and predict its impact if it were touched off over, say, Hanoi or Peking or Moscow.  Or Washington?

A test site too close to Las Vegas elicited howls from casino resort operators as their building rumbled and shook in concert with blasts a hundred-plus miles away, disgruntling their guests.  Howard Hughes (Hughes Tool Corporation, Spruce Goose, Glomar Explorer, Landmark Hotel and Casino, the Sands, Jane Russell – that Howard Hughes) had the ear of a couple of presidents.  “Perhaps you boys could move your underground fireworks to a different neighborhood,” it is said he more than suggested.

The Atomic Energy Commission selected sites for three tests aimed at measuring the seismic impact of underground nuclear devices.  The three sites were in the remote (and ironically named) Hot Creek Valley several unpaved miles from US Highway 6 and Nevada Route 375.

Driving the 12½-mile gravel road through the sage, one cannot but be impressed by the subtle beauty of the arid desert landscape.  Ancient playas sparsely grazed by free-range cattle are rimmed by ridge upon ridge of basalt and uplifted sea bottom.  Close study prompts appreciation the millions of years of slow yet dynamic change that has brought the landscape to its current state of being.

Click on this photo to enlarge and read text.
In this environment nestled next to an old tilted fault block ridge, the first (and, ultimately, only) of the tests would be conducted.  A shaft was drilled two-thirds of a mile into the desert floor.  A huge steel pipe was inserted into the shaft such that the top of the pipe was flush with the ground.  Down the shaft the device was lowered. 

Seismometers were set.  Film cameras, too.  Technicians stood waaaayyy back from the blast zone in shielded enclosures.  Then ka-boom!

Note the relatively bare slope curving from the lower right to the center of the frame.
When the dust settled, a ragged area measuring about a mile by a mile-and-a-half had settled nearly twelve feet. 

Aerial photographs now show a rather large pond – one that cannot be accessed because of heavy-duty fencing.  Posted on the fence and on obelisks in the immediate area are signs warning about “petroleum impacted soils.”

The steel pipe, later filled with concrete to prevent radiation leakage, stands in the middle of the newly human-caused graben – a sentinel to the fear that drove the arms race.

Petroleum impacted soils?  Another casualty of fear, I think to myself while driving away through this now-placid country, is the truth.


Note:  It is a great and rugged journey out to this place – one that demands both attention and introspection.  The web offers several resources for further information about Project Faultless.  Here are two:

Lazy G Ranch offers further resources for exploration.

And, finally, Tom Lehrer's take on the circumstance (circa 1966):

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

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