Battle of the Titans

Back in the mid-1980s, on a bright, clear, warm August Nevada morning, I caught the

Exit to a new life.

Exit to a new life.

contractor bus in Las Vegas for my first trip to the Nevada Test Site (NTS) some 70 miles away. The bus took the Mercury exit off of Highway 95. For a time I wondered what exactly Mercury was but was soon distracted by the landing of a good-sized airplane at an airfield right next to the Mercury road in the exact middle of nowhere. An inquiry of my seatmate yielded a simple response, a phrase I was to hear many times over the next few years, “You don’t need to know”.

We passed through the Department of energy (DOE) security gate to the drop off point in

Entrance to Mercury-Not much has changed except the name.

Entrance to Mercury-Not much has changed except the name.

Mercury, Nevada. Following my security briefing, a series of admonitions against curiosity and signing away my rights as an American citizen, I secured my Red Badge (not for Courage) firmly to my lanyard. The security clearance process is not terribly comfortable. The Red Badge let everyone know I wasn’t yet ‘cleared’ to know the meaning of life. I knew I was being investigated for a Q-clearance, which is DOE’s answer to the military Top Secret clearance. As I waited for my ride, I worked off my ‘first day on the job’ jitters by surveying the quaint DOE village of Mercury. It was a little town alright. Straight out of the 1950s, the streets were narrow and the office buildings were flat-roofed and utilitarian. Dormitories, duplex concrete block apartments, a cafeteria and a beautiful old swimming pool completed the quiet scene. I remember thinking it would be a good place to shoot a B-class science fiction movie. My ‘minder’ picked me up and we were off to work in Area 6, wherever that was. The next few minutes were life changing.

He drove up a long hill and as we topped the crest and he pulled over to the side of the road. When I realized where we were I suddenly couldn’t breathe and my heart raced in awe of the history my mind’s eye saw. Below us was Frenchman Flats with its metal and wood skeletons from a series of effects tests with strange sounds names like Operations Ranger, Tumbler-Snapper , Upshot-Knothole or 1955s Operation Teapot.  To my left were the remnants of the benches from which Walter Cronkite, Lowell Thomas, Robert Considine and others witnessed the atmospheric event Charlie, which was part of Operation Buster-Jangle, at Yucca Flats about 10 miles away. The old door marking the spot, which I later learned was a replacement for the original, announced News Nob. Back in that day where we stood was not the Nevada Test Site; it was the Nevada Proving grounds. It was an exhilaration that never failed me. For all my NTS years, I felt the same awe and wonder each day I went to work.

Frenchman Flat illumined by both the sun and the burst.

Frenchman Flat illumined by both the sun and the burst.

Area 6 turned out to be on the ridge that separates Frenchman Flats and Yucca Flats. It is about halfway between Mercury and Rainier Mesa. The first awakening at Area 6 was that there was no place to eat. Lesson learned. When working for the DOE, eat whenever you can and always carry food and water with you. I still carry oranges in my suitcase when I travel. Our client, through the DOE, was the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), which, in 1997, became The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

The DOE used three primary Management and Operating (M&O) contractors during the time I worked there. I started with Holmes and Narver, the architect and engineering M&O contractor as a project engineer. I loved the job. The other major contractors were EG&G Energy Measurements, which provided management and technical services, and Reynolds Electric and Engineering Company, which provided construction services. Contractor staff was assigned to one of three principle testing groups. In general, contractor personnel supported Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Los Alamos National Laboratory(LANL) or DNA.  The whole bunch of us worked for DOE, though.  One night while staying at Area 12 in the shadow of Rainier Mesa, I presumed to ask an old-timer, why we didn’t just consolidate the underground testing and save everyone a lot of aggravation.  In the impassioned lecture that followed, I heard the voices of Oppenheimer and Teller[1] echoing in the valleys across the flats of the test site that night.

The description given by that old-timer was riveting. He painted the brilliance and arrogance

Credit: J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee

Credit: J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee

of these two physics super stars in terms I would only appreciate fully when I managed a group of physicists years later. I heard about the legendary Oppenheimer and Teller rift over the basic science. Battles of fission and fusion raged for years. Back in 1954, allegations of disloyalty against Oppenheimer surfaced during a security clearance review and Teller seized the day to get rid of his rival through his testimony. The NTS old-timer did not seem to think the worse of Teller for his actions and after reading his testimony, I understand why. Teller was conflicted about what he did in 1954. His testimony illustrates that:

Roger robb

Roger robb

Roger Robb, AEC attorney, asked directly whether Teller was planning “to suggest that Dr. Oppenheimer is disloyal to the United States”, Teller said, “I do not want to suggest anything of the kind. I know Oppenheimer as an intellectually most alert and a very complicated person, and I think it would be presumptuous and wrong on my part if I would try in any way to analyze his motives. But I have always assumed, and I now assume that he is loyal to the United States. I believe this, and I shall believe it until I see very conclusive proof to the opposite.”[2]

But when he asked if Oppenheimer was a “security risk”, he said, “In a great number of cases I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer act—I understood that Dr. Oppenheimer acted—in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand. I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated. To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more. In this very limited sense I would like to express a feeling that I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.”[3]

In 1963, Teller attempted to bridge the gulf between himself and Oppenheimer but the effort was not very successful.

The rift between Oppenheimer and Teller meant that something had to give. The result was

Dr. Edward Teller Slumped in Chair After Speech at Conference

Dr. Edward Teller Slumped in Chair After Speech at Conference

that the U.S.would have two national labs, LLNL and LANL, doing things two different ways on a test site in Nevada midway between them. And on the Nevada Test Site you either worked on LLNL’s turf or you worked or LANL’s turf or you worked in the tunnels of Rainier Mesa for DNA and kept very quiet. If Teller was Earth (Gaia) Oppenheimer was Sky (Uranus) in the 1950’s they got a messy divorce in Nevada.  The NTS Titans, their children and grandchildren, populated the Nevada Test Site and were loyal to one parent or the other. The battles of the Titans were loud and chaotic as each side fought to prove its superiority. The clashes between the Titans gave birth to some very creative science. Titans were the second generation gods who ruled during the Greek golden age. The NTS Titans were, like the Greek Titans, immortal, brilliant beings of incredible strength and stamina ruling in a golden age of development. The only difference was, instead of murdering their parents, they worshipped their differences. The intense competition between the NTS Titans gave rise to super high-speed, data collection and transfer, shock mounting advances never dream of, high strength rock matching concretes that are now taken for granted, light weight, durable metals, and new modeling techniques. Thanks to the NTS Titans, we had mind bending technological progress and field testing to prove it.

Memories of the Nevada Test Site still take my breath away. Today it as much for the men and women who came together under the DOE umbrella doing great things there as it is for the history entombed there.



[1] Gregg Herken: Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller

[2] Teller, Edward (April 28, 1954). “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing  Before Personnel Security Board” United States Government Printing Office.

[3] Bethe, Hans (1954). “Testimony in the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer”.  Atomic Archive.

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