In her explosive new book, Area 51, investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen reveals for the first time secret nuclear tests and a nuclear space rocket meltdown. Plus, she explains how she uncovered the real story.
America’s Secret Nuclear Test
In 1957, with the arms race in full swing, the Department of Defense had decided it was just a matter of time before an airplane transporting an atomic bomb would crash on American soil, unleashing a radioactive disaster the likes of which the world had never seen. This dirty bomb menace posed a growing threat to the internal security of the country, one the Pentagon wanted to make less severe by testing the nightmare scenario first. The organization needed to do this in a controlled environment, away from the urban masses, in total secrecy. No one outside the project, absolutely no one, could know.
Officials from the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project decided that the perfect place to do this was at Area 51. If the dirty bomb was set off outside the legal perimeter of the 1,350-acre Nevada Test Site, as Area 51 is, secrecy was all but guaranteed. As far as specifics were concerned, there was an apocalyptic prerequisite the likes of which no government had ever dealt with before. Weapons testers needed “a site that could be relinquished for 20,000 years.” Code-named the 57 Project, and later Project 57, the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Air Force, and defense contractor EG&G would work together to simulate an Air Force airplane crash involving an XW‑25 nuclear warhead—a crash in which radioactive particles would “accidentally” be dispersed on the ground. The land around the mock crash site would be contaminated by plutonium, which, according to scientists, would take 24,100 years to decay by half. At the time, scientists had no idea what accidental plutonium dispersal in open air would do to beings and things in the element’s path. The 57 Project was a test that would provide critical data to that end.
There were further prerequisites, ones that had initially narrowed the possibilities of usable land to that within the Nevada Test Site. The place needed to contain “no preexisting contamination,” to be reasonably flat, and to cover approximately fifty square miles. Ideally it would be a dry lake valley, “preferably a site where mountain-valley drainage currents would induce large amount of shear,” or flow. It had to be as far away as possible from prying eyes, but most important, it had to be a place where there was no possibility that the public could learn that officials were even considering such a catastrophic scenario, let alone preparing for one. It was decided that in press releases the 57 Project would only be referred to as a “safety test,” nothing more. With a doctor named James Shreve Jr. in charge of things, the project had an almost wholesome ring to it.
Just a few miles to the northwest of Area 51 lay a perfect sixteen-square-mile flat parcel of land—relatively virgin territory that no one was using. A land-use deal between the Department of Defense, which controlled the area for the Air Force, and the Atomic Energy Commission, the civilian organization that controlled the Nevada Test Site, was struck. This parcel was given its own name: Area 13. As it was with the rest of the loosely defined Area 51, the Area 13 sub-parcel sat conveniently just outside the legal boundaries of the Nevada Test Site, to the northeast. This allowed the 57 Project to fall under the rubric of a military operation, which could assist in shielding it from official Atomic Energy Commission disclosures, the same way calling it a safety test did. Anyone with oversight regarding unsafe nuclear tests simply didn’t know where to look. In the end, the land designation even allowed Project 57 to be excluded from official Nevada Test Site maps. As of 2011, it still is.
A shot date of April 3 was chosen. Scientists predicted the warhead would release radioactive plutonium particles, but because a test like Project 57 had never been conducted before, scientists really had no clear idea of what would happen. Workers set up four thousand fallout collectors around a ten‑by‑sixteen- square- mile block of land. These galvanized steel pans, called sticky pans, had been sprayed with tacky resin and were meant to capture samples of plutonium particles released into the air. Sixty- eight air-sampler stations equipped with millipore filter paper were spread over seventy square miles. An accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon in an urban area would be far more catastrophic than one in a remote desert area such as Groom Lake, and the Department of Defense wanted to test how city surfaces would respond to plutonium contamination, so mock-ups of sidewalks, curbs, and pavement pieces were set out in the desert landscape. Some fourteen hundred blocks of highway asphalt and wood float finish concrete were fabricated and set around on the ground. To see how automobiles would contaminate when exposed to plutonium, cars and trucks were parked among the juniper bushes and Joshua trees. As zero day got closer, preparations picked up. Giant air-sampling balloons were tethered to the earth and floated over Area 13 at various elevations; some were five feet off the ground and others a thousand feet up, giving things a circus feel. Nine burros, 109 beagles, 10 sheep, and 31 albino rats were put in cages and set to face the dirty bomb. Defense contractor EG&G’s rapatronic photographic equipment would record the radioactive cloud within the first few microseconds of detonation. A wooden decontamination building was erected just a few hundred yards down from the guard post. It was nothing fancy, just a wooden shack “stocked with radiation equipment and protective clothing, shower stalls . . . with a three-hundred- fifty-gallon hot-water supply and a dressing room with benches and hangers for clothes.” Shortly before shot day, workers installed a “two- foot- wide wooden approach walk” and covered it with kraft paper.
What might have been the one defensible, positive outcome in this otherwise shockingly outrageous test—namely, lessons gleaned from its cleanup—was ignored until it was too late.
Shot day came and went without the test. All nuclear detonations are subject to the weather; Mother Nature, not the Pentagon’s Armed Forces Special Weapons Project officers, had final say regarding zero hour. Finally, during the early-morning hours of April 24, the weather cleared and the go-ahead was given for Project 57. At 6:27 a.m., local time, the nuclear warhead in Area 13 was hand-fired by an employee from EG&G, simulating the plane crash without actually crashing a plane. The predicted pattern of fallout was to the north. When the dust from the small radioactive cloud settled, plutonium had spread out over 895 square acres adjacent to Groom Lake. Plutonium, if inhaled, is one of the most deadly elements known to man. Unlike other radiation that the body can handle in low dosages, such as an X-ray, one-millionth of a gram of plutonium will kill a person if it gets in his or her lungs. According to a 1982 Defense Nuclear Agency request for an unclassified “extract” of the original report, most of which remains Secret/Restricted Data, Project 57 tests confirmed for the scientists that if a person inhales plutonium “it gets distributed principally in bone and remains there indefinitely as far as human life is concerned. One cannot outlive the influence because the alpha half-life of plutonium-239 is of the order of 20,000 years.” These findings came as a result of many tests performed on the dead burros, beagles, sheep, and albino rats that had been exposed to the dirty bomb.
Within a year of the detonation of the dirty bomb, the scientists were satisfied with their preliminary data, and Project 57 wound down. The acreage at Area 13 was fenced off with simple barbed wire. Stickers that read “contaminated materials” were attached to the bumpers and hoods of Atomic Energy Commission vehicles before they were buried deep underground. Clothing contaminated with “alpha-emitting material was sealed in plastic bags and buried in the contaminated waste area.” And yet, by the summer of 1958, Project 57’s director, Dr. James Shreve, authored a very troubling report—one that was marked Secret–Restricted Data—noting that the measurements research group had made a potentially deadly observation. “Charles Darwin studied an acre of garden in which he claimed 53,000 hard working earthworms moved 18 tons of soil,” wrote Dr. Shreve. “Translocation of soil, earthworms’ ingestion of plutonium, could turn out to be a significant influence, intentional or unintentional, in the rehabilitation of weapon- accident environment.” In other words, plutonium-carrying earthworms that had passed through Area 13, or birds that ate those earthworms, could at some point in the future get to a garden down the road or trees in another field. “The idea of an entirely separate program on ecology in Area 13 had occurred to [names unclear] in the summer of 1957,” wrote Shreve, “but the AEP/ UCLA logical group to undertake the investigation was too committed on Operation Plumbbob to consider the responsibility.” The twenty- nine nuclear bombs about to blow in the rest of the Plumbbob series would take precedent over any kind of effort to contain future harm done by the first test in the series, the Project 57 dirty bomb.
What might have been the one defensible, positive outcome in this otherwise shockingly outrageous test—namely, lessons gleaned from its cleanup—was ignored until it was too late. If the point of setting off a dirty bomb in secret was to see what would happen if an airplane carrying a nuclear bomb crashed into the earth near where people lived, it follows that serious efforts would then be undertaken by the Atomic Energy Commission to learn how to clean up such a nightmare scenario after the catastrophe occurs. No such efforts were initially made. And yet the information gleaned from a cleanup effort would have been terribly useful, as was revealed eight years and eight months after Project 57 unfurled.
Disaster Over Spain
On the morning of January 17, 1966, a real-life dirty bomb crisis occurred over Palomares, Spain. A Strategic Air Command bomber flying with four armed hydrogen Bombs—with yields between 70 kilotons and 1.45 megatons—collided midair with a refueling tanker over the Spanish countryside.
On the morning of the accident, an Air Force pilot and his six-man crew were participating in an exercise that was part of Operation Chrome Dome, something that had begun in the late 1950s as part of Strategic Air Command. In a show of force inherent to the military doctrine of the day—something called mutual assured destruction, or MAD —airplanes regularly circled Earth carrying thermonuclear bombs. The idea behind MAD was that if the Soviet Union were to make a sneak attack on America, SAC bombers would already be airborne to strike back at Moscow with nuclear weapons of their own, thereby assuring the mutual destruction of both sides.
That morning, the bomber lined up with the tanker and had just begun refueling when, in the words of pilot Larry Messinger, “all of a sudden, all hell seemed to break loose” and the two aircraft collided. There was a massive explosion and the men in the fuel tanker were instantly incinerated. Somehow Messinger, his copilot, the instructor pilot, and the navigator managed to eject from the airplane carrying the bombs. Their parachutes deployed, and the men floated down, landing in the sea. The four nuclear bombs—individually powerful enough to destroy Manhattan—also had parachutes, two of which did not deploy. One parachuted bomb landed gently in a dry riverbed and was later recovered relatively intact. But when the two bombs without parachutes hit the earth, their explosive charges detonated, breaking open the nuclear cores. Nuclear material was released at Palomares in the form of aerosolized plutonium, which then spread out across 650 acres of Spanish farmland—consistent with dispersal patterns from the Project 57 dirty bomb test. The fourth bomb landed in the sea and became lost. Palomares was then a small fishing village and farming community located on the Mediterranean Sea. As fortune would have it, January 17 was the Festival of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of Palomares, which meant most people in the village were at church that day and not out working in the fields.
Five thousand miles away, in Washington, DC, President Johnson learned of the disaster over breakfast. He’d been sitting in his bedroom sipping tea and eating melon and chipped beef when a staffer from the White House Situation Room knocked, entered, and set down a copy of his daily security briefing. On the first page, the president read about the war in Vietnam. On the second page he learned about the Palomares incident. The daily brief said nothing about widespread plutonium dispersal or about the lost thermonuclear bomb. Only that the “16th Nuclear Disaster Team had been dispatched to the area.” The “16th Nuclear Disaster Team” sounded official enough, but if fifteen nuclear disaster teams had preceded this one or existed concurrently, no record of any of them exists in the searchable Department of Energy archives. In reality, the group was ad hoc, meaning it was put together for the specific purpose of dealing with the Palomares incident. An official nuclear disaster response team did not exist in 1966 and would not be created for another nine years, until 1975, when retired Brigadier General Mahlon E. Gates, then the manager of the Nevada Test Site, put together the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, or NEST.
In 1966, the conditions in Palomares, Spain, were strikingly similar to the conditions at the Nevada Test Site in terms of geology. Both were dry, hilly landscapes with soil, sand, and wind shear as significant factors to deal with. But considering, with inconceivable lack of foresight, the Atomic Energy Commission had never attempted to clean up the dirty bomb that it had set off at Area 13 nine years before, the 16th Nuclear Disaster Team was, essentially, working in the dark. Eight hundred individuals with no hands‑on expertise were sent to Palomares to assist in the cleanup efforts there. The teams improvised. One group secured the contaminated area and prepared the land to remove contaminated soil. A second group worked to locate the lost thermonuclear bomb, called a “broken arrow” in Defense Department terms. The group cleaning up the dispersed plutonium included “specialists and scientists” from the Los Alamos Laboratory, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Sandia Laboratories, Raytheon, and EG&G. It was terribly ironic. The very same companies who had engineered the nuclear weapons and whose employees had wired, armed, and fired them were now the companies being paid to clean up the deadly mess. This was the military-industrial complex in full swing.
For the next three months, workers labored around the clock to decontaminate the site of deadly plutonium. By the time the cleanup was over, more than fourteen hundred tons of radioactive soil and plant life were excavated and shipped to the Savannah River plant in South Carolina for disposal. The majority of the plutonium dispersed on the ground was accounted for, but the Defense Nuclear Agency eventually conceded that the extent of the plutonium particles scattered by wind, carried as dust, and ingested by earthworms and excreted somewhere else “will never be known.” As for the missing hydrogen bomb, for forty-four days the Pentagon refused to admit it was lost despite the fact that it was widely reported as being missing. “I don’t know of any missing bomb,” one Pentagon official told the Associated Press. Only after the bomb was recovered from the ocean floor did the Pentagon admit that it had in fact been lost.
Nuclear Space Rocket Melts Down
In June of 1965, disaster struck again, this time on U.S. soil. Area 25 of the Nevada Test Site, which was now being used as the site for a project called NERVA: Nuclear Engine Rocket Vehicle Application—a nuclear powered spaceship that could get men to Mars and back in a matter of months. An incarnation of the nuclear rocket engine, code-named Phoebus, had been running at full power for ten minutes when “suddenly it ran out of LH2 [liquid hydrogen and] overheated in the blink of an eye,” explain[s/ed] former Department of Energy employee James A. Dewar. The nuclear rocket reactor first ejected large chunks of its radioactive fuel out into the open air. Then “the remainder fused together, as if hit by a giant welder.” Laymen would call this a meltdown. The cause of the accident was a faulty gauge on one of the liquid hydrogen tanks. One gauge read a quarter full when in reality there was nothing left inside the tank. So radiated was the land at Area 25 after the Phoebus accident, even HAZMAT cleanup crews in full protective gear could not enter the area for six weeks. No information is available on how the employees, many of whom worked in an underground facility there, got out.
Originally, Los Alamos tried to send robots into Area 25 to conduct the decontamination, but according to Dewar the robots were “slow and inefficient.” Eventually humans were sent in, driving truck-mounted vacuum cleaners to suck up deadly contaminants. Declassified Atomic Energy Commission photographs show workers in protective gear and gas masks picking up radioactive chunks with long metal tongs. Like many Atomic Energy Commission officials, Dewar saw the accident as “achieving some objectives.” That “while certainly unfortunate, unplanned, unwanted and unforeseen,” he believed that “calling the accident ‘catastrophic’ mocks the meaning of the word.” The cleanup process took four hundred people two months to complete.
So what happened to NERVA in the end? When Thornton “T.D.” Barnes worked on NERVA, in 1968, the project was well advanced. But space travel was on the wane. By 1970, the public’s infatuation with getting a man to Mars had made an abrupt about-face. Funding dried up, and NASA projects began shutting down. “We did develop the rocket,” Barnes says. “We do have the technology to send man to Mars this way. But environmentally, we could never use a nuclear- powered rocket on Earth in case it blew up on takeoff. So the NERVA was put to bed.” That depends how one defines put to bed.
President Nixon canceled the program, and it officially ended on January 5, 1973. Several employees who worked at the NERVA facility at Jackass Flats say the nuclear rocket program came to a dramatic, cataclysmic end, one that has never before been made public. “We know the government likes to test accidents in advance,” Barnes says. Darwin Morgan, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office, insists no such final test ever happened. “Something like that would have been too huge of an event to have happened to ‘cover up,’ ” Morgan says. “I’ve talked to people in our classified repository. They don’t have anything.” The record suggests otherwise. In studying Area 25 to determine how former Atomic Energy Commission workers and contractors with cancer may have been exposed to potentially lethal doses of radiation there, investigators for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health determined that “two nuclear reactors” were in fact destroyed there. “Due to the destruction of two nuclear reactors and transport of radioactive material, the area was extensively contaminated with enriched uranium, niobium, cobalt, and cesium,” the authors of the report concluded in 2008. The full data relating to the last tests conducted on the NERVA nuclear rocket remain classified as Restricted Data and the Department of Energy has repeatedly declined to release the documents. Atomic Energy Commission records are “well organized and complete but unfortunately, most are classified or kept in secure areas that limit public access,” according to Dewar.
As for the records from the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office, NERVA’s executive program office in Washington DC, Dewar said that “many SNPO veterans believe its records were destroyed after the office was abolished in 1973” and that “in particular, the chronology file of Harold Finger, Milton Klein and David Gabriel, SNPO’s directors, would [be] invaluable” in determining the complete story on NERVA. When reached for comment, Harold Finger clarified that he left the program as director in 1968. “I have no knowledge of any meltdown,” Finger said, suggesting that his former deputy Milton Klein might know more. “I left the program as director in 1971,” Klein said, “and do not have any information about what happened to NERVA in the end.” In January of 2002, as part of the Nevada Environmental Restoration Project, the National Nuclear Security Administration conducted a study regarding proposed cleanup of the contaminated land at Area 25. The report revealed that the following radioactive elements were still present at that time: “cobalt-60 (Co-60); strontium-90 (Sr-90); yttrium-90 (Y-90); niobium-94 (Nb-94); cesium- 137 (Cs-137); barium-137m (Ba-137m); europium-152,-154, and -155 (Eu-152, Eu-154, and Eu-155); uranium-234,-235, -238 (U-234,U-235, U-238); plutonium-239/240 (Pu-239/240); and americium-241 (Am-241),” and that these radioactive contaminants “may have percolated into underlying soil.”
Excerpted from the book Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen. Copyright 2011 by Annie Jacobsen. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company
Annie Jacobsen is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and writes a weekly column called “Backstory” which can be read at latimes.com. Her work has also appeared in the National Review and The Dallas Morning News. An internationally recognized investigative reporter, articles about Annie Jacobsen have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy Magazine, London Telegraph and Shanghai Daily. She has made guest appearances on more than 600 radio shows speaking to such diverse audiences as “National Public Radio” and “The Savage Nation” about national security and intelligence matters. TV appearances include ABC, MSNBC, FOX News and CNN. Jacobsen graduated from St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, in 1985, and Princeton University, in 1989, where she wrote with Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster, studied Greek, and served as captain of the Princeton Women’s Ice Hockey Team. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband Kevin and their two sons.