Area 51 Nuclear Testing

Christian McCaffrey
March 6, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Location of Area 51. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During World War II, there was an intense arms race occurring, meaning developments in weaponry were happening by the minute. It is said that the United Sates developed the first nuclear weapon during the arms race. There are many speculations and conspiracies as to when the creation was actually made, but to our knowledge, it was not until the 1950s where it all started. The project to create the first nuclear weapon was called the Manhattan Project and was created by the U.S. with the help of the United Kingdom and also Canada. Once created, they needed a space to test it. This space needed to be controlled, and far away from anything that could potentially be harmed. Because of this, they chose to put it in Area 51, a 368,000-acre sheet of land in Nevada (See Fig. 1).


While many might think that there role is simply to test weapons, it actually does much more. According to the United States Department of Energy, the mission of the Area-51 test site is "maintaining nuclear agency response capability, applying environmental restoration techniques to areas affected by nuclear testing, managing low-level and mixed radioactive waste, investigating demilitarization technologies, investigating counter-proliferation technologies, supporting work-for-others programs and special Department of Defense activities, operating a hazardous materials spill test center, and providing for the commercial development of the site". [1]


As one could imagine, a nuclear weapon can have definite effects on its surrounding. According to Lora Shields and Phillip Wells, in their report, Effects of Nuclear Testing on Desert Vegetation, "detonation of fission-type nuclear devices results in an inner circle of complete denudation of desert shrub vegetation." [2] This is due to mechanical and thermal effects. There are also many effects on chemicals in the water, climate, and even animals. [3]

© Christian McCaffrey. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Waste Generation and Pollution Prevention Progress Fact Sheet: Nevada Test Site," U.S. Department of Energy, 16 Sep 96.

[2] L. M. Shields and P. V. Wells, "Effects of Nuclear Testing on Desert Vegetation," 135, 38 (1962).

[3] "Nevada Test Site Environmental Report 2003," U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, DOE/NV/11718-971, October 2004.