Earlier this month, I had the distinct privilege of taking a tour of the top-secret Nevada Test Site. Since this facility borders Area 51, I thought some of your readers might be interested in my experience.--
On the morning of the tour, we met at the Atomic Testing Museum, which is in Las Vegas a few blocks north of the Hard Rock Hotel. We were all issued visitor's badges and given a security brief about the trip. Security was emphasized and we were not allowed to bring anything on the site except for a sack lunch. After the brief we boarded a chartered motor coach from Vegas and drove to Mercury, NV which is the front gate of the facility. During the drive to the site, I was amazed at the perfection of the site location. Much like Area 51, the entire facility is ringed by high ridges, which makes entry difficult, and security a breeze.
The test site is the size of Rode Island and contains everything from low-level waste storage to directed energy weapons. Once we cleared through security we drove onto the Mercury Base Camp. Our tour guide was a contractor for the Department of Energy and had to check in with "Bird dog" operations and monitor them on the radio. "Bird Dog" was the callsign of base security and we were told that we were being monitored all day. I thought it was interesting that despite our guide being a public affairs specialist; she had a "Q" clearance. Once on the base camp we stopped at the cafeteria for a break. We all had a good chuckle over the fact that they have a "Steakhouse and Pub" in the cafeteria building. Of course, there were many jokes about them using cattle raised "on-site" at the restaurant. From the cafeteria, we drove over a high ridge, past old viewing stands and down onto Frenchman Flats. (As we descended the ridge, a Janet flight flew directly over us, southbound to Vegas out of Area 51) The Flats are the location of all the airburst explosions that you have seen on TV. There we drove past the remains of bunkers, railroad bridges, houses, hotels and other objects that were built to study the effects of the blast wave on them. Some of the structures were heavily damaged, while some were still largely intact. Security was very tight and we had to check in with another post before driving out onto the lakebed.
From there we drove out to the waste storage area where all of the Department of Energy's low-level waste is sent. Tons and tons of "hot" steel drums and shipping containers dotted the landscape. All were separated by contents and placed in various pits to be covered with a protective layer of earth. There was also an above ground storage tent, which contained more waste waiting to be buried. They described the Yucca Mountain project and talked about the high-level waste that would eventually be sent there.
Then we drove past the main weapons assembly building, over another ridge and into the valley where the below ground tests were conducted. The assembly building was a strange barbell shaped building, and it was very evident that the majority of the structure was below ground; another direct similarity to Area 51.
In regards to the below ground tests, several of them were abandoned in the early '90's due to the moratorium on nuclear testing. These sites were literally still ready to go, with all the support equipment, towers and cables littering the desert floor. It was amazing to see the logistics that went into a minutes' worth of explosion. We drove past, and down into, several of the "subsidence" craters; that is: the depressions in the ground that formed when the void created by the nuclear device collapsed on itself.
Finally, we drove up to the Sedan Crater. As we drove up the access road, a Blackhawk helicopter flew up from the south along the border with Area 51, and then dropped over the ridge into the groom lake airspace. The Sedan Crater is right on the border of Area 51 and I could see Bald Mountain in the distance. The nuclear device here was used under Operation Plowshare, which was to study the peaceful uses of nuclear weapons. The device was buried 640' below the ground and when detonated, created a crater roughly the size of the meteor crater in Winslow, AZ. We were allowed to walk right up to the edge and take in the sight. Even after 40 years, the power involved was staggering. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take anything out on the site, so I was not able to get any pictures. Truly an amazing day, I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the cold war weapons era, or Area 51. Being able to enter a top-secret area and be that close to Groom Lake was a thrill that will last a lifetime.