Atomic Tourism in Las Vegas

Kiana Pancino
March 5, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2019


Fig. 1: Photograph of Yucca Flat, covered with craters created by atomic bombs, in the Nevada Test Site. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Las Vegas is notoriously known for its bright lights and exciting nightlife, however, in the 1950s it became known for a different kind of light. In 1951, the Nevada Testing Site became the location for atomic bomb testing, located just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The Yucca Flats of Nevada were located in the center of the American wasteland, making it the perfect place for nuclear testing. First off by being located in the middle of the desert, it created very little threats to surrounding homes. Additionally, it provided a source of spectacles and entertainment for people who did live in this area. [1] As a result, Vegas began to experience a new influx of people from across the country who would travel thousands of miles in order to catch a glimpse of this new show. Soon after Vegas was transformed from the original city of 25,000 people to the world-renown spectacle of three million people. [2] Journalists everywhere began jumping on this new exciting event, and the topic of atomic tourism became the biggest headliner everywhere. Even writers in the New York Times began referring to it as, "the non- ancient but none the less honorable pastime of atom-bomb watching." [1]

Tourist Attraction

Despite nuke testing occurring in multiple other places during this time, Vegas was the only one to turn it into an attraction. Inherently speaking, Vegas was designed for showmanship. Visitors are encouraged to live in the moment and focus on what is in front of them, by masking the individual from all reminders of time and location. Their motto: pay attention to what is in front of you. Therefore by taking advantage of this concept and its psychological effect, landowners and industry owners began turning these tests into spectacles of themselves. Organizations began hosting parties and picnics around the publicized atomic bomb testing schedule, and photos of these events began circulating across news sources everywhere. [1] However, in addition to these parties, Vegas also capitalized on the nuclear tests by providing itself as a source of relief and nostalgia from the surrounding terror. Gambling, games, and television were all sources of distraction that provided Vegas guests with an escape from the fear that was surrounding them. [3] Nowadays, the instead of watching explosions go off at the Nevada Testing Site, the main source of atomic tourism stems from the Atomic Testing Museum that opened in 2005. In addition to walking through recreations of old testing sites and bomb shelters, visitors may also take bus tours to the testing site itself. [2]

Nevada Testing Site

As mentioned earlier, both Vegas itself and the Yucca Flats of the Nevada Testing Site were turned into tourist attractions of various sorts. However, the main spectacle of the site to date are the large craters currently scarring the desert surface, as seen in Fig. 1 . The desert floor is sprinkled with craters of all shapes and sizes, ranging from nuclear warheads to smaller surface level bombs. One of the more popular craters is Bilby crater, which was created in 1963 by a underground test. Producing about 249 kilotons of explosive power, the blast created a hole that was 1,800 feet wide and 80 feet deep and also resulted in an aftershock that was felt all the way in Vegas itself. Sedan crater is also popular due to its large size. Sitting at about 1280 feet wide and 230 feet deep, a 104 kiloton blast right beneath the surface of the desert floor produced this crater. The effects compared to that of a 4.75 earthquake, and moved about 12 million tons of Earth in its passing.


While the 1950s was one of the most exciting decades for Vegas in terms of helping it to become the tourist destination that it is today, it was also one of the most frightening. Until the tests ended, Vegas functioned not only as a place for an escape from the struggles of everyday life, but also from the daily fear that people across the nation were living in. So while this may be one of the darker times of its history, it was also one of its brightest.

© Kiana Pancino. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] P.B. Hales,"The Atomic Sublime," Am. Stud. 32, 5 (1991).

[2] N. Hodge and S. Weinberger, A Nuclear Family Vacation (Bloomsbury USA, 2011).

[3] K. Borchard, "Las Vegas Mon Amour," Cult. Stud. Crit. Methodol. 7, 74 (2007).