The history of nuclear security in the United States is told at museums across the country. New Mexico, Nevada, and South Carolina have played a vital role in the U.S. nuclear weapons program since its early days.
Los Alamos, New Mexico
An old ice house on the bank of a pond across from the Manhattan Project’s makeshift dining facility became the first nuclear museum in 1954. Norris Bradbury, director at the time, approved a museum for the laboratory to house historical weapons-research artifacts. The ice house was a perfect first location because it had a vault door suitable for enclosing the classified exhibits.
In 1963, the Bradbury Museum moved some unclassified exhibits to an open area and invited members of the public to learn about the weapon programs and other research projects. The museum attracted 14,000 visitors in its first year.
Today, the museum resides in the heart of downtown Los Alamos and educates more than 80,000 visitors from around the world with over 60 interactive exhibits. The laboratory recently released an app to virtually experience the Manhattan Project campus.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
In June of 1945, the Manhattan Engineer District had begun looking for a new home for nuclear weapon engineering activities, especially field testing and weapon assembly operations. Los Alamos was crowded and suffered periodic water and other utility shortages. In addition, materials and equipment had to be trucked to and from the airfield in Albuquerque or the rail depot in Lamy. The airfield in Wendover, Utah, which served as the headquarters of the 509th Composite Group, responsible for testing weapon shapes and training for weapon drops, was too far from Los Alamos to be convenient. Instead, a site adjacent to Kirtland Field, near Albuquerque, was chosen.
This decision made Kirtland Air Force Base and adjacent Albuquerque central to the development of nuclear weapons. The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History was originally opened on Kirtland Air Force Base to tell the story of the base and the groundbreaking technological development happening there.
The museum, now located in southeast Albuquerque, features a historical look at the Manhattan Project along with an outdoor park full of larger items on exhibit, including planes, rockets, and missiles. The exhibits also show how nuclear science has contributed – and still does – to additional innovations in technology. The museum is still the nation’s only congressionally chartered museum in its field and is a Smithsonian Affiliate accredited through the American Alliance of Museums.
Aiken, South Carolina
In 1949, President Harry Truman ordered creation of a facility to produce nuclear materials to keep up with need to meet the international challenges arising within the Cold War. Ground was broken in February 1951 for what would become the Savannah River Site (SRS) to fulfil the need.
SRS’s history is rich with accomplishments including leading advancements in the production of tritium, plutonium, and other isotopes used in national defense, research, and medical applications. SRS also discovered the neutrino in a Nobel Prize-winning experiment.
In 2014, SRS joined a list that includes structures like the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower when it was officially named a historical landmark for its prominent role in the discovery, development, and growth of metals, metalworking. and engineered materials.
The Savannah River Site Museum and Heritage Foundation officially opened to the public in April 2017 to showcase the history and accomplishments of the Savannah River Site.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Near the bright lights and lucky nights of Las Vegas, scientists and national security experts took bets on experiments of even brighter and bigger proportions. After the first nuclear test at the Trinity Site in New Mexico, the United States progressed quickly in its nuclear weapons experimentation and developed a greater need for a test site.
The Atomic Energy Commission in 1950 concluded that the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range in Nevada would serve the purpose. President Harry Truman authorized a 680-square mile section of the Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range in Southern Nevada as the Nevada Proving Grounds. Today, the site serves stockpile stewardship and many other national security purposes as the Nevada National Security Site.
Visitors to the Sagebrush State can learn all about the nuclear history of its desert nuclear testing site at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. The museum operated by the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation is recognized by Congress as the official atomic testing museum of the United States.