We were being shown around the Nevada Test Site in a Department of Energy van. DOE had agreed to give a tour to the planners of the Lenten Desert Experience. Sponsored by the Franciscans, these 40 days of prayer and reflection brought together a diverse collection of people from all over the country to establish a presence for peace in the middle of the desert, at the place where the United States government tests its nuclear weapons. I was able to join this Lenten vigil for a few days during Holy Week.
The Nevada Test Site, at which nuclear tests have been conducted since 1951, is 1,350 square miles of absolutely barren desert, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. Five thousand people work on the site, many of them from the west side of Las Vegas, a poor and tough ghetto where I stayed at night. It is the underside of the glitter of the famous Las Vegas strip.
The Franciscans who work in this black community say the people are afraid of radiation contamination from working on the site but need the work. Every morning, as early as 5:00 a.m., they board buses that make the long trip into the desert, at least 65 miles north of Las Vegas.
The Nevada Test Site is even more stark from the inside than the desert itself. One crater from a 1962 100-kiloton blast is 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet, wide. In an area of the test site called Yucca Flats, more than 100 craters are visible and appear as ugly scars across the desert floor.
"Survival Town" was a model town built to test the effects of nuclear explosions. In one test houses up to three miles away from the epicenter of a 29-kiloton bomb were utterly destroyed. Two charred houses remain standing now. The DOE public relations officer, as if to reassure us, said, "I've been inside those houses. They're a little scarred, but not bad."