Where’s The Fire?

by Joseph Mooradian

On March 17, 1953, in the great state of Nevada, the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Federal Civil Defense Administration, set off a nuclear “device” with a sixteen kiloton yield (roughly equivalent to the eradication of one [1] Hiroshima or Nagasaki) demonstrating the massive potential for the destructive power of such “devices,” and I fail to see what the big deal is about all this ruckus. So much is made of these weapons and it seems to me to come down to a simple fact repeated time and again in a declassified pamphlet, titled Operation Doorstep, on the subject, namely, “The house did not burn!” Emphasis courtesy of Uncle Sam. Let me explain.


Two houses were constructed in the wide open plains of Nevada for the purpose of learning exactly what happens when you set off an atomic bomb at a distance of 3,500 or 7,500 feet from a structure, although I would like to think we could probably guess what would occur. This Nevadan plain, known more formally as the Nevada Proving Ground was the host to many a detonation throughout the years. This is probably for the best, because it’s not as if there’s much to harm in Nevada that you didn’t put there, for example, these two houses. House One, at 3,500 feet, was instantly obliterated by the force of the blast, and House Two, some additional 4,000 feet off, was shaken to its foundations, but was able to at least remain standing through the test, a conclusion I’m not certain to call a victory or a defeat, as the bomb and the building were built by the same blokes. It didn’t go well for any of the many mannequins placed inside either structure however. Their flat, plaster skin and their stylish, contemporary J.C. Penny outfits had been rearranged by various mixtures of blast, air pressure, and fractured glass.

Investigators concluded that anybody in House One was probably a goner. There was still some chance though, no matter how atomically minimal, allowing for someone hiding in the basement against the wall who didn’t get crushed by the wreckage above, and could make their way out, assuming there was a path left through the pile of timber formerly known as House One to scamper out of, and of course assuming they could navigate the various remains of glass, furniture, fixtures, and appliance therein, all the while praying there wasn’t any fire, which of course, there wasn’t. Which is not to say that there wasn’t any heat on the premises of House One, where within moments of the detonation, the heat-reflective paint was vaporized from the boards, making it difficult to determine which part had been where in the aftermath. The roof and the walls disconnected completely—the roof taking flight on the winds of atomic origin—and the walls resigning themselves to the aforementioned pile of timber.

Individuals in House Two seemed to fare better, only being set upon by the implosion and redistribution of various fixtures within the house, such as windows, doors, or blinds. All of these didn’t fare any better from the blast, even at such a distance of 7,500 feet, with blinds described as “rolled up in tangled masses,” and with the real threat apart from blinds being “struck by glass and other missiles.” The front doorknob was found halfway up the stairs after the splintering of the standard door, apparently unaware that again the basement was the safest place during such an event. There had been another grouping of mannequins in this building set about a table perhaps at tea, sharing stories and comparing their J.C. Penny duds, apparently tragically unaware that they were about to be blasted to kingdom come. This blasting wore rather intrusively upon said mannequins, rendering their glass eyes dull, their plaster skin peeled and broken, and most tragically, their sense of style inert.

In addition to the homes there were a variety of bunkers, smaller shelters, and lean-tos littering the landscape. Some of these were smaller bunker-style surface constructions, made to shield someone from an immanent nuclear blast, assuming they happened to be out and about so they could scurry home in the ensuing chaos; others were more intricate sunken-bunkers wherein one could fit the average family, including a sturdy door and nearly complete immersion in the dirt. The latter of these styles surprisingly seemed to offer actual shelter from the blast, assuming you had time to scurry across your lawn with your kids and your wife and the dog and some provisions and maybe something to read while the whole thing just blew over.

A Survivor Of Operation Doorstep.
A Survivor Of Operation Doorstep.

Maybe a copy of the Operation Doorstep report, which would let you know that, assuming you were about 3,500 feet or more from the epicenter of the blast, and none of your pesky appliances had been particularly inflammable that, “it must be remembered that there was no fire.” A comfort I’m sure, unless your provisions had included marshmallows and your whole game-plan was to go back outside once the face of the earth stopped shaking under the furious might of God vis-à-vis mankind vis-à-vis nuclear warheads. But even the sturdier half of the bunkers that survived the blast physically, and which did not suffer its inhabitants to be incinerated, or crushed by massive air-pressure, would have struggled to prevent the spread of irradiated fallout on the nice lawn, once so easily traversed.

This is where the Federal Civil Defense Administration comes in, ideally. With all the good, or more realistically, fast American people tucked safe in their shelters, there emerges a great need to dig those people out of their shelters and move them to some other safe place, to be determined. This involves putting other volunteering individuals who have also recently weathered an atomic blast deeper into the blast zone and seeing how close you can get before the survivor-yielding bunkers become corpse-yielding tombs. Then everyone who survived could go off to the hopefully-determined safe zone and get a nice scrubbing to get all that pesky radioactive off before too much of it gets under the skin.

So what exactly was Uncle Sam trying to get at with all this construction and destruction? Why did we build two houses, and consequentially knock those houses over? We seem to have known that the bombs worked, that they ended World War II handily spoke to that truth. We also seem to have known how far from the bomb was “far enough” to get some very specific iconography, from paint-vaporization to window-fragmentation, a very consistent picture emerges that we pretty much already knew what was going to happen. So why all the fuss? Even supposing something was learned from all this, is it really necessary? With House One at 3,500 feet, isn’t the answer to the question something akin to, “No, you really can’t miss with these things”? And couldn’t we have ascertained that pretty simply from the two arguably “necessary” uses of the bombs at the close of the war? It would seem that the answer to these questions from the American Government is a flat no.

And there’s really no reason not to test these bombs anyways, right? Because what was the worst thing that’s going to happen? Nevada gets hotter? And there’s no way we’re just blowing things up in the desert, on American soil with no motivation or route to a higher knowledge. We wouldn’t send those men in after a detonation to collect data for nothing. As much as we feel bad for the mild irradiation of the great American plains and crops, we wouldn’ It’s not like we’re going to blow up a bomb just to say, “Ha-ha, look at what we can do, we can just throw away time, effort, and atomic resources to bomb our own soil fruitlessly in a display of power that even Old-Testament-Yahweh might suggest is a bit much. Are you even trying other countries? Sometimes I seriously wonder if you’re even trying, and perhaps I’m the only one who even cares about this whole blasted thing.” And yet even then, we ultimately failed to burn these houses.

So if there’s no actual fire what really is the big deal? Reducing a structure to rubble is great but has the equivalent strength of an earthquake, another of God’s old tricks, and if we can’t improve upon that design why are we trying at all? Should weapons that can’t shake and burn really be high on the priority list for warfare? I mean, a blast is nice and everything, and wind-blown clouds of radioactive material lightly dusting the suburbs and urban areas of an opposing country is nice and all, but without fire? Forget it. Fire is an effective tool that has been at mankind’s disposal for nearly a million years. And I just really don’t think that that’s something we should be letting slip away just because we’re caught up in some prolific arms race. Really!