The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today

The world's nuclear powers have had a devastating impact on huge areas of our planet.
Chris Young
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The Atomic Age began in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, when the Manhattan Project carried out its first successful test detonation of a nuclear weapon. Only one month later, atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, devastating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and leading to the end of World War II.

Today, we live under the partial law of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was signed in 1996 to prevent all tests from taking place. Before that point, however, over 2,000 nuclear test detonations were made on remote islands, atolls, and desert landscapes all over the globe by different world powers.


Here are a few test sites that are usually open to the public, serving as a stark reminder of the Cold War and the fact that these places are best left abandoned.

1. Trinity, New Mexico, where it all began

The Atomic Age was born with the detonation of "The Gadget," a nuclear bomb under the codename "Trinity." The bomb was a 13-pound plutonium device that set off a 600-foot-wide fireball that decimated trees, blew out windows 120 miles (193 km) away, and turned sand into chunks of glass.

The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today
A mushroom cloud over Trinity, seconds after detonation, Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Today, a memorial obelisk stands at "Trinity Site," the point where the world's first nuclear bomb was detonated. Though the area is typically closed to the public, it opens to the public on the first Saturday of April every year.

The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today
The Trinity site memorial obelisk, Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The bomb that started the nuclear age, "The Gadget," was very similar in design to "Fat Man," the device which was detonated over Nagasaki just three weeks later.

2. The Pacific Proving Grounds

The Pacific Proving Grounds is the name given by the U.S. government to the expanse of the Pacific Ocean they assigned to nuclear tests between 1946 and 1962. Islands and atolls in the South Pacific were used in over a hundred nuclear tests by the U.S. during this time.

Though the Cold War, thankfully, never reached breaking point, several sites on these islands now stand as sobering monuments to a time when world powers were seriously considering nuclear warfare.

The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

In the 1970s, the U.S. government set out to clean the widespread radioactive debris left by many of the explosions on the Pacific Proving Grounds. A 111,000-cubic-yard hole was dug up on Runit Island in order to dump a lot of this waste.

After the cleanup operation was finished, a huge concrete dome, that is a-foot-and-a-half thick and covers 100,000 square feet, was subsequently built over the hole. Dubbed the Cactus Dome, the construction looks a bit like the 02 Arena in London but has a function more akin to Chernobyl's New Safe Confinement structure. In 2015, scientists warned that rising sea levels from climate change could cause nuclear debris from the dome to spill into the ocean.

The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today
The Cactus Dome, Runit Island, Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Also, part of the Pacific Proving Grounds, nuclear tests at Castle Bravo yielded the highest fallout levels in history. Residents of the nearby Marshall Islands have received millions in payouts from the U.S. since the tests happened.

A Japanese fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, was also affected by the fallout, causing much of the crew to grow ill — and a political settlement between Japan and the U.S. for a compensation payment of $15.3 million.

3. Semipalatinsk, the Soviet Union's main test site

A huge amount of craters, many of them partially filled with water, are evidence of the 456 nuclear tests that were carried out in the former Soviet city of Semipalatinsk between 1949 and 1989.

340 of the tests were underground detonations, while 116 were atmospheric explosions, all carried out in the region around the city that is today known as Semey, Kazakhstan.

The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today
A crater made by a nuclear test blast at Semipalatinsk, Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Unlike the U.S.' Pacific Proving Grounds, Semipalatinsk was located relatively close to major settlements. In fact, Semipalatinsk has a horrific legacy due to the way that the Soviet Union conducted the nuclear tests without warning the 200,000 residents of the Semipalatinsk area.

Scientists have since linked higher rates of cancer in the area, and over a million health problem diagnoses, to the nuclear fallout from the tests. The anti-nuclear movement in Kazakhstan was a direct reaction to these nuclear tests. It was formed in 1989 by author Olzhas Suleimenov, and it led to the closure of Semipalatinsk in 1991.

4. Tsar Bomba, the world's largest atomic explosion

At the very remote location of Novaya Zemlya, the Soviet Union set off the world's largest nuclear explosion, known as Tsar Bomba, in 1961. The area was designated as a nuclear test site in 1954, and over the following 35 years, it saw 224 nuclear tests take place.

The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today
The Tsar Bomba mushroom cloud, Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The Tsar Bomba's fireball was about 5 miles (8km) wide and reached an altitude of 6.5 miles (10.5km), meaning it reached the same height as the Tu-95 bomber aircraft that deployed it. The zone of total destruction was 22 miles (35 km), meaning it would be perfectly capable of devastating entire cities.

5. The Nevada National Security Site

Readers will likely remember having seen footage at some point in their lives of the ideal American family, in replica dressed-up mannequin form, being pulverized by a test nuclear blast in the Nevada desert. During several nuclear tests starting in 1955, the moment was televised in newsreels worldwide and has been re-enacted in various films, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Amongst the tests carried out at the Nevada Test Site, today known as the Nevada National Security Site, were 14 nuclear test explosions known as "Operation Teapot."

The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today
A model two-story house constructed for the Apple-2 nuclear test, Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

It was during this operation that houses such as the one in the image above were built at different distances from nuclear blasts in order to test how the structures would handle the explosions. The makeshift homes are largely referred to, rather morbidly, as Doom Town. 

During the 1950s, seismic effects from the blasts could be felt in the city of Las Vegas, which was 65 miles (105 km) away. Mushroom clouds, which could also be seen from the city, became a crowd-drawing tourist attraction.

6. Kiritimati Island tests by the world's third nuclear power

Though the U.S. and the Soviet Union will go down in history, or infamy, as the biggest players in the Atomic Age, the third world power when it comes to a historical nuclear arsenal, is the United Kingdom — and it also has a devastating legacy of its own.

The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

In May 1957, the United Kingdom conducted its first successful hydrogen bomb test at Malden Island. It was the first of several tests that were carried out on Malden Island and on Kiritimati (Christmas) Island by the U.K and U.S. forces. By 1969, tests ad ceased, but the effects are still felt today.

As recently as 2015, Kiribati's permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Makurita Baaro, stated that “today, our communities still suffer from the long-term impacts of the tests, experiencing higher rates of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer, due to exposure to radiation.”

7. Lop Nur, China's test site

The first Chinese nuclear bomb test took place at Lop Nur in 1964 and was codenamed "596." The People's Republic of China followed this with its first detonation of a hydrogen bomb on 17 June, 1967. With an area covering 100,000 square kilometers, Lop Nur is the world's largest nuclear test site, by a factor of almost twenty.

Between 1964 and 1996, 45 nuclear tests were conducted. As in many other parts of the world, the tests carried out at the site were met with criticism from locals as well as from a global audience. 

The Birth of the Atomic Age: 7 Nuclear Test Sites Abandoned Today
The mushroom cloud of test "596," Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

In 2009, a Japanese scientist called Jun Takada, who opposed the tests and called them the "devil's conduct," ran a computer simulation that estimated that 190,000 people might have died in China from nuclear-related illnesses caused by the tests.

On 29 July, 1996, China carried out its 45th and final nuclear test at Lop Nor, after which it announced it was to cease all nuclear testing.

Today, thanks to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, we live in a world where nations have largely ceased test weapons that are capable of wiping out entire populations, and whose very testing can lead to devastating consequences for large communities.

Though many countries follow the conduct set out by the treaty, it is not yet fully enforced. That is because China, Egypt, Iran, and the U.S. have signed but not ratified the treaty, while India, North Korea, and Pakistan have not signed it.

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