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HOMETOWN: Central Nevada Test Area

Howard Hughes and the atomic bomb in middle of Nevada

Why the Central Nevada Test Area conducted only one nuclear test has puzzled many for years.

June 28, 2009|Ralph Vartabedian

At the center of a desolate valley in the middle of Nevada, more than a dozen miles from the nearest paved road, one of the few signs of human activity is a rusty steel well casing that juts oddly out of the desert floor.

Nobody lives here, but it has a name: the Central Nevada Test Area. It was once a hub of scientific activity. Today, it is an abandoned outpost of the Cold War.

In the lore of the nuclear arms race, the Central Nevada Test Area has occupied a special place of mystery. Only one test was ever conducted there, and even for aficionados, the reasons have never been entirely clear.

Amid the emptiness, an 8-foot-tall cylinder bears a message to future generations from Glenn T. Seaborg, once chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

"Project Faultless January 19, 1968: A nuclear detonation was conducted below this spot at a depth of 3,200 feet," reads a brass plaque on the casing.

The explanation of its purpose is terse: "The device, with a yield of less than one megaton, was detonated to determine the environmental and structural effects that might be expected should subsequent higher yield underground nuclear tests be conducted in this vicinity."

At the bottom of the vertical shaft, there's a load of radioactive rubble.

"No excavation, drilling and/or removal of materials is permitted without U.S. government approval within a horizontal distance of 3,300 feet from the surface ground zero," the plaque warns visitors.

Just why the government detonated a bomb here is even more puzzling given that the sprawling Nevada Test Site was already set up officially for nuclear testing about 100 miles south.

Philip Coyle, the former test director of the Nevada Test Site, has rarely spoken about the issue, but he does know the answer. It involves a peculiar effort by the government to placate one of the wealthiest men in the world.

In the 1960s, the U.S. and Soviet Union were engaged in an all-out nuclear arms race to see who could build and then detonate the biggest weapons -- almost a nuclear war by proxy. But in this fight, each side bombed itself.

Every time a big hydrogen bomb was detonated on the Nevada Test Site, the tremors would shake the penthouse suite atop the Desert Inn in Las Vegas about 75 miles away and the frayed nerves of its sole resident, multibillionaire Howard Hughes.

At the peak of testing, a bomb was going off about every three days. Before there was a national environmental movement, Hughes became the most unlikely -- and no doubt most powerful -- opponent of nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War.

"Has anybody ever tried to compute the price paid . . . for the privilege of laying waste, mutilating and contaminating for all the days to come millions of acres of good, fertile, vegetated Nevada earth . . . through the damage wrought by these explosions?" Hughes wrote in a 1967 memo to his aide Robert Maheu.

At the time, Hughes not only controlled the Las Vegas Strip and part of the nation's oil-drilling industry, but also one of the nation's largest defense contractors, Los Angeles-based Hughes Aircraft Co.

Hughes wrote a rambling letter to President Johnson, asking him to stop nuclear testing. And he dispatched aides with envelopes each containing tens of thousands of dollars for many of the candidates for the 1968 presidency, according to the authoritative Hughes biography "Empire."

It was long assumed that Hughes' efforts were ignored.

But Coyle said in a recent interview that the Atomic Energy Commission was under so much heat from Hughes, as well as other hotel owners, that the agency ordered a test to see whether a big detonation farther from the Strip would reduce the shaking there.

"Howard Hughes was unhappy with the situation and complained about it to the AEC," Coyle recalled. "That's why Faultless was done."

The Faultless test involved one of the biggest hydrogen bombs ever detonated in the Lower 48 states. Unexpectedly, the violence of the blast caused the earth to sink 8 feet and opened gaps 3 feet across. It did not reduce the problem of shaking in Las Vegas, either, Coyle recalled.

Although many of the practices of the U.S. nuclear weapons program during the Cold War are incomprehensible by today's standards, the very survival of the nation seemed to hinge on its success.

"It is surreal to look back on some of these things," Coyle said. "It was a different time."

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ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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