With ‘Oppenheimer’ and radiation, Las Vegas stakes its claim to nuclear tourism

nuclear tourism

Movie poster for ‘Oppenheimer’

See update at end of story

I recently saw the movie “Oppenheimer,” about the rise, fall and rise again of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 to end World War II. Despite its three-hour length (preceded by a half-hour of utterly mindless ads and trailers), it’s a terrific flick. The movie is sure to be up for a bunch of Oscars with a clever screenplay by director Christopher Nolan, and riveting performances by Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer and especially Robert Downey Jr. He steals every single scene he’s in as the villainous arch-nemesis Lewis Strauss.

Much of the action in the movie takes place in the classrooms (and bedrooms) of Berkeley, where Oppenheimer taught; in New Mexico where the bomb was finally developed and test-fired, and in Washington, D.C., where Oppenheimer and Strauss both experienced professional rhapsody and ruin.

Nothing in the film took place in Nevada, where I live. But in many ways, Las Vegas stands to be the biggest beneficiary of what could be called a renewed interest in nuclear tourism. In fact, Sin City has been been feasting on dangerously unleashed atoms in odd and strange ways for more than 70 years, and, unsurprisingly, not always to its advantage.

A mile-and-a-half from the Strip on at 755 E. Flamingo Rd. sits the Atomic Museum. Until last year, it was called the National Atomic Testing Museum, and before that just Atomic Testing Museum. That original name was in recognition of what is now called the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), formerly the Nevada Test Site, a 1,360-square-mile blob of desert and mountains 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

From 1951 to 1992, the Federal Government set off more than 1,000 nuclear explosions there in the continuing effort to achieve world peace through nuclear deterrence. While most were underground, about 100 from 1953 to 1962 were above ground in the atmosphere, generating mushroom clouds and vertical plumes easily seen from the Mob-run casino hotels of Las Vegas. For a number of years in the 1950, a “Miss Atomic Bomb” was crowned in Las Vegas. In fact, the hotels advertised the possibility of seeing distant tests to lure tourists who sipped cocktails from balconies while watching the fireworks. So much fun in those innocent times.

But the above-ground tests spewed radiation that the prevailing winds brought eastward. While some of the breezes–and radiation–undoubtedly came over Las Vegas, the big loser was St. George, Utah, a mountain tourist town that sits near the eastern edge of Nevada 140 miles due east of the test site (and 120 miles northeast of Las Vegas). Studies have documented the increased rates of various forms of cancers to the downwinders around St. George and Congress in 1999 authorized compensation for some victims.

At its peak the NNSS had perhaps 2,000 workers. That was less than the 6,000 who lived at Los Alamos, N.M. developing the bombs during World War II, but that 6,000 included family members like, as shown at one point in the movie, Oppenheimer’s very pregnant wife (played by Emily Blunt). The NNSS folks worked there a lot longer. While denying for years publicly that test radiation presented a risk to the population, the NNSS early on adopted a policy of letting its workers (and their family members) live in Las Vegas, subsidizing their housing costs and busing them in daily. Wonder what they knew at the time? That helped to balance a Las Vegas economy overwhelmingly skewed toward gambling at a time when the area’s population barely topped 50,000.

A blasts-from-the-past museum devoted primarily to the local history of one atomic testing facility really isn’t that sexy. But knowing that “Oppenheimer” would be out soon, the museum, founded in 2005, dropped “Testing” from its name in 2022 and, to punch it up, “National,” too, while broadening its marketing mandate to embrace all U.S. nuclear testing and indeed, all things nuclear. Visiting hours were expanded. Welcome aboard, Dr. Oppenheimer (whose grandchildren spoke at the museum in the publicity run-up for “Oppenheimer”).

The NNSS abuts the even-larger Nevada Test and Training Range, home of the famous Area 51. That’s the super-secret research facility where, if you believe the gossip, remnants of an extraterrestrial UFO crash in the summer of 1947 near Roswell, N.M. was shipped for examination, perhaps with an alien corpse in tow in what eventually became known as the Roswell Incident. (This actually was the precipitating event in the popular 1996 aliens-attack movie “Independence Day.”)

Long before becoming New To Las Vegas, I lived in New Mexico and spent a fair amount of time looking into the Roswell Incident, by far the world’s most celebrated and investigated matter of that kind. While not passing judgment on other claimed UFO incidents, I can attest that absolutely nothing extraterrestrial happened around Roswell. A two-mile high balloon designed to monitor Soviet nuclear testing collapsed to the ground. The Federal Government’s inept efforts to cover it up on national security grounds eventually fueled rumors that We Are Not Alone.

Think I’m making this up? Read my lengthy 1996 article, originally written for Crosswinds, New Mexico’s largest alternative newspaper and reprinted last year on the 75th anniversary of the Roswell Incident, by clicking here. The headline: “Now where was it those aliens crashed? Roswell’s Newest Space Tale; It’s got sex, a deathbed declaration and six alleged UFO crash sites.”

But aside from the slim reed of Area 51, here’s the other Roswell Incident connection to nuclear testing and, thus, Las Vegas. Roswell is only 115 miles east of the Trinity Site, where Oppenheimer and his crew set off the test bomb on July 16, 1945, vividly and dramatically recreated in the movie by special effects and dramatic pounding music from string instruments (brilliantly composed by Ludwig Göransson). The bogus suggestion that something extraterrestrial happened near Roswell didn’t surface until 1980–33 years later–with publication of the thinly researched book The Roswell Incident, by Charles Berlitz (of foreign language training fame) and William Moore.

Many more thinly researched books followed, each with claims wilder than the last and just as bogus. There eventually was speculation aliens were hovering around Roswell–drawn like moths to a light–to get a better look at lingering radiation from the nearby Trinity Test just two years earlier.

Ergo the former National Atomic Testing Museum. Earlier this year, in anticipation of ‘Oppenheimer,’ I visited the Atomic Museum (paying $18.04 for a discounted ticket on Groupon) and walked into the gift shop. What did I see for sale? All kinds of memorabilia about the phony Roswell Incident! A yellow metal sign reading “UFO Crash Site, Roswell, NM,” with a big arrow. Stuffed dolls of little green men with big eyes in the fashion of popular Roswell Incident depictions (which, as it turned out, greatly resembled dummies thrown out of aircraft from the nearby Air Force base to test parachutes). A sweatshirt reading, “What Happens in Area 51 Stays in Area 51” (a nod to the famous Las Vegas marketing slogan, “What Happens Here, Stays Here“) adorned by–yes–a drawing of a little green man with big eyes.

The Atomic Museum makes much of the fact that it is an “affiliate partner” with the highly respected Smithsonian Institution. Little green men with big eyes?

To me it’s part of a con, but entirely in keeping with the spirit of a region whose entire economy is devoted to separating tourists from their cash. The Las Vegas area long has profited from UFO-mania. Souvenir shops are full of UFO knick knacks, many inspired by Roswell and Area 51. The minor league baseball team here used to be called the 51s.The state highway leading toward Area 51 is officially named the Extraterrestrial Highway. On U.S. 95 in Amargosa Valley, not far from the NNSS, sits the Alien Cathouse Vegas Brothel. That’s a house of legal prostitution and, as I cracked in a 2017 post here, a destination should a real alien UFO ever land nearby and the pilot says, “Take me to your breeder.”

In my view the Atomic Museum plays along here, perhaps out of financial necessity. According to the last annual financial statement I can find for the nonprofit parent Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, the gift shop alone sold more than $200,000 in merchandise. Off the main lobby sits the “Harry Reid Area 51 Theater,” in honor of the late U.S. senator from Nevada who secretly funded research of UFOs (or UAPs, unidentified aerial phenomenon, the new terminology) and, I imagine, helped fund the museum itself. But other than P.R., there really is no connection between Area 51 itself and nuclear testing, unless one accepts the Roswell Incident/aliens sniffing-around theory.

Still, the Atomic Museum does lay out a lot of history about the U.S. nuclear defense during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Exhibits include a nuclear bomb casing from Los Alamos and a theater that vibrates a la IMAX while a bomb explosion movie plays on the screen. To its credit the exhibits includes a fair amount of material about the downsides (i.e. death) if Mutually Assured Destruction, the lynch pin of nuclear policy, fails. Indeed–but somewhat bizarrely–in the lobby I found a current brochure offering help on health care and claims on behalf of  “energy workers and their families.”

However, to me the overarching message the museum pushes is that nuclear stuff and even radiation are basically okay, which is probably why government support accounts for about half the revenue. New exhibits in the museum have stressed nuclear clean-up efforts.

Long before becoming my Nevada congresswoman, UNLV professor Dina Titus wrote a book, Bombs in the Backyard, in part describing the role of the NNSS in Las Vegas culture. The Atomic Museum now sports a Dina Titus Reading Room, perhaps in recognition of her efforts to gain more federal funding for the enterprise.

The Atomic Museum is not the only place where one can gain a nuclear perspective. I’ll leave out the obvious venues of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Closer to home, there are museums with substantial nuclear content in Albuquerque, Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge, Tenn. (where part of the World War II bomb research was done). During my time in New Mexico, I visited the Trinity Site itself, a sparse but evocative, haunting spot on a military reservation 120 miles south of Albuquerque. It’s only open to the public two days a years with a limited capacity and, in the aftermath of “Oppenheimer,” likely will be next to impossible to see for years.

Years ago, I broke the extremely minor news in Forbes that for $259,900, you could buy the Albuquerque boarding house where, a month before the successful Trinity Site test, nuclear secrets from Oppenheimer’s team were sold to a Soviet spy for $500. That transaction led to the eventual execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage. The movie itself touched only in the briefest way on the issue of the massive Soviet spying at Los Alamos.

Meanwhile, the Atomic Museum is on a roll. Attendance is way up. Free all-day monthly tours to the NNSS leaving from the Atomic Museum book up with tourists months in advance. There’s talk of building a much larger facility.

Still, despite decades of eagerly benefiting from things nuclear, Nevada politicians continue to fight–so far successfully–plans by the Federal Government to store nuclear waste underground in Yucca Mountain next to NNSS. Massive hypocrisy? As Oppenheimer himself famously says in the movie watching the Trinity Site test, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” That’s more or less the exact opposite of “What Happens Here, Stays Here.”

UPDATE ON MARCH 10, 2024: Robert Downey Jr. tonight won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Lewis Strauss in “Oppenheimer.”

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