Nuclear tourism: travels in the shadow of the atomic bomb via Telegraph

Sixty years ago, Las Vegas hosted parties in celebration of atomic explosions. These days, ‘nuclear tourism’, while still possible, is far more serious, says Chris Leadbeater


On February 18 1955, at 11:59:59am, local time, the US government launched Operation Teapot, the latest of its experimental nuclear programmes on the sands of the closely guarded Nevada Test Site.

Wasp, the device at the heart of the show, was a tubby item, 1.5 metres in diameter, 3.25 metres long – a Mark 6 atom bomb that bore similarities to (while being an upgrade on) the Mark 3 ‘Fat Man’ which had been dropped onto the Japanese city of Nagasaki ten years earlier. Its mushroom cloud was visible for 100 miles – and the state’s biggest city watched in awe.

Such was the naivety of the era. A generation of Americans, flushed in the afterglow of victory over Germany and Japan in 1945, but wary of the increasingly chill context of the Cold War and the iciness of relations with the Soviet Union, were suddenly in thrall to their nation’s status as one of the planet’s nuclear powers. And Uncle Sam was happy to demonstrate his new muscle, pulling deadly shapes for a pleased and patriotic audience.

Nowhere was this more the case than in Las Vegas, where explosions became cultural phenomena and reasons for parties. Hotels like the Desert Inn and Binion’s Horseshoe, which faced north towards the test site, were among the most enthusiastic embracers of the idea – assisted by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, which printed calendars with upcoming detonation times.

Between January 1951, when the Nevada Test Site was established, and October 1963 – when, in the shocked retreat from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibited nuclear tests above ground – the city was a regular and willing witness to the dark events that played out on and above its doorstep.

Las Vegas’s acceptance of the shadow of Armageddon went as far as glamour pageantry.

Four searches were held – in 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1957 – for ‘Miss Atomic’, a beauty queen who could represent these ground-breaking hours. Most famously, Lee Merlin was crowned ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ in 1957.


National Atomic Testing Museum (USA)

This fascinating institution in Las Vegas looks at the era of above-ground explosions at the Nevada Test Site with a rather more critical eye than those Fifties ‘bomb parties’.

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