Nuclear Tourist

He said…



Everyone has probably heard of this equation; but few probably understand it. In words, that equation says:

Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.

That probably didn’t help you…  So I’ll break it down a little bit more.

If you take an atom – let’s use uranium (U-235 in my career) – and cause it to split into two parts, you’d find out something kind of interesting.  The mass of the two parts is less than the mass of the original atom.  So what happened to the missing mass?  It turned into energy.

If you do this with U-235 and do it SLOWLY, you can harness the power… this is how nuclear power plants work.  Do this with a different kind of uranium (U-239) or plutonium (Pu-239) and don’t slow it down and the result is explosive… this is how nuclear weapons work.

Okay then… where the heck am I going with all this information?  Well, I am and have been what I call a “nuclear tourist.”

Let’s go back a few decades… For those that don’t know, I’m a retired submariner whose job was as a nuclear operator (I operated the nuclear power plants that drove the submarine through the water). As it turns out, my first submarine (back when the cold war was still going on) was a “boomer” – the kind of submarine that carried nuclear missiles. So, for several years, I slept within a 100 yards of large number of nuclear warheads (my “commute” to work took me an arm’s length next to these missiles).  Kinda weird thinking about it now.

Jump ahead a few years… The third submarine I worked on was a “fast attack” stationed out of Pearl Harbor.  We got to do a lot more “interesting” things and pull into a variety of ports.  One of the ports was Yokosuka, Japan.  While there a friend and I took a vacation where we visited several of the cities of that country: Tokyo, Disneyland, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

Yep, I can say… “I’ve been at ground zero at all locations where a nuclear weapon was used during war”.

It was a somber experience. The museum exhibits were scary. The parks that are now at each ground zero beautiful.

Jump ahead a couple decades… I happen to be from New Mexico, the state that many people consider the birth place of the nuclear weapon.  It was at Los Alamos where the scientists got together to develop the first atomic weapons and it was at White Sands where the first weapon was tested.  It is called the Trinity Site. Most of you probably know this story as the Manhattan Project.

Even though I lived just a few hours of this location, it’s not very convenient to visit the site.  The area is only open to visitors two days a year – the first Saturdays in April and October.

But I can say… “I’ve been to ground zero of the first three nuclear explosions.”

Pretty interesting if you’re into the historical aspect of the site – boring if you expect to see anything other than the monument that you can find anywhere on the Internet.

Within the same time period (plus or minus a few years)… I happened to find an interesting, to me, website: and learned that there were two nuclear tests performed in New Mexico under the Plowshare Program (the government’s supposed attempt at turning “swords into plows”).  So I started learning about them: Project Gnome and Project Gasbuggy.

I visited Project Gasbuggy first because it was within an hour of my hometown.  People I knew still remembered it happening.  It is within Carson National Forest.  Except for a plaque and a sign here or there… you’d never know there was an explosion underground there.

It was a couple years later that I visited Project Gnome which is down near Carlsbad Caverns.  This area is desert.  And, other than a plaque, there is no indication that a nuclear device exploded underneath our feet there.

Now I can say, “I’ve been to all ground zeroes of nuclear explosions in New Mexico.”

Once again – if you’re the nuclear tourist, it’s pretty interesting.  Other than that, boring as hell unless you like the scavenger hunt aspect of driving around looking for a plaque in the middle of the wilderness. You can see them here: Project Gnome and Project Gasbuggy.  There are also a variety of videos on Youtube concerning these projects.

Fast forward to today…  We just found out that there is actually a National Historic Park concerning the Manhattan Project. This “park” is actually in three locations.

While most people think of Los Alamos as the only location of the Manhattan Project, it is actually only one of three places.  The scientists were stationed in New Mexico… but they couldn’t do anything without the uranium or plutonium. The other two locations are Hanford, WA (made the plutonium) and Oakridge, TN (made the uranium).

The two bombs dropped on Japan were actually two different types of weapons. “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima and used the uranium from Oakridge. “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki and used the plutonium from Hanford.

Today, I will be able to say, “I’ve been to the place that made the plutonium.”

Check for pictures on Facebook later today.

In the future… I plan on making it to Los Alamos (been there before – but not to the National Historic Park) and to Oakridge.

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