National Atomic Testing Museum gives visitors a blast from the past

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The exterior of the National Atomic Testing Museum. Photo courtesy of The Vox Agency.

With global events bringing focus back onto nuclear weapons, curious people can learn how the weapons are tested and their history at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. 

The museum is located on Flamingo Road and University Center Drive, less than two miles away from UNLV. 

It is also a Smithsonian affiliate, one of two in the city. The other being the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. 

The Atomic Museum educates the public about atomic weapons testing around the world, but emphasizes the former Nevada Test Site, now called the Nevada National Security Site, and the United States’ nuclear weapons program as a whole. It is managed by the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, an IRS charitable, non-profit organization. 

In December 2012, the Atomic Museum was recognized as a private National Museum by Congress. The museum is home to over 3,500 artifacts, and the timeline of its collections ranges from the nation’s first nuclear weapons test in July 1945, to the Nevada Test Site’s first detonation in January 1951 and modern-day testing. 

Michael Heiner can still recall the first time he set foot on the Nevada Test Site at 14-years-old alongside his fellow Boy Scouts. Remnants of aboveground bombs remained on the premises at the time of his visit, but this method of weapons testing halted in 1963 with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. 

“I saw the sky light up when I was a little boy in Vegas,” Heiner said. “My dad would tell me ‘we’re going to have a test’ before the sun came up and he would get me out of bed.”

By 1965, Heiner was employed at the Nevada Test Site full-time. The experience gained from underground testing, drilling, and mining landed him a position in Johnston Atoll, a U.S. territory located about 700 miles southwest of Hawaii. While there, he helped construct an incinerator for chemical weapons.

Heiner also spent time assisting in British nuclear weapons tests before being relocated to Area 51 “to work on whatever they wanted me to work on.” Additionally, he took part in the Yucca Mountain Project and spent time in San Francisco designing a nuclear power plant. 

In total, Heiner’s career in nuclear science spans nearly 50 years. Today, he can be found sharing his wisdom during guided tours at the Atomic Museum.

“That’s it,” he said. “I like to hang out and meet people.”

Jennifer Harris participated in a tour guided by Heiner on Oct. 8. She had little understanding of the logistics behind nuclear weapons testing prior to the tour, but was able to draw connections between new information and things she had seen before, such as Rachel, Nevada, the closest town to Area 51.

“[The Atomic Museum is] a whole mystique,” Harris said. “The connectedness of it all and how it was related to other places I’ve been to was really cool.”

Harris’ favorite aspects of the Atomic Museum were the vintage footage and timelines, specifically the ones that depicted side-by-sides of pop culture events as they developed adjacent to nuclear weaponry. 

“It was interesting to fathom what was going on in the world outside of nuclear technology,” she said.

Harris is also a first grade teacher at Berkeley Bunker Elementary School, and would eventually like to get her school involved in a field trip. The Atomic Museum offers CCSD elementary, middle, and high school tours for $6 per person. 

General admission to the Atomic Museum costs $24, and children between seven and 14 may enter for $18. Students, seniors over 62 and Nevada residents are given a discounted rate of $20 with proof of ID. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

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