Kearsarge, A Joint Verification Experiment to Remember

As luck would have it, I was living in Mercury, Nevada in 1988 when the Soviets rolled into

Mercury, Nevada

Mercury, Nevada

town. In the name of security the right hand never knew what the left hand was doing but it was unusual that I was so in the dark. They were descending on Mercury to conduct a joint verification nuclear experiment code named Kearsarge[1] in Area 20 on Pahute Mesa, LLNL’s turf. To be fair, I was too tired to care. I had been working my day job in Area 6 in support of two planned nuclear weapons effects tests for the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA). The Misty Echo event was well under way and Mineral Quarry was just being planned. By day I played engineer and at night I went underground in the tunnel to pay my dues and learn the ropes.

Mercury was a great place to live. It was relatively close to where I worked and it was cheap. Close was very important because I was working on about three hours of sleep in any given twenty-four hour period. Cheap didn’t hurt my feelings either. Although I can’t recall how much I paid for my dorm room, $20 per month comes to mind and the cafeteria served reasonable food for almost no money, resulting in a very low cost of living. Never again will I live so well for so little. I was dismayed when the notice to get out of the dorm was tacked to my door. They needed the dorms for the Soviet team and their minders. I elected to stay in Mercury and was forced to move-up to a concrete block duplex with a shared bathroom that cost twice as much. The next ‘the-Soviets-are-coming’ culture shock was the indoctrination.  First I had to move and then I had to watch my mouth. As well, at least I didn’t have to make the drive to Las Vegas and back every day.

Early one Saturday, I rolled into the cafeteria before heading to Rainier Mesa only to find the place filled with Livermore people I hadn’t seen in ages as well as an excited Soviet Delegation, State Department representatives, high ranking Department of Energy (DOE) officials, and U.S. CIA and Soviet KGB spooks of every shape and size. All I wanted was bacon and two eggs over easy with a side of toast and a cup of coffee. What I got was roped in on the ‘it’s a small world’ tour of the ages. We were bundled into 15-passenger vans and given the best tour of the Nevada Test site ever. I learned test site history and mystery from the history-makers themselves. Sometimes, you just get lucky.

Over the next few months, all of us in Mercury enjoyed the change of pace. There was a strange dance of reporting every contact with the soviet team but friendships of a type were formed. For months, I enjoyed being teased by a couple of burly, coarse ‘scientists’ about getting me a perfect Russian spouse. The U.S. was footing the bill for all of their Soviet team’s food and liquor and they went through a lot of both. While I ate in the cafeteria with the interpreters, the big boys ate in steakhouse. I can only imagine what the costs were. I heard tell that several hundred thousand dollars worth of food and booze was processed through their digestive systems. The Soviets liked blue movies and lots of them. Where they got them is a mystery but I suspect the spooks. The only female among them was a French woman, an interpreter associated with the treaty talks. She raised the temperature in Mercury by insisting on swimming naked in the pool. The construction on the event progressed and so did the temperatures on the Nevada desert. The Soviets loved the ice machines and could empty one in no time flat. We all obeyed the rules of engagement.

While Mercury and Area 20 were humming along preparing for Kearsarge, a similar scene

As a symbol of international good faith and cooperation, the Soviet Union flag is raised to the top of the emplacement tower to be flown beside the U.S. flag for the Touchstone Kearsarge test on Pahute Mesa. The Joint Verification Experiment brought Soviet scientists and technicians to the Test Site for most of 1988. Kearsarge was detonated at 10 a.m., August 17, 1988.

As a symbol of international good faith and cooperation, the Soviet Union flag is raised to the top of the emplacement tower to be flown beside the U.S. flag for the Touchstone Kearsarge test on Pahute Mesa. The Joint Verification Experiment brought Soviet scientists and technicians to the Test Site for most of 1988. Kearsarge was detonated at 10 a.m., August 17, 1988.

was taking place the Soviet test site in Semipalatinsk as they prepared for the in Shagan test. About the time the Soviet delegation arrived in Mercury, a C-5 transport airplane was being loaded with equipment and technical staff at Indian Spring, Nevada in preparation for their flight to the soviet test site. The objective of the joint verification experiments (JVE) was to assure ourselves that any test ban treaty signed could be verified. The Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT) and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty (PNE) stipulated that underground detonations could not exceed 150 kilotons. The JVE was the experiment that established the treaty verification protocols.

Zero time for the Kearsarge event was the middle of August 1988 and Shagan was set for the middle of September. It was a long time to be cooped up and early that summer a decision was made by someone to take the Soviet team to Las Vegas for a day. The Soviets had a great time shopping in the outlets and big box stores and their minders went crazy. I can only imagine the chaos. The Soviets came back with great tales of the Americans stocking the stores just to impress them. No one could convince them that what they saw was business as usual. In the evenings, I sometimes ate with one of the interpreters, a thin, drawn, pale young man from the Urals. Alexei hated his job and referred to himself as a trained dog. His training and degree was in philosophy but his job in this life was to interpret for the Soviet technician, who he disliked at every level. When I found out about his interest in philosophy, I asked him what he thought of Immanuel Kant. It seemed like a safe subject at the time. He denied the existence of any such philosopher and a proper animated discussion ensued. The result was a dreaded drive to Las Vegas and the procurement of books, which I gave to him. He took them and said nothing more. In August a package of books with a thank you note was left at the door of my duplex.

The event proved the verification protocols and the treaty talks continued. The Soviets went home with a lifetime of memories and many souvenirs from Las Vegas and the test site. The U.S. team returned but there was a spot of trouble over the souvenirs some of them took from Semipalatinsk. What is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander, it seems. Most of us who worked or lived in the same community with the Soviet team learned to see the world in a different way. Things that are not important to us are vital from their perspective and vice versa. It would be easy, in that situation, to misjudge or mistake intent; good or bad. Toward the end of the adventure one of the Soviets ‘scientists’ said upon seeing a coyote cross the road in front of the van one morning, “Russian coyote more beautiful.”



[1] Kearsarge is a mountain in New Hampshire and it is also the name of four Navy vessels. Kearsarge, a sloop of ear was launched in 1861; U.S.Kearsarge was a battleship commissioned in 1900; the U.S.Kearsarge air craft carrier was commissioned in 1946; and the U.S.Kearsarge commissioned in 1992 supports a Marine Landing Force and has a 600 bed hospital for humanitarian aid.

13 thoughts on “Kearsarge, A Joint Verification Experiment to Remember

  1. it was interesting to read it, thank you. I’m was member of Soviet part of the JVE and took a part in the both events Kearsarge 17 august 1988 and Shagan 14 september 1988.

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  3. I was an LLNL employee and served as an interpreter during Kearsarge. Every Monday I would fly to Mercury in the lab plane and I’d fly home every Friday, unless I was needed over the weekend. I lived in the dorms in Mercury and ate in the steakhouse with the LLNL and Soviet members of Kearsarge. There was no female French interpreter. With the exception of two female scientists from LLNL, I was the only other woman on the team. The Soviets had a very handsome blond interpreter (whose name escapes me) who looked like a California surfer and spoke beautiful English (I remember that he used the phrase “greased lightning,” which impressed me). I can’t remember if his name was Alex but if we’re talking about the same man, he was neither thin nor pale. Kearsarge was an interesting event. You don’t need to add to the interest by talking about some hot, French interpreter who swam in the pool naked because if she existed at all, she wasn’t there for very long. Gorbachev’s personal interpreter, the bald gentleman (with a mustache, I believe), was there for a few days at the very beginning. I sat in on every meeting and briefing and spent my days at ground zero with everyone else. I was in the control point during the shot. I undoubtedly knew Yevgeny, who posted a comment, and he would know me as Marina, but don’t remember who he was specifically. I wonder if he is the physicist who told me that when the Chernobyl nuclear accident happened, he received a call early in the morning and was told to be ready to get on a plane in 30 minutes. He had no idea where he was going and ended up in Chernobyl. He described an awful scene. I knew all of the Soviets working on the project, including Viktor Mikhailov, the boss, who later became Russia’s minister of atomic energy. Those were interesting times, often fraught with tension, but there was also a sense of cautious goodwill. If any of the Soviet scientists who worked on Kearsarge read this, I would like to say Привет, я желаю вам счастья, здоровья и успехов. От Марины

    • Thanks for your insight, memories and observations. At that time you and I operated in two different worlds. As a young, wide-eyed, newly hatched, engineer, I viewed Lab employees as being close to the heartbeat of the universe. I was in awe of the history and the test site I served. Between LLNL and LANL mere mortals such as I could hear the echos of the arguments of the gods on Olympus; Oppenheimer and Teller. I lived in Mercury 24-7 as a contractor with H&N. Mostly I ate in the cafeteria, when I managed to drag in before it closed. That’s where I met Alexi. He also ate in the cafeteria versus the Steakhouse where most of the teams ate. Perhaps he lied to me about his role on the team or was a minor player, but the interaction happened and I kept the bookstore receipt and the wonder in my log. The French woman had been an interpreter for several treaty negotiations and was in and out for reasons way beyond my pay grade. The incident became the talk of the town for a while and I thought it was a wonderful break from the intensity that surrounded being a low-level contractor Project Manager supporting DNA during that time: many geographical restrictions as well as times on pool use, etc. I was honored to be a dust mote close to the stage of that historic event-still am.

      • Я рад, что у вас не будут соприкасаться друг с другом. Спасибо за чтение блог и за ваши замечания.

  4. This is fascinating. As an artist, I think this event is one of the most interesting points of the technical layer of the Cold War. Thank you for sharing the photos.
    (I paint images from Nevada Test Site – link below)

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