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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Greater L.A.

Greetings From Doom Town

April 19, 1998|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YUCCA FLAT, Nev. — Deep in the lonely desert, where the night burned with the light of a thousand suns, you can revisit a surreal chapter of the young Atomic Age.

Two forlorn Colonial homes are what little remains of Doom Town and Survival City, fictional but very tangible 1950s suburbs. There were a dozen or more structures: completely furnished houses, stores and warehouses built to test the effects of atomic war on average American communities. The towns were populated by fashionably garbed mannequins posing as ordinary people frozen in typical moments: Dad was reading the paper, Mom was preparing dinner, the kids were playing in the living room. The tables were set. Refrigerators and pantries were stocked with fresh food. People were sitting in their cars or strolling along the streets. A few mannequins were deployed to demonstrate the effectiveness of bomb shelters.

Then, with a nationwide TV audience looking on, the atomic bombs went off. The horror of nuclear war was forever seared into the human psyche.

This newspaper published sobering reports of those events.

"The murky dawn light was suddenly gone from our trench, washed out by the indefinable, unbelievable brilliance of the atomic flash," wrote Times reporter Gene Sherman, who was less than two miles from the 1953 explosion that was officially code-named Annie. "Under my nose the dull powdered sand of the trench turned an unworldly white. . . . Simultaneously the earth we embraced so dependently convulsed in violent paroxysm. We were shaken like dice in a cup for brief, fleeting moments of terror."

The mushroom cloud from the 1955 test code-named Apple-2 moved Los Angeles civil defense officer Jean Wood Fuller to write that "the sight of that tremendous cloud rearing itself high over our head was one of the most awe-inspiring sights I or anyone else in that trench will ever see."

The accounts remain a gripping testimony to the power of atomic weapons, even though the devices were similar in yield to Fat Man and Little Boy, the World War II bombs dropped by the United States on Japan.

Now the remnants of the atomic towns are a stop for groups touring the Nevada Test Site, the once-supersecret base 75 miles from Las Vegas where scientists conducted hundreds of such nuclear tests starting in 1951. Scores of tests were awe-inspiring atmospheric explosions during the feverish peak of the Cold War. But the airbursts rained dangerous radioactive fallout on the United States, raising a public outcry. By 1963, tests were conducted underground, and eventually all fissionable weapons testing was halted in 1992.

But the detonations left the test site's sprawling, unpopulated valleys littered with the stubbed remains of bomb-cradling steel towers and moonscape-like craters. For those who recall the era--particularly boomers who heard their parents describe the tests' brilliant predawn flashes seen from Southern California--the Colonials are a vivid reminder of those strange times.

Tours are led by guides such as Frances Guinn, a longtime test site employee now working for Bechtel Corp. She cheerfully recounts workdays enlivened by office-rattling shock waves and panicky retreats following radiation leaks. She sometimes lets small groups go poking around in the rooms where mannequins once awaited their fate.

"If you consider there has been no maintenance, these houses have really weathered quite well," Guinn said on a recent visit, pointing through a bare window toward the spot 1 1/2 miles away where one of the bombs was detonated.

Visitors are promised that they won't be exposed to dangerous radiation, as long as they don't disturb soil behind signs warning of contaminated areas, such as the ground zero of an atmospheric test. However off-putting that might seem, the test site draws 8,000 people a year--still hardly a blip on Nevada's tourism map.

Plans have begun for a 50th anniversary celebration of President Harry S. Truman's December 1950 order establishing the site, and U.S. Energy Department officials have begun planning to build a Nevada Test Site museum in Las Vegas to display artifacts, educational exhibits on energy and the always-fascinating atmospheric blast footage.

Loretta Helling, Energy Department public affairs project manager, said the museum will be modeled after the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, not far from Trinity, the site of the first atomic explosion in 1945.

"And we can sell souvenirs," she said enthusiastically. "Coffee mugs, T-shirts and earrings--Fat Man and Little Boy earrings."

To visit the Nevada Test Site, write to the Office of External Affairs, Department of Energy, P.O. Box 98518, Las Vegas, NV 89193-8518, or call (702) 295-3521. The free tours must be arranged in advance. Minimum age is 14.

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