The monumental power of nuclear (like in our featured image of Titan Missile Silo by Sam Howzit), whether it’s harnessed to generate electricity, or poised to deliver the ultimate force, is undeniably provocative.
Right from the outset of the atomic age the vast majority of places connected with that power have been hidden from curious eyes beneath virtually impenetrable layers of security and veils of secrecy.
In recent decades however, thanks to creeping declassification and decontamination, a number of seminal atomic sites have opened to the general public. This access has given rise to a new kind of traveller – the “Atomic tourist”, or the “Armageddon tourist”.
Atomic bomb test sites, scenes of atomic accidents, decommissioned power stations, defunct missile silos, Armageddon survival bunkers and museums dedicated to nuclear science and warfare – many in seriously remote locations – have all opened their doors to people fascinated, intoxicated even, by the awe-inspiring power of nuclear.
There are more atomic tourism sites around the world than you might imagine. First off, we look at the most interesting ones in the US, the first country in the world to harness nuclear power for the purposes of both war and peace (The Manhattan Project).
The Trinity Site – New Mexico
The world’s first atomic bomb was detonated at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range on July 16, 1945. The site is open to visitors twice a year, on the first Saturdays of April and November. You can see ground zero (marked by a small monument), a ranch house where the bomb’s plutonium core was assembled and a collection of photographs of the bomb being detonated.
Doom Town – Nevada
Since it was established in 1951, a total of 928 nuclear tests have been carried out on the Nevada Test Site (last detonation 1992). The Department of Energy is responsible for the site today and runs a tour every month. Tours typically fill up months in advance. Visitors must register on the site’s official website. The remnants of Doom Town, a realistic-looking fake town used to measure the effects of atomic weapons on live animals and buildings, is the most interesting feature (Indiana Jones barely escapes it in his most recent movie).
The Titan Missile Museum – Arizona
This is the only legally accessible former missile silo in the United States. A relic from the Cold War, it was deactivated as part of the SALT Treaty. The “Beyond the Blastdoor” Tour (run of the first and third Saturday on the month) offers a glimpse of the Titan II (decommissioned) missile, crew quarters and the launch control centre.
Hanford B Reactor – Washington
An integral part of the Manhattan Project, Hanford’s B Reactor was the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor and produced the plutonium used in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Tours show both the reactor face and the control room. Check the website for tour details.
Los Alamos – New Mexico
Los Alamos was home to the Manhattan Project, the US initiative conceived in the early part of WWII to counter the threat of the German nuclear programme. The first nuclear bomb was built here and then transported the more than 200 miles to the Trinity Site for testing in the back of a pick-up truck. The Los Alamos Historical Museum has a section dedicated to the Manhattan Project and the Bradbury Science Museum documents the activities of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History – New Mexico
This Albuquerque museum houses an intelligently curated collection of objects and paraphernalia relating to all aspects of nuclear history. The large lot in the back has a number of planes, missiles and rockets.
Enola Gay – Washington DC
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Dulles International Airport facility is home to the Enola Gay, the WWII Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic weapon on Hiroshima (Japan).
Chernobyl and Pripyat (Ukraine)
The catastrophic explosion at Chernobyl power in 1986 remains the largest nuclear accident in history (the only other classed in the same magnitude is the Fukushima disaster in 2011). According to official Soviet reports the death toll stood at 31, though the real immediate and long term effects are undoubtedly far greater.
Today, a 19-mile exclusion zone surrounds the site. Within it is the town of Pripyat, where most of the power station’s workers and their families lived. While at first disorganised and hesitant, the evacuation of Pripyat saw the relocation of 53,000 people in around three days. Many residents left hurriedly. Their homes and possessions remain all but untouched, giving Pripyat the chilling feel of a ghost town.
Though people have been sneaking into the exclusion zone for years, visits are now sanctioned via government-issued passes. The easiest way to obtain a pass is through a tour operator. Tours typically visit both Pripyat and the power station. The most comprehensive (and expensive) include viewings of the cooling towers (rare), meetings with local citizens and a visit to the cemetery where Chernobyl’s technicians are buried. It’s even possible to feed the fish living in cooling ponds in the shadow of the power station.
Hiroshima is famous for being the first ever place targeted by a nuclear bomb. The US dropped “Little Boy” on the city on August 6, 1945. An estimated 80,000 people died in the initial blast, while as many as 60,000 more succumbed to injuries and radiation by the year’s end.
The domed Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, one of the very few buildings not to be completely destroyed by the strike, has been preserved as a symbol of peace (it’s nicknamed the A-Bomb Dome). The area around the dome has been designated as The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It contains a museum and a number of monuments commemorating the people who lost their lives in the attack. Prayers for peace are held here every year on August 6th.
Bikini Atoll (Marshall Islands)
Outside Magazine described Bikini Atoll as “paradise with an asterisk“. At first glance a picture postcard perfect tropical island, this small corner of the Pacific Ocean has been, and continues to be, horrifically blighted by the 23 atmospheric (above ground) atomic bomb tests the US conducted here between 1946 and 1958.
The 15-megaton Castle Bravo test in 1954 stands as the third-biggest nuclear detonation in history and the largest ever conducted by the United States. Much more powerful than anticipated, the radioactive material it rained down on Bikini and other Marshall atolls gave rise to the term fallout.
Today, thanks to the relatively short half-life of the deadly cesium-137, and a series of concerted (though ultimately half-baked) efforts to clean-up Bikini and its neighbouring islands, radiation has fallen to tolerable levels. And by tolerable, we mean it’s safe to spend time on the island, as long as you follow safety precautions.
Bikini Atoll is by no means easy to visit, but it can be done (the local airline has been through a number of groundings). Sadly though, the diving tourism initiative setup to help the repeatedly-displaced islanders get back on their feet has closed.
The assets that led several magazines (National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveler in particular) to declare Bikini’s diving as the best in the world remain. Namely the incredible aquatic life and a group of atomic-bomb sunken wrecks, including the 880-foot USS Saratoga, the only divable aircraft carrier in the world, and the Japanese Navy flagship Nagota, from where admiral Yamamoto directed the attack on Pearl Harbor. So too do the people who ran it. Turn up, and along with a warm welcome, you may be the recipient of an invitation to check them out.
Malan Military Expo Park – under construction (China)
China is spending around $1 million converting the site of its first atomic bomb test into a visitor attraction. China’s first nuclear detonation took place in northwest Xinjiang region in 1964. Between then and 1996, when it signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the country conducted more than 40 nuclear tests at the site.
Details are sketchy, but word is visitors will be able to see a 1,000-foot tunnel built as protection from an air strike, laboratories and scientists’ quarters.
Written by insider city guide series Hg2 | A Hedonist’s guide to…