COMPUTERS ARE BAD is a newsletter semi-regularly issued directly to your doorstep to enlighten you as to the ways that computers are bad and the many reasons why. While I am not one to stay on topic, the gist of the newsletter is computer history, computer security, and "constructive" technology criticism.
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Lunch at the Nevada National Security Site is a strange experience of its own.
Our coach dropped us off at the Bistro, a second, smaller cafeteria located
further into the site and thus more conveniently to many of the workers in the
field. The chef of this small operation, who was equipped with quite a bit of
personality, made an admirable effort to keep up with the rush of tour guests
but we still had to wait for some time. This allowed the opportunity to take in
the posters, one of which advised that cash would soon no longer be accepted...
starting 2018. There was plentiful evidence that the workplace posters of the
NNSS enjoy far longer lives than anyone anticipated.
Our guide took us to eat in a nearby conference room. One long wall of the room
was covered in butcher paper and delineated into sections, with printed pages
(apparently work orders) pinned up in the various columns. Kanban, originally a
method of scheduling manufacturing operations, has found wide adoption in
federal contracting. Whether this is attributable to its efficacy or to the
needs of the defense industry's large contingent of Agile consultants is
After lunch, we re-boarded our coach to head back out into the range. Along the
way, our guide pointed out the yard where drilling equipment was stored, ready
to be put back to use if the order ever came. There was a reprisal here of an
interesting point our guide had mentioned previously: in his opinion, at least,
the methods used to drill the large, straight boreholes used for the tests had
been largely lost to history.
This is something of a recurring theme with nuclear weapons, and one of the
more troubling challenges to stockpile stewardship. Some readers may be
familiar with the widely reported case of FOGBANK. FOGBANK is a classified
material used for a classified (although disclosed by a previous Undersecretary
of Energy) purpose in several nuclear weapons. Originally manufactured in the
'70s and '80s, FOGBANK had become more of a secret than ever intended by the
time a need arose to produce more, in the '00s. Little documentation had been
kept on the manufacturing process, the facility had been decommissioned, and few
people involved in the '70s were still around. It took nearly a decade and over
$100 million to reverse-engineer the process that the same organization had run
successfully less than 50 years before.
The deeper context of FOGBANK provides a good example of the challenges of
stockpile stewardship. FOGBANK is a component of the W76 nuclear warhead, in
use to this day on the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
The W76 was designed at Los Alamos and manufactured across various facilities
from '78 to '87. The W76 was originally designed, though, for the Trident I,
and the Trident II was to carry its successor, the W88.
Because of the abrupt shutdown of the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, where
plutonium pits were manufactured, the W88 project was effectively canceled
very early in its production run. The rapid and unexpected shutdown of Rocky
Flats has had a pervasive impact on the modern state of the stockpile, as it
was one of the most sophisticated facilities for manufacturing with special
nuclear material and had been the planned site of several different major
manufacturing runs. This, of course, raises the question of why exactly
Rocky Flats abruptly closed its doors in the early '90s. The answer is one of
the foremost embarrassments of the weapons program, and a story that (almost
certainly intentionally) is not widely known.
To make a long story short (the Rocky Flats saga could easily make up multiple
posts on its own), Rocky Flats was plagued throughout the '80s by extensive
complaints and demonstrations related to the plant's environmental impact and
alleged releases of contamination. These might have been dismissed as typical
objections to a weapons facility near a major city and Denver in particular.
Certainly most other similar facilities had also been the site of such
demonstrations. Something was different at Rocky Flats, though, and the root of
that difference was the 1980 passage of CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental
Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.
Some readers may know that besides Cold War history, the history of CERCLA and
broader efforts to address environmental contamination is one of my key
interests. CERCLA is a landmark piece of legislation, spurred by incidents like
the Valley of the Drums (a massive, unmanaged open chemical dump in Kentucky)
and broadly increasing public concern about environmental contamination. CERCLA
is expansive, but is best known for creating the National Priorities List or
NPL, more often referred to as the Superfund program. More generally, CERCLA
established in federal law an important basic principle: that organizations
which cause environmental contamination are liable to remediate it, and that
the federal government is empowered to force them to do so.
And so, unlike the nuclear protests on environmental grounds of the '60s and
'70s, the issue of Rocky Flats became a series of complaints to federal
regulators. Contrary to the insistence of the Department of Energy and Rocky
Flats operating contractor Rockwell, regulators found these complaints quite
On June 6, 1989, the FBI arranged a meeting at Rocky Flats to discuss a threat
of terrorism against the plant. The threat wasn't real, or at least it wasn't a
threat of terrorism. It was a search warrant. Following this unprecedented raid
on a nuclear weapons facility by federal law enforcement, a long and fraught
series of proceedings lead to criminal and civil fines against Rockwell and
drafted indictments against both Rockwell and Department of Energy officials.
A grand jury alleged pervasive, systematic practices of violating the plant's
EPA and state environmental permits and then covering it up. Although Rockwell
did pay the largest fine ever at the time for environmental contamination, the
criminal proceedings were ultimately dropped as a result of a settlement
agreement. This settlement agreement remains controversial to this day, with
many alleging that the Department of Energy's cover-up effort extended into the
Department of Justice, which agreed to "quietly resolve" the scandal and seal
the court proceedings. Although substantial documents including the Grand
Jury's report were leaked to Westword (one of my favorite papers), large
portions of the Rocky Flats scandal remain sealed to this day.
As a result of the Rocky Flats raid, the DoE replaced Rockwell with EG&G and
launched a massive environmental remediation program at the site. Despite DoE's
defensive reaction to the federal (and later congressional) investigation, the
environmental problems at Rocky Flats were at the time already known to be
incredibly, almost intractably, severe. The writing was on the wall for Rocky
Flats, and in '92 the W88 program was canceled and shutdown of the Rocky Flats
plant began. Both cleanup efforts and lawsuits continue today, but most of the
Rocky Flats site is now Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the
cleanup is completed, although often under modified, more relaxed requirements
under the agreement that the site will remain under federal management and
With the W88 canceled just about as soon as production began, something
needed to be placed on top of the Trident II, and that was the already thirty-
year-old W76. No serious efforts were made to replace the W76 after the
embarrassing failure of the W88 program, and so in 2000 a Lifetime Extension
Program was initiated to refurbish the aging W76s. This program was delayed for
years by the inability to reproduce FOGBANK. The program eventually designed
the "W76 Mod 1," essentially a "minor revision" of the design, and original
W76s were modified to the Mod 1 design. Starting in 2019, some W76 Mod 1s were
further converted to a Mod 2 design.
The W76 is now solidly 50 years old, and we are still tinkering with them to
both keep them working and modernize them with current fuzing and firing
systems. To a very real extent, the nuclear weapons complex created this
problem for itself through its long-running lack of concern for environmental
stewardship and frequent inability to play well with other federal government
priorities. The maintenance and modernization weapons is made slow and
expensive by the steady atrophy of expertise and experience in the weapons
program, resulting from the "boom and bust" nature of nuclear weapons where the
program tends to alternate between full tilt and near dormancy depending on the
And throughout all of these problems is the pervasive issue of secrecy. The
weapons program is widely accused of actively avoiding oversight. It operates
under such secrecy that it's difficult to tell where this accusation has merit,
although it's hard to imagine there are many places where it doesn't have at
This is all a wide tangent from the NNSS, but it's the kind of thing you think
about as you watch miles of mostly undistinguished desert go by. It was a bit of
a drive to our next destination, the Sedan crater.
The Sedan crater is probably one of the best-known artifacts at the NNSS. It is
certainly the most visually striking. Sedan is one of several experiments from
the short-lived Plowshares program, which aimed to find peaceful civilian uses
for nuclear weapons. While many of the more practical-seeming civilian uses of
nuclear weapons were evaluated under other programs (e.g. nuclear rocket
propulsion), the Plowshares project focused mostly on uses of a civil
engineering nature. Major Plowshares efforts included excavation, blasting
of mountain passes for road construction, and oil and gas stimulation.
The Sedan crater at the NNSS is the result of an experiment in excavation by
nuclear weapons. A nuclear device was buried at a depth that was calculated to
produce the largest possible crater, and then detonated. The 104 KT device
moved 12 million tons of earth, creating a 320 foot deep crater measuring 1,280
feet from ridge to ridge. These numbers do not quite convey the size of the
crater, which rises abruptly from the level desert and feels from the edge like
its own small world. A viewpoint has been erected at a low spot in the crater
ridge, and so from the platform the ridge blocks the view out of the crater.
The resulting effect is very much like the alien planets of Star Trek, seeming
both like a pedestrian bit of California desert and like nothing here on Earth.
By the viewing platform is a metal frame that was once used to winch a wheeled
"moon buggy" down into the bottom of the crater, where workers drilled an
exploratory hole to collect soil samples. The bottom of the crater shows a few
remains of this drilling operation but mostly old tires, which our guide
assumes are the result of occasional bored workers trying to get them to roll
the whole way down. Radiation levels at the crater are quite low at this point,
although travel to the bottom of the crater is not permitted for safety
The Plowshares project was not particularly successful or well-received by the
public, for all the reasons you would think. The Sedan test did involve the
release of an appreciable amount of radioactive contamination, and it would
have been unwise to use the site for some time after. Plowshares-like efforts
to both excavate and stimulate oil and gas production were more successful in
the Soviet Union, but the USSR suffered a correspondingly higher number of
serious accidents and some of the resulting contamination still poses a danger
As we left the Sedan crater, we went from the (attempted) civilian use of
nuclear weapons to their impacts on civilians in wartime: the Apple-2 site.
Most readers have probably seen the films of anonymous suburban houses
decimated by nuclear shockwaves. These well-known newsreels and propaganda
films come from a series of atmospheric nuclear detonations at the NNSS that
evaluated the survivability of civilian infrastructure. For the most part these
civilian infrastructure tests were a secondary purpose of the detonations,
which were primarily designed to accommodate military survivability tests out of
Desert Rock. Apple-2 was one such test: it was prepared mostly to test methods
of protecting military records from nuclear attack. As a secondary purpose, a
set of structures were built using different construction methods. Somewhat
like the mythical three little pigs (down to involving houses of wood and
brick, although no house of straw is evident), the different construction
methods were expected to produce a direct comparison of how well common
structures could be hardened against nuclear attack.
Some of the Apple-2 structures were destroyed entirely, but two of the houses
survive to this day, and we visited one of them. The two-story wood house
loomed over us in a dramatic state of decay. While it had survived the blast
largely intact, a decision has been made not to actively maintain it despite
its historic value---in part to maintain its historic integrity. The heat of
the blast burned away most of the paint, and the years have removed the rest.
Entry into the house is no longer permitted as its structural integrity has
become suspect. Almost no indications of the house's original domestic
appearance remain, except a set of sculptural iron details that quite
conspicuously remain near the second floor windows. Our guide thinks they were
latches for storm shutters, although it's hard to tell now.
At the time of the blast the house was fitted with furniture and mannequins,
mostly for the purposes of the film that was made of the test. It was also
fitted with instruments: pressure and temperature sensors were placed
throughout the structure, and today the experimental nature of the house is
illustrated by the coaxial cables and hoses that hang out of the walls and
ceilings. Near the house some remains of metal posts can be seen, the mounts
for the film cameras used during the test. And some distance away, across a
road that is unfortunately in too poor of condition for our coach, is the brick
house in a similar state of disrepair.
Tests of this type were extensively conducted during the atmospheric testing
era. Everything from subdivision houses to electrical substations and telephone
lines were constructed in the NNSS to see how they'd hold up to the next test.
The resulting information was important in the development of civil defense
administration plans, but the idea of hardening residential construction
against nuclear attack (for example by the use of 2x6 studs instead of 2x4 and
other framing techniques) never really caught on. It wasn't entirely a bad
idea, the improved construction techniques really do work. But they also add
cost, and the Cold War hysteria of the '60s just didn't persist long enough
to see nuclear hardening as a common real estate selling point.
The Apple-2 houses might be the tour stop that has the strongest relationship
to the public perception of nuclear testing. The very house we walked around is
depicted in the film "Operation Cue," a fairly well known piece of Cold War
nostalgia. Yet, to be honest, it's not all that interesting to me. I am more
fascinated by the two concrete-framed but open towers nearby, maybe six stories
tall. Our guide tells me that they were built long after the Apple 2 test as
part of a research project into earthquake-resistant construction. They wanted
to build full-scale structures that could be repeatedly subjected to
earthquakes, and no place could offer "earthquakes on demand" like the NNSS
during active underground testing.
Leaving the Apple-2 houses, we pass the T-1 Training Area. This unique facility
offers training courses to first responders on radiological detection
equipment. These course are made more engaging by the location: ground zero of
an atmospheric test. First responders practice handling various radiological
emergencies ranging from terrorist attacks to transportation accidents in the
background radiation environment of a real nuclear detonation.
To support these training programs, a whimsical array of scenarios are found
improbably close together in the barren desert. A derailed train, a crashed
airplane, and an abandoned mine are all reconstructed in the space of a few
acres. Our guide points out the footings of the original test tower, and tells
an anecdote about a satellite imagery enthusiast having once reported their
plane crash as a real emergency. This is quite improbable, he points out,
because the various broken apart sections of the plane don't even belong to the
same model of aircraft. Similarly the derailed boxcars have somehow neatly lost
their trucks, and the urban environment is oddly heavy on stacked sea
containers. There are affordances to the budget.
Still, this is probably the most complete and realistic radiological emergency
training facility available anywhere and the NNSS advertises that over 120,000
people, mostly firefighters, have visited the site since it began operation in
Emergency response to radiological emergencies is a tricky issue, because the
actual scenarios happen quite rarely. We were told that the Department of
Energy had been involved in the distribution of a huge amount of radiation
survey equipment to fire departments after the Oklahoma City bombing. Shortly
after, it was found that most departments had put the boxes they received in a
closet and forgotten about them. No one knew how to actually conduct a
radiation survey, and so there was little interest in fielding Geiger-Muller
counters. The T-1 training complex is one of several facilities the DoE now
operates to offer practical experience in locating and assessing radioactive
contamination, and this type of training has become much more common for
emergency departments nationwide.
On the topic of nuclear counter-terrorism, we also pass by the Radiological
Countermeasures Test and Evaluation Complex. At this facility once operated by
the Department of Homeland Security, a variety of radiation sources are
available to test detection methods used to prevent nuclear terrorism. As a key
example, the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal or ASP system installed at land
border crossings was tested for its ability to detect cat litter (naturally
slightly radioactive due to its mineral content) in semi-trailers. The main
goal of this operation was to determine whether or not the ASP actually lived
up to its manufacturer's claims for sensitivity.
Of course, our guide notes, the facility was defunded by congress not long
after opening and so has been in a mothballed state for some time. One of the
key values of American politics is the inability to commit to any program that
will independently validate the claims of defense contractors.
As the end of our tour approaches, we head towards Frenchman Flat itself.
Frenchman Flat is a large dry lake bed that hosted the first generation of
tests at the NNSS. Because it is large, flat, and quite remote, it is
attractive for many different types of dangerous or secret tests, and so it is
is littered with the remains of many generations of projects.
As we drive onto the flat, our guide points out a number of items in quick
succession. Footings of a tower that supported the device for an atmospheric
test. A bank vault, installed by its manufacturer to validate their claim that
it could survive a nuclear attack. A concrete-frame building with no walls on
one side referred to as the hotel, built to test how different types of
building wall systems (installed on the open side) would hold up to nuclear
One of the more grim aspects of the nuclear weapons program can be seen here:
animal testing. Our modern understanding of the effects of radiation on living
things (and thus of radiation safety) comes largely from animal testing
performed under the auspices of the Department of Energy. At the "EPA Farm" in
the NNSS, cows, horses, pigs, goats, and chickens were all dosed with
radiological material to monitor uptake and resulting injury. In Frenchman
Flat, there are the remains of pens and cages where farm animals were subjected
directly to nuclear detonations.
Some of the cages once held pigs with their eyes sewn open. The eyes of these
pigs were later dissected to determine how the initial flash damaged their
eyes, and how susceptible humans were to the same blinding. Other pigs were
dressed up in various types of clothing and subjected to blasts, to compare how
natural and synthetic fabrics affected flash burns.
Animals were not the only form of life that met their dramatic end in Frenchman
Flat. At one time, a small forest of Ponderosa Pines was installed in the flat
and then destroyed. Modular steel buildings, railroad trusses, metal cylinders,
and prototype fallout shelters were all built in Frenchman Flat and many of
them survive (in heavily damaged form) to this day.
After the end of atmospheric testing, Frenchman Flat lost much of its utility
since surface structures could no longer be directly tested. Instead, a new use
was found for the flat: the hazmat spill center. A tank farm was built on the
flat to store a variety of dangerous chemicals, and those chemicals can be
pumped through a series of pipes to spill out into the open desert. The
facility is used to test cleanup and containment methods and protective
equipment for hazmat responders. A good portion of the modern methods for
management of chlorine spills, for example, were developed or verified here. A
wind tunnel and other controlled-environment facilities allow for more complex
tests on dispersion behavior. This facility is still in operation today,
although it has been renamed the Nonproliferation Test and Evaluation Complex
and focuses more and more on counter-terrorism testing.
Frenchman Flat is the last real stop on our tour, and so we head from there
back to Mercury and then on to Las Vegas. On the drive from the flat to
Mercury, though, our guide points out the collapsed remains of Gravel Gerties.
Named after a Dick Tracey character, these structures were designed at Sandia
in the '50s to address a difficult but critical problem: how to safely assemble
and disassemble nuclear weapons, when the high explosive material and nuclear
material were in close proximity. Even though a weapon should never produce a
nuclear yield unless properly triggered, there is a great quantity of high
explosive in a nuclear weapon and any accidental detonation would scatter the
accompanying nuclear material over a wide area.
This was a big problem at the time. In the early days of nuclear weapons, they
were stored near Air Force bases with the pits removed. While this was thought
to make storage much safer, it necessitated an assembly facility close to each
Strategic Air Command base where the pits could be installed and removed when
weapons were placed in and out of service . As it happens, the gravel gertie
design wasn't used at all weapons storage sites. Instead, early assembly
facilities were deep underground (the first two stockpile sites, Manzano
Base/Albuquerque and West Fort Hood/Killeen TX). Gravel Gerties did see
widespread construction, though, at later SAC installations in the US as well
as Atomic Weapons Establishment facilities in the UK. Several remain in use at
the Pantex Plant in Texas for assembly and disassembly of weapons.
The design of the gravel gertie is simple but clever: a cylindrical concrete
bunker is built with a fabric roof supported by steel cables. Above and around
the bunker, a huge amount of gravel (about 7 meters thick by one report) is
piled up. In the event of an accidental high explosive detonation, the cables
should fail, causing many tons of gravel to collapse into the bunker and cover
the radioactive material. This design was thought to be able to contain up to a
1 KT explosion, and at the NNSS at least two were built and tested. Today, that
leaves a conspicuous pile of gravel with a few utility poles and chunks of
concrete sticking haphazardly out of it. It is reassuring that this ought to be
all that remains from a real major accident, although a bit disconcerting that
the bodies of the unlucky technicians would probably never be retrieved.
There's nothing left on the tour now except for the hour or so drive back to
Las Vegas. This might be something of a return to normalcy, to the "real
world," but the Las Vegas Strip is not exactly normal. This series started with
the strange contrast between Las Vegas, a globally-known tourist destination,
and the NNSS, a little-known site with a history of secrecy. The National
Atomic Testing Museum displays this same contrast today, with artifacts of the
nuclear testing program displayed alongside posters of a showgirl made up as
"Miss Atom Bomb."
Las Vegas often feels like it runs mostly on nostalgia for a bygone era. The
NNSS has much the same feeling. Posters proclaim that "we are national
security" to a staff involved mostly in containing the legacy of national
security work. The "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign provides a grand entrance to
almost no one, now positioned much too far south on the strip to see traffic
between the airport and the resorts. Our tour guide fondly recounts the era of
underground testing while speaking of atmospheric testing like a lost art. At
the Flamingo, the showgirls working the casino floor are so sparse that they do
more to highlight the disappearance of the form than preserve it.
I've been playing a lot of Fallout lately. Fallout: New Vegas, despite its
spin-off status, is often considered the best of the series. Perhaps this is
simply due to Bethesda's reduced involvement in the development, but I think
it's at least partially because New Vegas is just more deeply rooted in
reality than other entrants in the franchise. The nickname "Atomic City" is no
longer common, but Las Vegas itself still feels like a relic of the Cold War,
in ways both good and bad.
There's some sort of allegory between gambling and nuclear weapons, here. Both
destructive, but both oddly seductive. The desert is full of strange and
 I say "near" each AFB as the weapon repositories were usually technically
independent installations, usually built and operated by the Army. This
reflects the unusual civilian-military divide in the nuclear weapons complex:
while the Air Force used the bombs, they were stored and handled under the
auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission, which relied mostly on the Army.
Initially these stockpile sites were all managed by civilians, and the Air
Force had to request nuclear ordinance on loan. This divide has broken down
over the years but is still influential on nuclear bureaucracy.
I said up front that the NNSS remains in use for several different purposes,
although the level of activity today is not nearly as high as it once was. To
my best ability to remember the numbers, I think we were told that during the
period of active testing the staff compliment was about 13,000. Today there are
about 8,000 personnel that work at the site, between the various contractors
and subcontractors. This is as good a time as any to elaborate a bit on the
organizational structure of the NNSS.
One of the interesting things about the nuclear weapons complex is the
extremely high level of at least semi-privatization. While the NNSA is either
the largest or second largest component of the Department of Energy by budget
(it depends a bit on exactly how you break down the DoE's various buckets of
funding), it makes up well less than a quarter of the DoE staff. This enigma
results from contracting: considered as the NNSA, the nuclear weapons complex
is more than 50,000 people. Only about 2,500 are federal employees. The rest
are employees of a dizzying network of contractors that range from well-known
defense entities (Lockheed-Martin) to the small and surprising (San Ildefonso
Services, a fully owned enterprise of the sovereign government of the Pueblo of
San Ildefonso, comprising about 600 enrolled members and northwest of Santa
Very few people civilians involved in nuclear weapons are actually federal
employees, and they're limited mostly to the NNSA offices that exist to
coordinate and supervise these many contracts.
This staffing analysis admittedly excludes the sizable military component of
the nuclear weapons program, as each military branch has an organization
dedicated to the handling and deployment of nuclear weapons as well as the
personnel in the field that are actually responsible for it. For historic
reasons rooted in the genesis of the Manhattan Project, though, nuclear weapons
are viewed as being more a civilian matter than a military one. Although the
separation has decayed over decades, it has always been the gist of the
situation that the Department of Energy owns nuclear weapons, and the military
is allowed to borrow them. The military, of course, has its own extensive
contracting operation, and many military organizations related to nuclear
weapons are extensively staffed by contractor employees.
While privatization of defense functions is mostly a newer trend, it is deeply
rooted in the world of nuclear weapons. Since the very beginning, the Manhattan
Project relied heavily on the work of various outside organizations, first
among them universities. A substantial portion of the Manhattan Project,
including most of the operations at Los Alamos, were actually performed by the
University of California. Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and later Los Alamos
National Laboratory continued to be managed as a subsidiary of UC until 2005
when both UC and DoE initiated a series of changes that saw LANL transferred to
Triad National Security. UC remains one third of Triad, along with the Battelle
Institute (a nonprofit heavily involved in federal research and development)
and Texas A&M.
Sandia National Laboratories, originally a division of LANL and thus UC, was
transferred to Western Electric in 1949 and remained a concern of AT&T and Bell
Laboratories until until 1993, when it was transferred to Lockheed-Martin.
AT&T's involvement in nuclear weapons is not limited to telecom or even
communications R&D; AT&T was in fact a major component of the weapons
enterprise for decades. Today, Sandia is operated by Honeywell, as are several
other components including the Kansas City National Security Campus.
The split between LANL, operated by universities, and Sandia, operated by
engineering organizations, reflects the history and culture of the
laboratories. While both conduct extensive basic research and there is plenty
of overlap in functions, the broad division is that LANL is responsible for the
design of the nuclear device itself (an issue at the cutting edge of physics)
while Sandia is responsible for a way to deliver downrange (a matter of
ballistics and mechanical engineering). Even the locations reflect this divide:
LANL hidden high on a mesa, and Sandia in the desert scrub of a ballistics
research range dating back to World War One and the New Mexico School of Mines'
(my alma mater, under its present name of New Mexico Tech) work on proximity
These early examples of full-service federal contracting were major precedents
in the creation of the "GOCO" or Government Owned, Contractor Operated model.
While nuclear weapons facilities are owned by the federal government, they
are almost all operated by either a private company or a public institution
(or perhaps a coalition of some combination of the two). The operator, often
called an Operations and Maintenance or O&M contractor, is paid a "management
fee" to perform this function. A related concept is that of the FFRDC or
Federally Funded Research and Development Center, an umbrella category that was
created to somewhat standardize the legal nature of nuclear weapons
laboratories as well as several other government-owned R&D organizations such
as the DoD's Aerospace Corporation and Rand Corporation.
While FFRDCs are not necessarily related to nuclear weapons (some having been
born entirely in the military or department of commerce), a large portion of
them and most of the larger FFRDCs fall under the auspices of some component of
the Department of Energy. Most of the DoE FFRDCs, arguably all, are either
historically or currently involved in nuclear weapons. Only three, Sandia, Los
Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore are directly considered nuclear weapons
laboratories (these are sometimes referred to as the tri-labs). Nuclear weapons
as a broad state function have many aspects beyond the design and testing of
weapons, though. Savannah River National Laboratory, for example, located at
the site of a former uranium refinery in Tennessee, is primarily involved in
researching environmental remediation and hazmat handling methods. Expressed as
a quip, Savannah River National Laboratories exists to try to find a way to
clean itself up.
This is all a long preamble to explain that there are a lot of distinct
organizations involved in nuclear weapons and it can be difficult to keep track
of them. Names like EG&G, SAIC, and UC ought to be as closely connected to
nuclear war as the Manhattan Project.
In the case of the NNSS, the name to know is Mission Support and Test Services
or MSTS LLC. MSTS is a coalition of Honeywell, Jacobs Engineering (builder of
nuclear reactors), and Stoller Newport News Nuclear (builder of aircraft
carriers). More subcontractors than can be easily listed perform various
functions on the behalf of MSTS, including the amusingly named "Securing Our
Country" which provides the private paramilitary security force at several
nuclear weapons sites. Apparently embarassed at the somewhat cringy name, they
now tend to insist that it's "SOC" and it doesn't stand for anything.
The NNSS staff today is made up of the employees of all of these contractors,
and most of the staff are involved in maintenance and cleanup activities. This
is a common theme in the world of nuclear weapons: managing the legacy of
environmental contamination and hazardous waste is just as big of a job as, and
sometimes bigger than, actually designing and building weapons. Even
maintaining roads becomes a substantial operation at the scale of the NNSS.
Two major facilities at the NNSS speak to this point. The Radioactive Waste
Management Facility, which was pointed out to us in the distance, receives
low-level mixed waste from other DoE and DoD sites that needs to be removed and
disposed of elsewhere (instead of being permanently disposed of on-site, which
is typically the preferred option to avoid the political controversy around
transporting nuclear waste). This type of waste is made up basically of the
contents of trash cans in laboratories that handle nuclear materials. Gloves,
aprons, instrumental apparatus, storage containers, etc that were exposed to
nuclear material and thus remain slightly radioactive due mostly to particulate
contamination. There are even building materials from demolition of
contaminated labs, animal carcasses from medical testing, and low-level
radiation sources removed from medical equipment.
This waste is inspected, packaged, and then buried in a series of shallow
trenches engineered to prevent any leakage or wind dispersion. Ongoing
monitoring will be performed, essentially into perpetuity, to ensure that the
containment mechanisms are effective. The RWMF benefits greatly from its
remote, arid location: it is far above the water table and far away from
populated areas, granting a significant safety margin.
It also benefits from its location well inside of a secured federal
reservation. The RWMF is able to accept classified waste, such as components of
classified designs, for burial. This capability is uncommon enough that NNSS is
the final resting place of some classified objects that are not radioactive or
hazardous at all, simply impractical to destroy. I have previously mentioned on
this blog that the NSA lists "permanent burial" as an acceptable method of
destruction of classified matter. Here it is, out in the Nevada desert.
Elsewhere in the NNSS, some low-level waste has been buried inside of the
subsidence craters resulting from underground tests. This method is convenient
and permitted for certain types of lower risk waste, much of it brought in from
the nearby Tonopah Test Range. As in most federal facilities, disposal of
hazardous materials is restricted by state law, and so all of these waste
handling activities are conducted under permits from the Nevada Division of
Environmental Protection. The state and federal governments coordinate a
variety of precautions and restrictions on the transportation and handling of
waste, which include a prohibition of transportation of waste on certain busy
freeways and highways and selection of routes based on weather conditions.
As part of its efforts to mitigate transportation risk, the NNSS grants
substantial funding to nearby fire and emergency management departments to
support their general operations and specifically radiological response
This is not to say that NNSS activities today are all about cleanup. Another
facility pointed out to us in passing, near the U1a complex, is the Device
Assembly Facility. The DAF was constructed as a new consolidated building for
the safe handling of nuclear weapons components, including both nuclear
material and high explosives. It consists of a series of isolated underground
cells, each designed for the safe containment of a huge explosion. These are
accessed by a fortress-like concrete portal cut into the ground, flanked by
guard towers and surrounded by multiple layers of fencing and intrusion
detection. Because it can contain a substantial quantity of "special nuclear
material" (in other words, weapons-grade plutonium and uranium), the DAF is
likely the most security-sensitive facility on the site and is guarded 24/7 by
a paramilitary force and numerous technical security measures.
The disconnect between public perception of security at defense facilities and
the actual reality can be stupifyingly large. Media depictions give many the
idea that a typical military installation is defended by laser perimeters, dog
patrols, and a heavily armed response force. Of course, most military
installations are actually protected by nineteen-year-old enlistees running
more on Red Bull than tactical training, and response to even the most obvious
security violations is more likely to take 30 minutes than 30 seconds.
The weapons complex tends to run on the more secure end of government
operations, but as a group of nuns memorably demonstrated even some of the most
sensitive nuclear sites are vulnerable to wirecutters and determination. The
NNSS, like many military and weapons installations, both benefits and suffers
from its immense size. Hard perimeter security of over 1,000 square miles
simply isn't practical, and a daring person could probably walk right into the
NNSS and remain unnoticed for quite some time. There may not even be a fence
for much of the perimeter. Harder protective measures are found at individual
security-sensitive sites. On the upside, the many miles of barren desert
between actual facilities and the perimeter make it very difficult to escape
undetected after triggering any sort of alarm.
Still, the DoE faces the same budget pressure as the military, and security
measures have certainly decreased since the days of the Manhattan project. Los
Alamos personnel in the 1940s were trained on a "badge challenge" procedure:
when a guard trained a gun on them, they would set their ID on the ground, turn
the other direction, and walk ten paces to wait until instructed otherwise.
Although I hear this has changed in recent years, when I was in Los Alamos they
were indecisive on whether or not it was worthwhile (or perhaps more
truthfully, within their budget) to check badges in person at all. Throughout
the weapons complex there are many visible remnants of security measures that
once were, replaced by dwindling patrol forces that, admittedly, remain very
well-trained---particularly by the lax standards of US law enforcement.
This came to my mind contemplating the guard towers of the DAF, some of the
only guard towers that can be found anywhere in a nuclear weapons installation.
In my career I have worked in one environment that I would call extremely
secure. It was not a weapons or military installation. It was a Federal Reserve
Bank. In employee orientation, a sergeant of the Federal Reserve Police told us
proudly that there has never been a successful heist on the Fed, although it's
been depicted fictionally several times in films. 82-year-old Megan Rice got to
the Y-12 enriched uranium storage complex to commit principled vandalism... by
her description and the admission of Y-12 security forces, basically by walking
After the end of testing, with device assembly no longer a major activity, the
DAF was converted to the National Criticality Experiments Research Center
operated by LANL. Here, researchers directly handle complete nuclear weapon
pits and other quantities and forms of special nuclear material that are
capable of prompt criticality. The DAF serves not only to protect these
materials from theft but, perhaps more importantly, to protect the outside
world from the effects of a criticality accident.
On the matter of response times, as we drove through the complex we passed by
another fire station. Our guide explained that the NNSS fire department had a
target of a 30-minute fire or medical response to any part of the range that
was in use. While the two stations put most of the NNSS within 30 minutes, when
the Pahute Mesa, in the far northwest of the NNSS, is in use it's necessary to
stage an ambulance and fire engine at the "midway" point between the second
station and the mesa, about 30 minutes from each. Despite the seeming danger of
the NNSS, most of the fire department's time, he said, was spent on mutual aid
to the rural departments around the area. There are a lot of one-ambulance
towns in Nye County, and the NNSS's EMTs regularly meet up with those
ambulances to take their patients into Las Vegas, allowing the rural ambulances
to return to duty a couple hours sooner.
As with most nuclear installations, the NNSS has an on-site medical clinic
which is both equipped to handle radiological emergencies and a great
convenience to the staff. NNSS is one of the DoE sites which enthusiastically
holds a "VPP Star," a distinction awarded by OSHA for effective implementation
of a Voluntary Protection Program. VPPs are occupational safety programs that
go beyond the legal requirements, and to hold a VPP Star an employer must
maintain below-average injury and illness rates. Some nuclear sites such as
LANL have developed something of a reputation for a troubled safety culture,
but others excel in implementing their safety programs. Surprisingly, working
with nuclear weapons can be one of the safest career options many craftspeople
Leaving the underground testing area, our coach briefly descended into the
subsidence crater left from an underground test, the driver somewhat nervously
navigating the steep road rutted by recent rainstorms. The odd thing about
underground testing is just how underwhelming ground zero is. While the crater
was about as deep as our coach was tall, perhaps 12-15 feet, it was only about
a thousand feet across, and the bottom much smaller. At the center, a wide,
rusted metal column jutted out of the ground at an odd angle, cut-off cables
hanging out the top and birds nesting in an aperture in the side. This was the
top of the casing of the shaft, and the only direct indication of the actual
Parked for a moment at the bottom of the crater, I contemplated how we were
ourselves displaced downwards as a latent effect of a nuclear explosion. We
tend to imagine the result of nuclear weapons in terms of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, but in the world of industrialized testing that same power is neatly
managed and contained. Even the radiation effects are quite minimal. Near the
center of the crater was a ring of fencing with radiation hazard signs. Our
guide explained that the radiation in the crater had never measured
significantly higher than background, but as part of a groundwater monitoring
project a water well had been drilled from the crater down to near the
detonation point. Years ago, water had been pumped from the well into a tank
and then sampled to monitor contamination. Some of the water had leaked from
the fittings, and so even though no radiation had been found, as a matter of
policy the area where the water pooled was considered a danger and required
radiological protection for entry.
Much of the safety and security of these sites comes from this type of pedantic
compliance with broad precautions. I am reminded of the story of the top secret
orange. The story goes that a laboratory at Los Alamos which handled metal
models of weapon pits (which were of a classified design) found that the guards
sometimes weren't sure whether or not a given object was a model pit and thus
classified. To resolve the issue, they adopted a policy that all spherical
objects within the lab must be kept in safes when not attended. Perhaps you can
guess the punchline: a laboratory worker was written up for a security
violation after leaving an orange on his desk. Sometimes strong systematic
security requires treating fruit as presumptively classified .
On the way around the crater our guide mentioned that you could see a USPS
truck at the rim of the crater. Not as the result of any experiment on the
nuclear survivability of letter carriers, but just because it was a government
surplus item that made a convenient enclosure for some monitoring equipment.
Unfortunately it had disappeared: "it was just there two weeks ago!" our guide
insisted. Like beige paint and breezeblocks, odd bits of government property
that disappear as quickly (and mysteriously) as they appeared are part of the
aesthetic landscape of the nuclear weapons complex.
A limited budget, an oddly strong sense of thrift, and a close relationship to
the military result in extensive use of the cast-offs of other federal
agencies. Federal spending is always a bit of an enigma this way. For every
billion dollars spent on F-35s there are at least fifty enlisted personnel
emptying trash cans under roof leaks. The DOD plunges into a multi-year,
multi-billion boondoggle to replace HEMTTs while National Science Foundation
grantees repurpose retired units to move their building supplies.
A remarkable example of this phenomenon is our tour's next stop.
One of the better-known historical sites at the NNSS is the "gun turret." It
is not a gun at all, although it once held one. Collecting data from nuclear
tests has always been a challenge, and even for atmospheric tests it was
difficult to place instruments close enough to ground zero to collect data
without taking damage from the shockwave. Somehow, the details of which seem
lost to history, someone at the NNSS implemented a clever solution: a turret,
borrowed from a scrapped Navy cruiser, was stripped of its three 8" guns and
shipped to the Nevada desert.
A somewhat improvised gun emplacement was built on a mesa at the NNSS and the
turret installed in it. In place of the guns, a single "barrel" made of lead
wrapped in sheet metal was installed on the front. For a series of several
atmospheric tests, measurement instruments were placed in the barrel and the
turret was aimed squarely at ground zero. Because the lead barrel blocked both
light and background radiation coming from off-axis sources, this allowed for
accurate measurements of light, x-ray, and gamma output that were used in
verifying performance calculations. Since the turret could be re-aimed at
various test positions and was cabled to permanent underground recording
equipment bunkers nearby, it allowed for a lot of saved money compared to the
conventional approach of trenching long cables from recording bunkers to
instruments near the device that would not survive the explosion.
As I mentioned, the history of the gun turret was not well documented.
Fortunately, as our guide tells us, an NNSS employee spent some spare time
carefully examining it and was eventually able to find a serial number on an
original component. Research aided by a naval museum determined the origin to
be the USS Louisville, which during World War II suffered strikes by Kamikaze
pilots twice. The Louisville was repaired and returned to service both times,
and participated in end-of-war activities including the evacuation of prisoners
of war before being sold. The turret in question was damaged in one of the
Kamikaze strikes and swapped for a spare. By the time repairs were completed
the war had ended---and so it sat as surplus in a Navy yard for a decade before
being picked up for use at the NNSS. Due to the enormous size and weight of the
turret, its delivery to the NNSS was itself a complicated operation. It was
shipped over sea by the Navy to Port Hueneme, and then trucked nearly 400 miles
over land by a heavy hauling contractor.
There is an obvious symbolism to the gun turret's new home in the desert. Like
the USS Desert Ship, a pseudo-vessel apparently run badly aground in White
Sands Missile Range for testing of missile systems, the gun turret is a
curiosity: a ship out of water. It is also a weapon repurposed for science...
but for the science of developing better weapons. Swords may be beaten to
plowshares but plowshares are not always entirely innocent. Plowshares will
return, in a dramatic fashion.
At least as far as I can keep my timeline straight, the Gun Turret was our last
stop before lunch, and that's a good time for a break. Keep an eye out for Part
 I write this story the way I do because I am honestly not sure if it is
true. I believe I originally heard it at LANL where it was told in the way of
an urban legend, but it has also occasionally appeared in reputable sources.
Anyone who has been through LANL's employee safety training, and has
experienced the instructional video on the requirement to use handrails when
climbing stairs, probably finds it credible.
After our time milling around the Mercury cafeteria, it was back aboard the
coach to enter the test site proper. As our guide explained, the NNSS can be
divided into work areas such as Mercury and the range itself. On the days
that tests were scheduled, everyone other than personnel for that specific test
was prohibited from entering the range area for safety reasons. Considering
weather delays and technical issues, this sometimes meant a full day of lost
work as the entire staff huddled in Mercury awaiting news that they could once
again head out to test sites.
The first point on the tour after Mercury, then, and perhaps the first truly
related to nuclear testing, was Checkpoint Pass. Here, where the road passes
over a low ridge, there is still a wide part of the road with a row of
floodlights where guards would check if each person was on the staff list for
the test of the day. This is one of many places where the history of nuclear
testing seems remarkably well preserved, even ready to be returned to use.
There are reasons for this, as we will discuss later.
Shortly after Checkpoint Pass our guide points towards Control Point. This is
the building from which underground tests were actually performed. Like the
operations control center, it is a largely unremarkable low concrete building.
What stands out is the rack of microwave antennas spanning the side of the
building facing the valley. Presumably a great deal of microwave communications
were used for control and monitoring, probably in the later era of testing
based on the use of delay-lens antennas. Microwave communications were widely
deployed by telcos in the 1950s but the equipment and antennas were
exceptionally large and heavy. I am not sure if this early microwave equipment
would have been used in the frequently-reconfigured testing environment. By the
'80s microwave would have become an inexpensive and fast to deploy network
The microwave infrastructure here was clearly substantial. Looking down the
ridge into the valley several passive repeaters (billboard-like structures that
act as mirrors for directional microwave links) can be seen, their aim
suggesting that they allowed antennas at Control Point to reach sites on the
other side of a hill to the building's west. Passive microwave repeaters have
always been a minor fascination of mine. They are only really practical for the
very short wavelengths of GHz microwave systems, and the high attenuation of a
passive reflector combined with the ever lower cost and maintenance burden of
active repeaters makes them rare today. Passive repeaters can sometimes still
be found in use by rural telcos to reach AT&T or MCI sites outside of direct
view of their exchange facilities, but perhaps the best places to hunt for them
are dams. Likely a majority of the hydroelectric dams of the southwest, often
being in deep canyons, used passive repeaters set on the canyon rim to get
telephone and industrial control signals to the powerhouse.
I should avoid dallying too long on the details of the telecom equipment, but
this will not be the only example I find interesting. The communications
infrastructure at these types of national security sites is a revealing example
of the very close relationship between national defense and the
telecommunications industry---especially AT&T, which at the NNSS as in other
places is practically an arm of the government.
Just past control point, our guide calls out two sets of wooden benches, one
at each side of the road. These were the spectator stands for atmospheric tests,
set far enough away for safety but with a clear view. Anyone not wearing safety
goggles was required to face away for one minute around detonation, protecting
them from vision damage due to the intensely bright light. One set of benches,
closer to the road, was for government officials and other VIPs. The other,
somewhat further away, was for the scientists and engineers who had planned
the test. And just a bit ahead of the benches, a rocky outcropping is known
as News Nob due to its use by media crews invited to report on nuclear tests.
Despite the commonplace nature of worn wooden benches and a rock face, this is
one of the more emotionally impactful sites on the tour. From 1951 to 1963, the
NNSS detonated nuclear devices above ground, typically on short metal towers.
These tests were not just sources of data but spectator events. On this topic,
our tour guide, who had seen underground tests but started decades too late to
see any above ground, seemed practically wistful. "Imagine what it would be
like to see that," he said. I cannot be sure if this is reality or an
embellishment by my own memory, but I could swear that he then echoed the words
of Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita: "to see the radiance."
This is one of those things about nuclear weapons that is difficult to capture
in language without resorting to poetry. As much as we might hope for
disarmament, and as much as we might celebrate the end of atmospheric testing
and the end of all testing some decades later, I am quite sure that we all want
to see it, just once. Lot's wife, as we usually understand it, turned back to
see the cities. I have always thought, though, that it is a better explanation
that she turned back to see the destruction. Who wouldn't be curious about
the physical manifestation of God's power? A surprising number of people,
sitting on those benches and equipped with protective eyewear, saw just that.
They looked down on Frenchman Flat, toward all the land of the plain, and saw
dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace (Gen. 19:28 NIV).
Lucky that Oppenheimer had developed a fascination with Hinduism; had he been
a Christian, he, too, might have been turned to salt. Then again, he might not
have been labeled a Communist and stripped of his clearance. Oppenheimer had a
difficult time with more than one higher power.
As our coach carried on towards Sodom and Gomorrah, the guide pointed out
the two matching sets of utility poles, one on each side of the road. During
testing, utility crews would relocated the electrical lines to whichever side
of the road was opposite the current test site. This way, cranes and other
tall vehicles could be moved more easily and safely. Likely from later
testing, there is also a tremendous amount of buried conduit throughout the
valley. At seemingly random locations, but probably corresponding to various
tests, rusting electrical panels popped up by the side of the road with
disconnects and pin-sleeve connectors. Small signs marked the route of high
voltage raceways, and numbers on the panels hinted at a probably rather
hairy stack of maps and diagrams.
For quite some distance along this road a hefty bundle of telephone cables runs
along its own poles. One branch of it heads uphill to a microwave site atop a
small peak, south of control point. It continues some way into the valley but
likely drops into underground conduit before too far.
I wondered, of course, who installed and maintained the telephone
infrastructure. While I cannot provide an in-depth discussion of this topic
(at least not yet), the existence of an AT&T special toll area tariff for the
Nevada Test Site suggests that AT&T provides the service, and the tariff
includes detailed rates for certain services which were or are presumably in
use. This includes a Dimension 2000 PBX (nearly $10,000 per month after a
$75,000 installation charge), a 225 kW diesel generator, and dedicated
emergency lines. The Dimension 2000 is capable of up to 2000 lines and 14
attendant consoles. This equipment was probably installed somewhere in Mercury
in an NNSS-provided building, and maintained by appropriately cleared AT&T
The microwave site near Checkpoint Pass has been licensed, at various recent
times, to WCS Microwave Services and Verizon Select Services. Neither company
is easy to find much information about, but both seem to bid on various
government contracts for connectivity. WCS is a subsidiary of Williams
Communications and VSS is, of course, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications. I
would hazard to speculate that the NNSS turned to these vendors to provide
their backhaul (and based on license locations some internal connectivity)
after the breakup of AT&T introduced a great deal more competition in that
market. It's interesting that Williams Communications specializes in cable
television systems, inviting one to wonder if they specifically provided
services related to the many video cameras that were used to observe and record
As we drove further into the valley, several towers started to loom on the
horizon. One of them was our next destination: the Icecap site. Icecap was an
underground nuclear test planned to be 20-150 KT and buried 1,550 feet
underground. It was scheduled for Spring 1993, just months after the official
issuance of a moratorium on all nuclear testing. As a result the site, nearly
ready for the test, was abandoned in place. It now serves as an excellent
historical example of the preparations for an underground test.
There are several prominent features at the site, but at the core is a 157 foot
tall modular metal tower. After drilling of the test shaft was completed (at
3-5 feet across with very tight linearity tolerances this was no small feat), a
metal cover was installed over the shaft for safety and a set of sea
container-like modules stacked above it to form a temporary tower. Inside of
that tower, the tall cylindrical "canister" or "rack" was assembled. The
canister is suspended from the top of the tower by cables. Round walkways
throughout the height of the tower, reached by stairs and a small lift on the
side, provided technicians with relatively easy access to different points
throughout the canister.
The size and mass (300,000 pounds) of the canister are surprising, while the
fact that large portions of it seem to have been sealed up with duct tape is a
reassuring bit of normalcy. Nuclear testing is just about as complicated as the
design of the weapons themselves. While the canister contained the "nuclear
device" (not called a weapon because it is not equipped with delivery or fuzing
equipment), most of it is taken up by a dizzying number of instruments that
measure physical force, radiation, and other properties of the detonation.
These measurements are the actual outcome of the test, and can be compared
against calculations to determine the performance of the device.
There is a problem: nuclear detonations are a hostile environment for precision
instruments. This is the central challenge of underground testing. In
atmospheric testing, instruments can be located far enough away from ground
zero to survive the detonation (we will see an example of this later). For
underground tests, the radius of destruction is relatively small, but it
contains far too much soil and rock for remote instruments to be useful.
Instead, most of the measurements must be taken from the same shaft as the
To resolve this conundrum, engineers had to dance very closely with the
destruction. It is simply the nature of underground nuclear testing that the
measurement instruments will be destroyed almost instantly. They must collect
their data and report it before the blast reaches them. Every underground test
was a remarkable race: as the blast propagated through the canister, each
instrument produced a signal which traveled through cables to safety just ahead
of the advancing shockwave. Cables were turned to vapor just behind the
messages they carried.
The canister, then, looks something like a diving bell. From the top, dozens
of coaxial cables and just a few fiber optic bundles ('92 was still an early
era for small-scale fiber optic systems) hang back down the tower and then
out a small hatch at ground level, where they are lined up on a series of
zigzagging wheeled racks that allow them to be unfolded as the canister is
The primary motivation for underground testing is containment of contamination.
In a properly performed underground test, almost no radioactive particles
escape to the surface. This is achieved simply through the tremendous mass of a
thousand feet of earth. There is a problem, though: the shaft itself.
Once preparation of the canister is completed, the tower is disassembled and
the canister is transferred to a crane. Due to the limited length of the
crane's hoist cables, the canister is lowered into the shaft in a series of
steps. After each step, it is transferred to hang off of anchors around the
shaft while long rods are added on so that the crane can retract its cables,
attach to the top of the rods, and then lower the canister another step. Once
this slow descent is completed, the shaft is backfilled with materials
carefully chosen to prevent the blast pushing them out. A certain amount of
the backfill and suspension rods will be vaporized in the detonation, as will
The greater challenge is small leaks: because the cables have multiple layers
of jacketing that are easily destroyed, they can provide narrow paths to the
surface through which the immense pressure in the blast cavity will force
fallout. To prevent this, the cables are periodically interrupted by "packings"
where various mineral and artificial materials are sealed around the cable.
These materials are designed to flow and fuse under heat and pressure, sealing
off the cable path.
About ten meters from the top of the shaft, our guide points out a metal
pipe sticking out of the ground. This is the casing of a second shaft,
drilled to comply with mutual verification provisions in treaties with
Russia. The Russian government has the option of installing their own
instruments in this small second shaft, if they so choose, allowing
them to independently measure the yield of the device. Our guide explains
that this was rarely done in the late years of testing, as remote sensing
and seismic methods had improved to the degree that Russia could collect
the same information without the need to arrange a site visit. Nonetheless,
the option was always made available.
A surprisingly short distance away from ground zero are the trailers. These are
the endpoint of the cable's suicide mission, and contain a variety of recorders
and control equipment that are used to both prepare the canister for the test
and collect the resulting data. Even at their close range (around 200 meters)
they are safe from any immediate effects of the blast, but within the blink of
an eye after detonation the ground under them will be lifted slightly upwards
before falling back down. At their position this movement is small but still
extremely fast, creating enough G-force to damage equipment. To protect the
recorders (some of which were likely still electromechanical even in these late
tests), the trailers were installed on frames that sat on piers supported by
stacks of honeycomb-like blocks of corrugated aluminum. These collapsed under
the force of the shockwave and cushioned the trailers.
There are not just a few trailers. Some have been removed from the Icecap site
but there are still almost 20 left, each one numbered to keep track of them as
they were moved from test to test. Some are just enclosures for racks of
equipment, others are frames with electrical switchgear and communications
equipment. One wonders if any of the engineers who designed these trailers went
on to contribute to today's modular data center systems. Sandia's involvement
in mobile data terminals and control systems for the military suggests so.
As we drove away from the Icecap site (and passed a couple of other towers
remaining from planned tests that were canceled at earlier stages of
development), our guide explained the problem of the craters.
The whole underground testing area of the NNSS is littered with small craters,
often packed in a surprisingly tight grid. These craters are not the result of
soil thrown away by the detonation, which occurred far below them. Rather,
they are subsidence craters. The heat of the detonation compacted, melted, and
fused the materials near the device, leaving an underground cavern lined with a
glass-like material. At some point after the detonation, the walls of this
cavern would fail, causing a column of soil above the cavity to fall downwards.
The resulting crater is not very big or deep and the test planners became
adept at predicting the size of the craters, allowing them to place the trailers
just outside. What proved far more difficult was predicting when this collapse
As we drove onwards, our tour guide took advantage of the coach's entertainment
system and played a short film which he called "zero time to collapse." This
video consisted of footage of a series of different tests, cut together so
quickly that the effect was somewhat dizzying. Over and over, we saw footage
from a helicopter circling a bit of desert as a voice counts down. At "zero" a
chirping alarm sounds as a shockwave whips through the scrub---curiously, the
wrong direction. Our guide explained this perceptual oddity: the lifting of the
surface by the shockwave occurs too quickly to be caught on video or even
really to be perceived by the eye. What you see instead is the soil falling
back down to its original position with the acceleration of gravity, which of
course settles to a stop first further away from ground zero where it was
displaced by less.
Then, there is a cut, which skips over a period of minutes to hours (in some
cases, we were told, as long as 48 hours). A voice, working off of seismic
instruments that monitor for the failure of the cavern walls, says "collapse
imminent" and within seconds the ground simply falls away, leaving a crater.
And then it repeats. Over, and over, and over, showing perhaps 20 tests. By the
end it almost becomes boring, a highly accelerated introduction to the
mundanity of evil. Not even the wonder of tens of kilotons equivalent creating
an impossible cavern endures the about 900 underground detonations performed at
Some of the tests are slightly different from others. In one, the video of the
collapse is from a low angle and not very clear. Our guide explains that the
helicopter had had to land for fuel while waiting for the collapse and so
missed filming it. In another, the collapse is less a crater than a sinkhole,
with neatly vertical walls. Our guide says that this result is an oddity and
something of a mystery; it only happened in one test and presumably results
from some detail of the geology that still hasn't been determined. In just one
test, the voice counting down is a woman's, reminding you of the gender
disparity that remains to this day in the defense industry. The nuclear weapons
complex has its own deep history of sexism, homophobia, hysterical
anti-communism, etc., but that is a topic for another time.
We are by this point many miles deep in the NNSS and have more miles to cover
to reach our next stop. On the way, our guide points out some support
facilities. The Big Explosives Experimental Facility or BEEF is a range
equipped to test huge quantities of high explosives. As a whimsical anecdote,
our guide explains that BEEF's cow-shaped steel sign had been stolen some time
earlier, perhaps as a prank by military personnel. NNSS craft workers made a new,
larger sign and then buried its base under a ton of gravel. That ought to
discourage any future larceny.
Driving along the main road, we passed the U1a complex, or as our guide allows
himself to joke once, the "A-hole." This deep shaft complete with mine-type
hoist headworks, along with a neighbor, connects to a complex of underground
tunnels where subcritical experiments are conducted. In these tests, weapon
pits a little shy of heavy enough to achieve criticality are subjected to the
high-explosive implosion mechanism used inside weapons. After the test the
deformed pit can be measured to calculate the implosion forces. An addition to
the U1a complex currently underway is a linear accelerator that will be used
to image the internal density of the pits, giving more data about the accuracy
of the implosion. In a moment my husband found especially amusing, our guide
said that office space in the underground complex has become very limited but,
due to the time involved in taking the hoist up and down, the scientists were
reticent to regularly come to the surface. The office trailers at the top
of the shafts are being renovated in an effort to lure the staff above ground
and free up space. "The scientists have dug in," my husband quips, "and are
refusing to come up. They say they want more plutonium."
This, too far into the series to explicitly touch on this important topic, is a
good time to finally say something about stockpile stewardship. This is the
greatest challenge of the nuclear weapons complex today and, by budget, the
main activity of the Department of Energy.
The United States has not detonated a nuclear weapon in thirty years.
This raises a troubling question: do they still work?
Every year, the National Nuclear Security Administration (the component of the
Department of Energy that oversees the weapons program) and directors of the
three nuclear weapons laboratories (Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia)
prepare a report to the President of the United States. This report says that
the Department of Energy is confident that the United States' nuclear arsenal
is not only safe, but also functional. Some years ago I heard Dr. Jill Hruby,
at the time the director of Sandia National Laboratories and now the
Undersecretary of Energy over the NNSA, say that she considers developing the
confidence to sign this report to be the most important function of the weapons
Because the only designs that have been subject to "real" quality control
testing (by detonation of sample units) are more than 30 years old and thus
have undergone radioactive decay, mechanical wear, maintenance and
refurbishment activities, etc., and an increasing portion of the stockpile
consists of designs that have never been tested, this assurance must make the
directors a bit nervous. Our confidence in the nuclear stockpile today rests on
subcritical testing, testing of individual components, and increasingly,
computational modeling. It is exactly because of the challenge of stockpile
assurance that a surprising portion of the world's most powerful computers are
owned and operated by the Department of Energy.
A tremendous amount of effort has been put just into understanding how
weapons-grade plutonium and uranium change (or don't) when left in storage for
decades, and how to refurbish weapon pits. The same problems exist for the high
explosives, neutron generators used to force prompt criticality, specialized
thermal batteries that power electrical systems in nuclear weapons, and even
simple mechanical components.
An enormous staff of people (probably 30,000 across the complex) and billions
of dollars in budget go, essentially, to doing everything anyone can think of
other than actual testing to determine whether or not nuclear weapons even
work. Every year the degree of separation between tested designs and the
current stockpile increases, and so this confidence becomes based on greater
levels of abstraction. In a way, it adds a fascinating new aspect to the fear
of nuclear apocalypse: the outcome of a nuclear war has perhaps become even
harder to predict as the possibility increases that some portion of our nuclear
arsenal (and, for the same reasons, that of other major nuclear powers) will
just not work.
It is because of nervousness about this possibility that there have been some
calls to resume nuclear testing in the United States. I will not go into
analysis of this decision, although I personally am strongly opposed. It is a
closer possibility, though, than you might imagine. At several points our tour
guide gave the context that the NNSS remains under standing orders to be ready
to pick up where it left off. While testing has not been performed for so long
that mastery of all the steps involved is now somewhat questionable, the NNSS
retains an inventory of ready-to-go boreholes, drilling equipment, tower
modules and components. In theory, should the order come, the NNSS could
perform an underground nuclear test within 24 to 36 months.
Subjectively, the NNSS does not feel abandoned so much as it feels like it is
in waiting. And administratively, it is.
We are, at this point, probably only a few hours into the 8 or so hours of the tour.
I will return with Part 3, once again probably quite soon.
I promised a travelogue, and here we go. I'm not exactly a travel writer, but I
was recently able to visit a place that's fairly difficult to get to, so I
think it's worth sharing my observations. I started writing this because I
thought there should be more on the internet about the NNSS tour program and
the site and tour as a subjective experience. Personally I absolutely love
tours, not just to see things but because I think the tour guide and the design
of the tour are often just as interesting as the site itself. When you take a
guided tour you are sort of seeing a place through the eyes of its own public
affairs department, and when it comes to the national security state that is an
especially interesting thing to behold.
So this is, in part, a dry recounting of the NNSS tour and how it works. It is
also, probably in larger part, my thoughts and observations on the historical
and modern cultural role of the NNSS. As the location of the vast majority of
US nuclear detonations, it is perhaps the most profound artifact of nuclear
weapons. At the same time, it is seldom seen and, well, there's not that much
in it to see.
The Trinity Site, with its twice-yearly open houses, is something of a mecca
for everything from anti-war activists to the most hawkish cold-war
enthusiasts. On repeated trips to the Trinity Site I have seen brash Texans and
Buddhist monks, both in awe, but both in very different ways. The Trinity Site
seems to encourage visitors to engage at a more philosophical level, perhaps
due to the widespread knowledge of Oppenheimer's quotation of the Bhagavad
Gita, perhaps simply because there is honestly not very much to see there. You
visit the Trinity site, at least if you know what it's like, to find out what
it feels like to stand in the shadow of the "radiance of a thousand suns."
There is no tour to speak of.
The NNSS, though, despite having a public tour program, receives far less
attention. There is, you will find, a lot more to look at there. As a result,
the NNSS visitor experience feels less emotional and more technical. At the
same time, every feature the guide points out is imbued with that same
radiance. The Trinity site is where a force of incredible destruction was first
unleashed. The NNSS is where that same force was industrialized, refined, and
One of the first things you learn about the national security state is its
penchant for renaming things. This is prominently true in the military, but you
also see it in the Department of Energy. And so, the Nevada Test Site, having
once been the Nevada Proving Grounds, is now the Nevada National Security Site.
The verbosity of "National Security Site" is awkward but well in line with the
"Kansas City National Security Campus" and "Y-12 National Security Complex,"
down to being frustratingly inconsistent.
That's all a preamble to explain that I will be referring to it as the NNSS,
although during the time period I will mostly be covering it was not known by
I don't intend to write a proper history here, but not that many people are
familiar with the NNSS (at least by name), so I will give the general
background. The NNSS was established in 1951 in response to the need for a
long-term proving ground for nuclear weapons. In the days of the Manhattan
Project proper, testing had been rather scattered: the Trinity test, the first
and most famous test of a nuclear device, was conducted in a barren part of
central New Mexico, near the north end of the White Sands Missile Range and
often described as near Socorro although a better (but much smaller) town to
relate it to is San Antonio.
To many viewers this might seem like an ideal test site, considering the
enormous size of the White Sands military reservation. That itself was a
problem, though, as the Army made quite a bit of use of White Sands to the
extent that the Trinity test camp was accidentally hit by pilots practicing
bombing runs---not once, but twice. Moreover, fallout from the test reached the
Chupadera Mesa where it injured cattle and potentially ranchers. The extent of
the radiological contamination of the Chupadera Mesa is the subject of ongoing
For these reasons, subsequent nuclear testing was mostly performed in the
Pacific Ocean. In 1946, two weapons were detonated at Bikini Atoll in the
Marshall Islands. These tests badly contaminated Bikini Atoll and the region,
as well as Hunter's Point Navy Shipyard in San Francisco and potentially
other sites at which Navy support vessels were decontaminated post-test.
In 1948, three additional tests were conducted at the nearby Enewetak Atoll;
contaminated topsoil from the atoll was interred under a concrete dome on
Runit Island which is now in danger of failure due to tidal incursion.
According to Los Alamos's curious tradition of naming things after places
it destroyed, Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll are both streets in LANL's
main office complex, TA-3.
These Marshall Islands tests were followed by a brief reprieve, lasting until
1951. A curious thing about the Manhattan project is how quickly it ended:
after the conclusion of World War II, there was a brief period in which nuclear
weapons didn't seem especially important. The weapons program almost shut down
during this period, and there was no effort towards stockpiling. It briefly
seemed like the whole thing might have been a bit of a one-off, not a major
ongoing function of a nuclear state. It did not last.
In my eyes, 1951 marked the beginning of a real, organized nuclear testing
program in the US. Prior to that had been scattershot experiments coordinated
somewhat haphazardly. From 1951 onward, nuclear testing was operated as an
ongoing business function, using an established process and permanent
infrastructure. While testing would continue at the Marshall Islands for about
a decade further, mostly to accommodate larger-yield tests, the cost of
performing them so far overseas was tremendous. For the testing program to be
cost-effective it needed to be domestic. Ongoing domestic testing required an
area even more remote than southeastern Socorro County: southeastern Nye
Over 1,000 nuclear detonations occurred within the ~1300 square miles of the
NNSS. While the vast majority were underground, 100 were conducted above
ground. The mushroom clouds were visible from the Las Vegas Strip. Fallout
from these above-ground tests headed mostly away from civilization until Utah,
where it almost certainly resulted in excess fatalities due to cancer. The
underground tests left little evidence other than a vast valley of small
craters, each the result of soil falling in on the glass-lined underground
cavern created in milliseconds by the buried weapon.
The NNSS is still in use today, although nuclear testing ended in 1992
following to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Perhaps the most dramatic
activity today is subcritical testing, in which the pits and high-explosive
components of nuclear weapons are tested under real detonation conditions---but
with too little radioactive material to achieve criticality. Because of the
involvement of both nuclear material and a lot of explosives the process must
be treated much like an actual nuclear test. The site is also used for
long-term disposal of low-level nuclear waste from the weapons program,
counter-terrorism testing and training, and the National Criticality
Experiments Research Center, one of only a few sites capable of conducting
experiments with quantities of nuclear material that could become critical.
It is an odd happenstance that the NNSS is both exceptionally remote and only
about an hour from Las Vegas. This makes it something of a tourist destination.
In the days of atmospheric testing (the '50s to early '60s), tourists used to
visit Las Vegas during announced tests in hope of seeing the flash and cloud.
Today, it is possible to take a tour, although not especially easy. Public
tours are held nominally once a month and have a capacity of about 20 people.
They're usually full up well in advance. Some years ago I had set up a script
that would check the webpage on tours for changes and notify me, so that I
could apply for a tour as soon as the next batch of dates were announced
(usually about six months at a time). I succeeded in reserving space for myself
and my husband on a tour in early summer 2020.
You might remember some things about early summer 2020.
By the time our tour date came around, all tours had been canceled indefinitely
due to COVID. I was somewhat skeptical that the tours would ever come back,
given the small scale of the operation and the presumable complexity of its
security plan. But fortunately, several months ago I got an email from the tour
coordinator that they were picking tours back up. She was offering the upcoming
dates to the people they'd canceled on. I was able to snag a tour date in
mid-August, which largely by coincidence ended up matching up neatly with a
period of "funemployment" before I started a new job .
I had planned to hike Tikaboo Peak (viewpoint to Area 51) and visit some other
national security sites that week but, owing to Nevada summer weather and my
own desire to put in as little effort as possible, ended up spending most of
the week luxuriating in the clingy embrace of Caesar's Rewards while riding
every form of transportation I could. While I do indeed have videos of both
monorail (Bombardier Mark VI, of course) and APM (Doppelmayr Cable Liner), I am
doing my best to avoid dancing off the cliff and becoming a train vlogger.
Instead, I am going to tell you what it's like to take a public tour of the
Nevada National Security Site.
First: if you would like to do the same, you can learn about it
According to that website tours are booked through June 2023. I would recommend
that you watch that website carefully and submit your badging form as soon as
more dates are announced; I would anticipate that H2 2023 tours will fill very
quickly. There are also administrative details: tours depart from the National
Atomic Test Museum in Las Vegas near the strip. Cameras, phones, binoculars,
and bags are prohibited. The tour leaves in the morning and takes the full day.
Much of this is because of the distances involved: it is about an hour drive
from Las Vegas to the site, and about another hour from one end of the site
to the other. I believe we were told the tour covers about 270 miles.
Fortunately we were on a comfortable coach with a gregarious tour guide,
former public affairs manager Darwin Morgan.
I will discuss the tour stops in no particular order, mostly because I'm not
sure that I remember the order correctly. I'll also give the caveat that the
NNSS staff seem to be actively working to both improve the tour and accommodate
activity at the site, and so the itinerary will likely change with time.
The first item of interest in the tour comes as you approach the entrance to
the NNSS, on Highway 95, a generous four-lane highway improved to its large
size to accommodate the huge number of people that commuted between the site
and Las Vegas during the days of active testing. Today it is mostly empty,
particularly since it spends most of the distance near Las Vegas either in or
adjacent to the various military reservations that make up the broader Nevada
Test and Training Range (NTTR). It's important to understand that an enormous
portion of the state of Nevada is reserved by the Federal Government for
various defense uses. The NNSS is just one part of this sprawling complex.
Area 51, for example, is not especially far from the NNSS but is not part of
it. The NNSS is also not the Department of Energy's only secretive operation in
southern Nevada, as the Tonopah Test Range of the NTTR is operated by Sandia
National Laboratories. It is also known as Area 52 and is near its more famous
Driving out highway 95 you pass by Creech Air Force Base, a surprisingly small
but densely packed Air Force installation used by UAV pilots. Our guide
promised that you can almost always spot UAVs on approach or departure, and
indeed it only took a moment to spot an MQ-9 Reaper performing touch-and-gos.
It is reassuring that some of the military's most sophisticated aviation
technology still relies on such conventional training techniques. One wonders
if somewhere in a nearby building an instructor was nagging "too high, where's
the needle?" Of course the airfield is less of the main feature than the many
small buildings around it, as most of the pilots of Creech AFB are flying
aircraft over a very different desert.
At around this point our tour guide explains a bit about the oddity of the
NNSS's long commute. Most nuclear weapons installations of the era provided
staff housing, but NNSS employees have long faced a rather tedious drive, and a
dangerous one given the drinking culture of the time. There had been a plan to
build an "atomic town" on the edge of the site for its personnel, but the
extremely low water table and budget limitations prevented any serious efforts.
The closest town is Indian Springs, directly across from Creech AFB, which had
at the time been somewhat eschewed due to its poverty (much of the town has the
feeling of a trailer park facing hard times). Of course, the large staff of
Creech AFB has brought a change in fortunes and Indian Springs is now seeing
quite a building boom.
A bit closer to the NNSS is Cactus Springs, which had consisted largely of a
gas station and bar which was apparently popular with NNSS staff. With the end
of nuclear testing came the end of the bar, and today Cactus Springs is home to
the Temple of Goddess Spirituality, constructed just after the end of testing
in 1993 and tended to by spiritualist Genevieve Vaughan as a shrine to the
Egyptian god Sekhmet. This situation is a bit hard to parse but reminds you
that the desert is full of strange and wonderful things.
On the approach to the NNSS gate, our guide points out the Desert Rock
airstrip. Desert Rock was, at its peak in the '60s, a fairly large Army camp
built to support operations at the NNSS---particularly the testing of nuclear
effects on Army equipment and personnel. Yes, "personnel." If you have heard
the stories of only partly-witting Army soldiers taking shelter from nuclear
blasts in trenches only to emerge from those trenches and march for ground
zero, you have heard of the Desert Rock exercises. As it turns out, the
radiation exposure from these experiments was generally kept within the 3 rem
safety limit established for the program. Epidemiological research has found
an increase in leukemia in participants in these tests, although not one so
significant that it is clearly related (there being known confounding factors,
such as the very high rate of smoking in the military at the time).
Today, little is left of Desert Rock besides a field of concrete pads (from
tents and temporary buildings) and an airstrip. Our guide explains that, as the
closest airstrip to the NNSS, it is still maintained to some degree for
emergency use. Desert Rock is more interesting to me because of my peripheral
knowledge that it is the subject of conspiracy theories: Desert Rock receives
very few aircraft and has nearly no support facilities, but for a time was
visited somewhat regularly by a set of business jets owned by known CIA fronts.
The resulting accusation that NNSS hosted some sort of black site have never
been confirmed and are not, to my mind, very credible. A bit of imagination
will develop more likely motivations for CIA activity at the site.
Just as the bus pulls off the highway, we pass a set of signs warning off
wanderers. Our guide explains that the bold white line painted across the
road here is the boundary of the reservation, and that during the era of more
active anti-nuclear protest the Nye County Sheriff's Office was on hand to
arrest the crowds of demonstrators that would regularly march over it. These
activists were held in a set of chain-link pens just by the road while the
sheriff's deputies wrote citations and were then sent back over the line to
public land. This symbolic criminality, civil disobedience in perhaps the most
pure form, happened regularly for many years.
Today, the specter of nuclear war is largely forgotten, and along with it the
large-scale, organized anti-nuclear movement. Very few demonstrators bother
to visit the NNSS, as is the case with other nuclear weapons complex sites
where even major traditional protest dates like the anniversary of the bombing
of Hiroshima turn out only a few people... people old enough that they had
lived through the Cold War. It has always felt to me that the nuclear weapons
program attained its current state of acceptance not through any actual change
in public opinion but simply by attrition. Nuclear weapons have been around
long enough, and with little enough impact on the world, that few can be
bothered to care.
The tour enters the NNSS, as essentially everything does, at Mercury. The
security checkpoint is some distance past the reservation line (this seems
common at this type of installation, I suspect so that it gives errant drivers
time to discover their mistake and gate runners very few excuses), and the town
of Mercury is just past it. Mercury is nominally a town, and has a post
office to bolster that claim, but it has no population and serves instead as
the main post for the NNSS. Our guide points out the fire station, the post
office, and an imposing concrete building that houses the Operations Control
Center from which the whole site is run.
As we passed through Mercury our attention was called to a set of newer
buildings. Our guide explained that the NNSS was having a hard time hiring
and retaining staff and that the Cold War-era work environment was thought
to be part of the problem. A building program had been started to transform
Mercury into a more "campus-like" installation that would appeal to young
We stop for coffee and a bathroom at the Mercury cafeteria. I commented here to
my husband that I find the "campus-like" construction effort to be a real
shame. The history of the nuclear weapons program, having grown so abruptly to
massive scale in the '50s and '60s, has given it a curiously consistent
aesthetic. Simple rectangular buildings with cast concrete segment roofs and
breeze-block screens over plate glass windows. Heavy wood paneling in an effort
to add aesthetic interest. Suspended fluorescent lights with sheet metal
baffles, at least a third of them dead or dying. Everything, everywhere,
painted the same shade of tan.
This is, of course, a description of anything built by the army in the
mid-century on a tight budget and even tighter schedule. Both in conceptual and
historical terms, it is one step nicer than a row of Quonset huts. But it is a
consistent look, and as a result your average Department of Energy installation
looks more harmonious than a university campus with a 300-page architectural
master plan. More significantly, I think it maintains a certain important
spiritual connection between the weapons complex today and the Cold War.
Philosophically, it might be important for the staff there now to remember that
they are operating a legacy of a foregone time. Efforts to modernize the
buildings, like efforts to modernize the weapons themselves, come with a
degree of danger.
After our brief visit to the cafeteria, we re-boarded our bus and continued over
a low ridge into the test site itself. And that's a good cliffhanger, so hold
on for Part II. I'm currently in Fort Worth for a long conference, so I have
quite a bit of free time and not a lot else to do. That means posting!
 I'm now with GitLab in professional services. That's right, if you spend
enough money on GitLab, I might come with it! Opinions are mine and not those
of my employer, except for the bad ones, which are the opinions of someone else
that I've never met before and certainly did not arrive here with.
Programming note: Sorry for the infrequent posts lately, I have been traveling
and starting a new job. Probably the next thing I post will be a report on some
of that travel, which you will hopefully find interesting.
Previously on Deep Space Nine, we discussed the landscape of common retail
EAS systems: electromagnetic, acousto-magnetic, and RFID. I now want to
extend on this by discussing some peripheral systems that serve as part of the
larger retail loss prevention technology stack. I will follow up on that by
saying a bit about why none of these approaches seem to end up working that
Shopping carts are fairly expensive, running around $200 to replace. Since
shopping carts are attractive for moving stuff, they have a tendency to "go for
a walk" and require frequent replacement. The first type of "smart cart"
technology to make a widespread appearance is "cart retention" or cart
anti-theft. Most Americans have probably encountered these by now, although
they remain fairly uncommon in New Mexico.
While there are a number of vendors and systems, most are based around a fairly
simple concept. A special wheel or wheel housing contains low-power electronics
which observe for an RF tone. When the tone is detected, some type of locking
mechanism activates that prevents the wheel from rotating. The wheel usually
remains locked until commanded to unlock via an RF or IR device.
To form a cart perimeter, a cable is buried around the perimeter of the parking
lot that acts as an antenna. The emitted power is quite low, so carts only lock
when passing fairly close to the cable. In some systems, a second cable buried
a bit inside of the outer emits a separate tone that commands the wheels to
unlock. This makes it possible for a customer to reset a cart by dragging it a
short distance back towards the store, potentially saving employee effort.
Most cart retention systems operate at low frequencies, below 9 KHz in the case
of the Gatekeeper Systems offering. These low frequencies are fairly efficient
with the very long antenna cables used, penetrate materials well, and best of
all are below allocated spectrum... so there is no licensing required.
You can probably imagine that the "locking cart wheel" technology can be
applied to a few different problems. A common form of retail loss, and one that
tends to involve fairly large dollar amounts, is "push-out theft." A push-out
thief loads up a cart with products and simply walks out. With well-chosen
items like powdered laundry detergent it can be difficult to detect this type
One approach is aggressive traffic management in the store, using one-way gates
and barriers to prevent customers exiting without passing through the
checkstands. This kind of highly visible security is becoming more common but
it's not completely effective... for one, having a large number of
self-checkout machines tends to make it pretty easy to get through the
checkstands without paying or being noticed.
A somewhat more sophisticated, and annoying, solution is the installation of a
pushout prevention system like Gatekeeper's Purchek. While there can be more
complexity to these systems, the basic idea is that each cart is temporarily
"enabled" when a customer completes a purchase, and stays enabled for a time
period like 30 minutes. Outside of that time period, any attempt to leave the
store with a cart will cause that cart to lock. This should prevent anyone
leaving with a cart of unpaid items.
You can probably think of a few ways to implement this, and they've probably
all been done by at least one company, even the bad ones. In the case of
Gatekeeper's older generation Purchek system, each checkstand seems to contain
a unit that transmits a signal which starts the exit timer in the cart wheel.
When the cart is pushed through the exit, a tone transmitted by a floor antenna
causes it to check the exit permission timer and lock up if it is not still
There are variations with appreciably more complex configurations though, and
Gatekeeper Systems holds a patent on a cart-to-cart and cart-to-access-point
mesh networking system that can be used to apply particularly complex logic
to make lock-on-exit decisions. It's not clear to me how much of the patented
material is actually implemented in their commercial products right now, but
certainly some of it is.
Many grocery stores now feature a panel antenna mounted near the exits facing
the area approaching the doors. This panel antenna is used by the Gatekeeper
door controller to communicate with the cart wheels, and it's hard to suss out
the exact logical architecture of the system but it seems that the door
controller can query the cart wheels for a recent historical average rotational
speed and can use the history of detection of that cart wheel to determine the
location history of the cart. These can be factored into the exit permission
I have heard complaints of Kroger configuring the time window during which exit
is enabled after paying to be as short as 60 seconds, short enough that walking
slowly toward the exit (e.g. due to a disability) will consistently result in
the cart locking at the doors. There is a substantial accessibility issue with
many of these loss prevention technologies and vendors seldom address it in
their marketing material.
Networked communication with cart wheels can also be used for various
convenience use cases, like automatically counting carts in the parking lot to
determine when carts need to be rounded up, and allowing a parking lot
attendant to unlock all carts in a corral area at once. Nonetheless, Kroger
consistently struggles to have any carts available at the entrances, but that
comes down to staffing... which we'll get to in a bit.
One long-running source of loss prevention frustration is that deck at the
bottom of the cart between the wheels, often called the bottom-of-basket or
BOB. The way most checkstands are configured, the cashier cannot directly see
this area... but it's often used for relatively expensive item like 24-packs of
beer. It presents a significant opportunity for both accidental failure to ring
up an item and intentional theft.
A friend who once worked in a grocery store told me that his chain had a
general practice of cashiers making some comment about a fictional coworker or
relative named "Bob" to warn another cashier that a customer had something on
the bottom of their cart. For decades, checkstand manufacturers have offered a
low-tech BOB solution consisting of a "periscope" configuration that allowed
the cashier to see the foot-level area by looking in a mirror mounted under a
hood near the weighscale/barcode scanner. Many stores just placed an adhesive
parabolic mirror on the side of the next checkstand over that served the same
purpose more simply.
These solutions are simple and effective, so of course there are options which
are complex and, well, questionably effective? The Lanehawk from Datalogic is a
camera and illuminator which mounts in the space most checkstands have for the
lower periscope mirror. It uses machine vision to detect items in the BOB and
identify them, giving the cashier a prompt that rings them up in one button
press. I have seen LaneHawk installed at several stores and I have never
actually seen it work. It's hard to tell if this is because of poor reliability
or because of retailers starting deployment and never finishing it due to
training or configuration issues, which seems to be oddly common with this type
Queue and customer volume management
Customers get irritated if they have to wait too long to check out, but idle
cashiers waste money. Stores have to try to strike a balance between short
wait times and high utilization rate for open checkstands.
There are two basic ways that technology can, in theory, help: first, counting
queues at the checkstand can allow for a fast automatic call for more cashiers
when lines start to grow. There are various systems that can do this including
Gatekeeper based on counting the number of cart wheels apparently in queue for
A second and more interesting approach is predictive queue counting. By
knowing how many people entered the store and when, it's possible to predict
the likely number of people who will queue to check out some time in the
future. Several grocery chains have invested in Irisys's system, which uses
distributed "people counting" units to track the arrival rate of customers.
This data, along with potentially data on customer location in the store based
on other vendor's systems, drives television screens mounted near the
checkstands that display the current number of open checkstands and the number
that will be required to maintain a queue depth target in 15 and 30 minutes.
For some odd reason these three numbers are labeled "Lanes Open," "Action Now,"
and "30 Minutes," the first and third of which are inconsistent but logical and
the middle of which is just bizarre. Besides this real-time feedback it also
collects historical data to make long-term projections, which can be used for
scheduling cashier shifts.
For some reason Irisys's marketing material repeatedly mentions the use of a
"VGA display." It's unclear to me if the copy is from the '90s or just the
attitude of the person who wrote it. The use of consumer televisions should
reassure us that it is at least WXGA.
The data for these systems can come from many, diverse sources. Kroger
stores in my area are equipped with machine-vision based people counting using
multi-lens 360 degree cameras as well as Bluetooth and WiFi-sniffing people
counting systems. Some machine vision is infrared, but some is visual. Some
people-counters use simple multi-spot passive IR methods (somewhat like typical
burglar alarm motion detectors) while others use proper imaging.
If data collection on customer volume can be gathered automatically, what about
data on stocking levels? There are products on the market that monitor shelf
stocking using machine vision, but I have not personally seen them widely
deployed. The principle is fairly simple, just pointing a camera at a shelf
(often using fisheye optics for wide coverage) and using obvious methods to
see if items are present where they should be.
Shelf stocking information can also be gathered by robots that travel the store
floor observing shelves. This has been shown at a number of trade shows but I'm
not sure if it's actually being done on any large scale. I tend to think that
it would end up being more expensive overall than fixed cameras, considering
the more complex maintenance situation.
Staff and Equipment
Given the amount of technology apparently being thrown at the problem, why is
it that retail loss prevention (at least in my market) mostly seems like a
I'm not an industry insider or anything, so I can only speculate. But it seems
clear that insufficient staffing is the single greatest issue at the moment,
and I think that's been the case since prior to COVID. Basically al of these
systems are dependent on having enough staff to attend to them, and grocery
stores frequently fail on this front. Kroger spent a good chunk of money
installing guard podiums at the entrance of all their stores with monitors
showing surveillance video, but I still haven't actually seen one staffed,
presumably since it would prevent the single guard actually walking the
The issue has become more acute as retailers have made increasing use of
two particularly labor-intensive approaches: separate, dedicated cashier
stands for high-theft areas, and locking displays.
In the former system, the liquor and cosmetics sections are isolated (perhaps
by awkwardly installed screen walls) and have a dedicated cashier. This cashier
is presumably more able to monitor for shoplifting since they have a small
assigned area, and it prevents unpurchased items from those sections
circulating to parts of the store where they would be much easier to conceal.
Kroger rolled out this system over the last two years in my area and has had
significant practical problems. The thing that has most stood out to me is that
they have consistently laid out these areas with the expectation that the
cashier stand with their back to the products. This obviously limits how
vigilant the cashier can be, and moreover poses a safety concern to the staff
since it reduces their situational awareness and provides an easy covert
approach to potential thieves. There is news reporting that, in some areas,
these checkstands have been modified in response to union complaints related
to employee safety.
There are other issues yet. The checkstand obviously needs to be staffed for
this system to be effective. Early on Kroger tended to leave it unstaffed most
of the time, but the switch to self-checkout stands seems to have enabled more
consistently posting a cashier. Second, it creates a situation in which
purchased merchandise circulates around the store. This is significant, since
it means that it is now fairly normal for a customer to check out and only pay
for some of the items they are taking with them. This makes "theft by
omission," already common at the self-checkout stands, difficult to impossible
to detect. The use of "paid" stickers and stapling bags shut mitigates the
issue somewhat but not entirely, since the realities of a busy retail store
make it very hard to consistently adhere to and enforce these mechanisms.
In a particularly interesting gaffe (or perhaps partially implemented change in
policy), Kroger stores in my region have not installed an EAS tag deactivator
at the cosmetics checkstand. Cosmetics items are relatively commonly tagged, and
Kroger tags many items post-manufacturing with an anti-tamper tape overlay. Due
to the lack of a deactivator, though, these items now set off the EAS portal
every single time they are purchased. The guard now responds to all EAS alarms by
resetting them with no further investigation. Brilliant.
Nonetheless, there is obvious potential to reduce theft. I tried to find some
sort of data on the efficacy of this measure but either there's little to be
found or, perhaps more likely, I don't know the right terms to search for.
The other common staffing approach seen today is locking up certain items in
their displays, and then requiring customers to find a staff member to have
them unlocked. The staff member might walk the item to a checkstand instead of
trusting the customer with it, once unlocked . This method has been around for
decades and is becoming increasingly common, from Walgreens (just about
everything) to The Home Depot (cordless tools, certain consumables like diamond
blades). The theft advantages are obvious, but the big problem is that there
have to be enough employees around for a customer to reasonably be able to find
someone. I am always very curious about how much sales drop when this system is
introduced; I have basically stopped buying cosmetics at Walgreens because of
the difficulty of getting an employee to show up.
Where does this whole thing leave us? Despite a lot of development retail loss
prevention is still an unsolved problem in many ways. The greatest problem
remains the trade-off between loss prevention and staffing costs: loss
prevention technologies have to be cost effective, and that usually rules out
the most effective designs (ubiquitous use of RFID).
Amazon Go has demonstrated the strong potential of machine vision and other
machine learning technologies. This kind of ubiquitous tracking requires
extensive infrastructure support, though, and major retail chains often seem to
struggle with much more basic equipment installations. No doubt the management
model of these companies, including franchising in some cases, is part of the
difficulty, but it's also what has allowed these chains to grow to such large
To some extent the increase in online shopping has obviated loss prevention
technology, and there are no signs of this trend stopping. Future stores will
probably lean more and more into showroom-type design, but in many cases their
loss prevention efforts will lead to higher and higher friction to actually
making a purchase. This seems unwise as a strategy to compete with Amazon but,
well, does anyone have a good plan to compete with Amazon?
 An interesting factoid is that Walgreens uses expensive Medeco cylinders on
the plexiglass display cases that you can force open by hand. I assume this is
just to allow same-keying with other more secure enclosures, but one wonders at
how much extra money these expensive cylinders have cost across the enterprise.