The Blast!

June 2, 2017

Upcoming Events at the Museum


For information on events, education, museum tours, intern and docent programs, call 702.439.8438 or email

Centerra Group Renews Corporate Sponsorship

(From left to right) NTSHF Vice Chair Nelson Cochrane, NTSHF President Linda Smith, NTSHF Chairman Troy Wade, NTSHF Vice President Chuck Costa, and NATM Executive Director Michael Hall are presented with a $5,000 check from Centerra Group.

Centerra Group renewed its corporate sponsorship of the National Atomic Testing Museum, presenting a $5,000 check to the museum at a recent Board of Trustees meeting.

Centerra is a leading international government solutions group, specializing in sectors where security and safety risks are considered a strategic threat.  Centerra has been a great friend of the museum, and we are grateful for the company’s continued support of our exhibits and programs.

If you are interested in supporting the National Atomic Testing Museum through a corporate sponsorship or want to learn more about the benefits of becoming a corporate sponsor, please contact Kathy Powell, Director of Marketing & Business Development, at

To everyone at Centerra Group, thank you so much for your patronage and your continued dedication to our mission!


Link Technologies Tour and Donation

The museum welcomed Ali Tabatabai, principal of Link Technologies, and a small group of his guests to the museum at the end of May for a tour with our executive director Michael Hall.  We offer our sincere thanks to Ali and this group–Ali donated a generous $500 at the conclusion of the tour!

As you know, we are a member-supported organization, and appreciate the generosity of both our corporate and personal donors.  Each donation we receive goes a long way in supporting the many outreach programs the museum offers, along with the development and evolution of current and future exhibits.  If you would like to make a contribution to the museum, please click here.


Recent Lectures: Peter Merlin and Dr. Siegfried Hecker

Two Distinguished Lectures took place at the National Atomic Testing Museum in May.  On May 19, aerospace historian and author Peter Merlin spoke to a full house on the design and evolution of the Lockheed Blackbird, and followed his lecture with a book signing.

On Thursday, May 25, former Los Alamos National Lab director and current Stanford professor Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker spoke to a large audience on the importance of nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, despite tensions between the two super powers.  Dr. Hecker also offered a book signing following his lecture.

The Distinguished Lecture Series is one of the museum’s most unique and important programs, and one that is highly valued by the community, as evidenced by the increasingly large audiences that attend each lecture.  We offer to our sincere thanks to each of our distinguished lecturers for their time and expertise.

We have several more lectures planned for the second half the year (see flyer images above), and hope you’ll join us for these events!


NATM’s New Theatre Already a Hit with Visitors
by Michael Hall

The room that formerly served as the temporary Area 51 Exhibit Hall has been operating as a new permanent theatre and exhibit space for almost a month, and it’s already a hit with our guests!  This space will also be home to forthcoming special exhibits “Exposed: World of Radiation” and a new exhibit on the documented history of Area 51.

Opening this area as a continuous-play theatre has added an additional hour to the museum experience of our visitors. It has also become an invaluable orientation space for our ever-increasing number of school groups, which have recently averaged 900 Clark County students per month.

Currently we have a special Smithsonian sanctioned feature on the Test Site playing at the top of the hour. Other new features will soon be added.

One of the school groups that visited this week actually stayed an extra hour after their tour and watched the whole Smithsonian feature! I find most of our customers are also now extending their stay about an extra hour during their visit to watch features, as well as the shorter features on current defense issues we have playing in the old Museum Store space.  Stay tuned for more developments in the former store space, as well, as it will transform into a new temporary exhibit space in the near future.  These are really great new additions to our museum experience.

In the News

To help keep you up to date on local and global current events in the nuclear world, we share links to relevant items in the news.  The National Atomic Testing Museum does not endorse any views or opinions expressed in these stories; we are sharing for informational purposes only.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal covered Dr. Sig Hecker’s lecture at the NATM on May 25, detailing his recommendations on working with North Korea and Russia on nuclear issues.  Read the full article here.

It is our mission at the National Atomic Testing Museum to document the history of and current events in nuclear testing. We never take a political stance on any issue; rather, we do strive to keep you informed.  In each newsletter, my Spot On column will highlight history and happenings in the nuclear world and at the museum.   

Michael Hall

North Korea Update 11: History Repeating Itself

Three times in the last three weeks North Korea has conducted successful medium-range missile tests demonstrating a steady improvement in its potential capacity to deliver offensive weapons. The fear is, of course, they will soon be able to arm their new missiles with atomic warheads.

What North Korea is currently doing parallels the United States’ own atomic weapons and ballistic missile programs back in the 1950s and early 1960s. The historical analogies are in fact sobering. An even more important analogy is that at that time we were also developing thermonuclear weapons. This is another concern-that North Korea may be on the verge of producing a hydrogen bomb or some sort of hybrid.

The New York Times recently quoted Professor Siegfried S. Hecker of Stanford University on this subject. He is an experienced voice on North Korea’s weapons’ development and a longtime National Atomic Testing Museum supporter and recent guest lecturer. Professor Hecker stated, “I can’t imagine they’re not working on a true thermonuclear weapon.” Dr. Hecker, however, cautions that there is no definitive evidence yet.

Atomic weapons are fission devices that have explosive yields measured in the kilotons such as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as moderately larger ones tested at the Nevada and Pacific test sites in the 1950s. These A-bombs utilize enriched uranium or plutonium to create nuclear fission-splitting heavy atoms in chain reactions. H-bombs utilize the principle of fusion, fusing two light atoms into one utilizing deuterium and tritium. They are actually triggered by an atom bomb. The explosive yields of hydrogen or thermonuclear devices are typically measured in the megatons. In fact, atomic weapons have limits as to how large an explosive yield they can be made to produce, whereas hydrogen weapons have no theoretical limit.

Making H-bombs is no easy task. The first step in developmental testing is the process called “boosting” or injecting a tiny amount of thermonuclear fuel into the core of an atom bomb which increases its explosive yield. The U.S. first did this in 1951 in two nuclear tests in Operation Greenhouse on Enewetak. Gregory S. Jones of the RAND Corporation has stated that it is possible North Korea has already worked on a boosted fission test. So, history may very well be repeating itself in this category, as well.

In 1954, we tested the first true hydrogen bomb in the Bravo test of Operation Castle on Bikini Island. That device weighed more than 21 tons, so it would have been impossible to deliver with most aircraft or any kind of missile. Engineers and physicists kept working.  Further testing lead to miniaturization of the H-bomb just as it did of the A-bomb following World War Two.

Many experts are starting to agree that North Korea has already made progress in reducing the size of their atomic weapons. Recent intelligence analysis suggests their initial devices approximated the five-foot-width-size of our 1945 era atomic weapons. Now, however, we are seeing images, if authentic, approximating something like the size of a basketball. This is where we were in this country by the early 1960s when we finally married atomic weapons to ballistic missiles. Then we soon accomplished the same with thermonuclear devices. So, will North Korea follow that same path?

The North could also be opting for another stage of nuclear weapons development called “layering.” This is basically wrapping layers of thermonuclear fuel and uranium around an atomic bomb. That would result in burning more hydrogen than boosting. Testing years ago proved this could make a common A-bomb 25 percent more powerful.

It may not be a matter of if but when their nuclear weapons will be ready to be installed on the tip of a missile.  It is for that reason that the international community is now so concerned about North Korean missile development.

The point of this concern is that North Korea already has atomic devices. Realistically, they can or soon will be able to weaponize and deploy them for offense or defensive use. On the Korean Peninsula, atomic weapons would not only serve as a deterrence to anyone invading North Korea but would offer them an effective offensive capacity if they were indeed ill-advised enough to try and unify the Koreas. Thermonuclear weapons, however, are a game changer. They are so large that such devices have no real use tactically speaking. They would however serve a formidable threat if miniaturized and mated to an intercontinental ballistic missile, something that Kim Jong Un has clearly stated he wants to accomplish. This, in his mind, would offer his country the ultimate defense or deterrence to an invasion or U.S.- sponsored strike. Having even such a few weapons would make it very hard for a preemptive strike against North Korea because there would be no guarantee we could get all the weapons in a first strike. In other words, currently Kim Jong Un could devastate his local Asian region with atomic weapons or even his conventional weapons for that matter. However, with intercontinental ballistic missiles and thermonuclear weapons he could threaten large North American population centers. Therefore, it gives Kim Jong Un a post-strike or second strike retaliatory capability that would be so severe no one would logically risk inciting any move against the North. Again, it all comes down to not just the nuclear devices, but the delivery systems which in this case would be missiles.

North Korea’s effort to build an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM is very analogous to our attempts in the late 1950s to perfect the long-range Atlas Rocket. That was a two-year project from start to finish; however, North Korea is moving considerably slower because they do not have the same technological resources to draw upon. They are, however, making steady progress. We tend to forget it’s not only North Korean nuclear weapons that are contravened by U.N. resolutionsbut ballistic missiles as well. The most recent missile launches, just like their recent nuclear tests, are not rebellious acts of saber-rattling or posturing to leverage an easing of sanctions-not that Kim Jong Un does not welcome that impression. Instead, and unfortunately, the missile tests and nuclear trials demonstrate methodical research and development attempting to strive toward engineering advancements just as we did very successfully in this country years ago.

Let’s look at some of these missile systems. The North Korean “KN” missile systems (as referred to in the intelligence communities) represent a weapons development project that deserves watching. It is by no means an intercontinental ballistic missile system. These are medium-range missiles, yet they do present a significant threat to the region. The KN-11 poses the most significant development and is known in North Korea as the Pukkuksong-1 or Bukgeukseong-1. The weapon is of such significance because it is an advancing form of a solid-fueled, submarine-launched ballistic missile. The world watched close-up images of the KN-11 at the recent Pyongyang military parade on April 16.  The KN-11 appears to be a descendant from the Soviet-era R-27/SS-N-6 Serb SLBM. Originally, this derivative had a liquid-fuel propellant but made the more sophisticated jump to solid-fuel. Solid-fuel, of course, is critical to developing a submarine-launched device as well as making land variants more mobile and launch ready. To date the KN-11 has had about a half-dozen successful tests, some of these being submerged tests signifying a significant technical advancement.

This is disturbing when coupled with satellite imagery which suggests North Korea is preparing to put into production a new type of ballistic missile submarine. It is nicknamed “The Whale,” and the prototype is under sea trials now. The Gorae, (Gora is Korean for whale) is also called the Sinpo-class after its home-base shipyard. The Gorae is the largest submarine North Korea has built to date. This new development in a large-capacity ocean-going submarine is very disturbing to Western Intelligence. The diesel-powered sub may be based on past Soviet designs and appears to have one or two built-in launch tubes in its conning tower, each assuming to accommodate a ballistic missile.

The vessel’s displacement is estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 tons with a length around 200 feet. The “Whale” is still significantly smaller than Russian designs like the Kilo class. If truly capable of firing ballistic missiles, it would represent a significant advancement for the Korean People’s Navy (KPN).

This would put North Korea at a level that the Soviets and Americans were reaching five and a half decades ago when a Cold War arms race was just beginning to get serious and as we approached the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many have even compared the current North Korean situation akin to a “Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion.” A year after the Cuban Missile Crisis President John F. Kennedy witnessed a U.S. test of a similar submerged launched solid fueled rocket called the Polaris. Kennedy felt it marked a significant change in a nation’s ability to strategize for nuclear war.Analysts presume this new class of North Korean submarine will carry the KN-11.

To date the submerged tests of the KN-11 have taken place from specially designed barges. These are submersible test stand barges, one at the Nampo Naval Shipyard on the North Korean west coast and one at the Sinpo South Shipyard on the country’s east coast. Satellite photos show these two special test barges similar in design to what were once used in the Soviet era and were called the PSD-4 submersible missile test stand barges. Missiles being designed for deployment in ballistic missile submarines are out of necessity first tested on submergible barges until the design is proved safe and reliable.  By April of 2016, tests demonstrated the KN-11 fully evolved into a solid-fuel missile with a range of about 900 kilometers. Solid-fuel rockets tend to have somewhat shorter range, but they can be readied to fire much faster than liquid fuel rockets which take some preparation. The land variant of the KN-11 successfully test flew this year in February of 2017 and is now known as the KN-15 to intelligence or the Pukkuksong-2 in North Korea.

The KN-15 has a slightly greater range of 1,200 to 2,000 kilometers if fired on a low or “depressed” trajectory. This missile is in fact of such note because it is fired from a tracked transporter erector launcher which is reusable after launch. This provides the missile system greater mobility in the difficult North Korean terrain, very little of which has paved roadways.

The latest successful test on May 21 is believed to be a KN-15 which most news agencies are commonly referring to only as the Pukkuksong-2.  It reached an altitude of 348 miles traveling on a trajectory which covered 780 miles according to the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. What is disturbing about this test is that apparently the missile transmitted back electronic signals that helped check the projectile’s position and steering functions which means its accuracy could be very high. Kim Dong Yub, defense analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul said that this design could be a key steppingstone toward building a true intercontinental ballistic missile just as some early American pre-Atlas designs proved. Again, an interesting historical analogy.

North Korea has followed up the launch with an announcement that it is ready to start mass producing the KN-15. Most defense analysts say that they would be hard pressed to produce more than fifty in the next twelve months. Although that number could match the number of nuclear devices the North has a year from now.

An earlier missile test on Saturday, April 29 involved what is believed to be a KN-17 or Hwasong-12 which is another new land-based missile fired from a mobile launcher. This is an intermediate-range liquid-fueled ballistic missile and may also be a stepping stone candidate for an intercontinental ballistic missile. Analysts debate if this might be designed as an anti-ship missile because it has distinctive forward fins for terminal guidance. The KN-17 could be the new missile displayed on a tracked transporter erector launcher at the Pyongyang military parade on April 16th of this year. On May 14th the KN-17 again successfully test flew. This missile cannot hit the U.S. mainland but is believed to be able to threaten Guam where we have significant military assets.

North Korea has longer range missiles, and they have even put satellites into orbit.  However, they do not seem to have a standardize long-range missile like the KN series ready for production. In addition to that-sending a weapon on an intercontinental ballistic missile involves working out reentry of the weapon. That proved a significant challenge for early American and Russian designers in the 1950s. There is the possibility that North Korea has the capability of exploding a nuclear weapon in the upper atmosphere causing an Electromagnetic Pulse or EMP.

This, however, is discounted by most experts because in order to cause a significant disruption it would almost certainly have to be a very large device on the order of a thermonuclear weapon of many megatons. At the end of our atmospheric testing period prior to the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 which moved American and Soviet testing underground, we were just beginning to experiment with what a nuclear weapon could do if exploded extremely high up in the atmosphere. To this day there are many differing opinions on how severe man-made EMPs could be. We know natural solar outbursts have the potential of causing significant problems, but the amount of energy would have to be on a huge scale, whether man-made or natural.

So the big question is-couldNorth Korea truly be planning on arming its missiles with nuclear warheads and if so, why? Professor B.R. Myers of South Korea’s Dongseo University points out that The Kim family dynasty has made nuclear weapons and missiles part of its country’s national identity. This seems true even for the peasants in the fields. From a historical analogy, it is not all that different than the pride and admiration Americans had in our own country in the early days of nuclear testing. Atomic bombs were certainly part of the pop culture of 1950s America. Mastering the atom provided a sense of national pride for us years ago just as it does for North  Koreans today.

Professor Myers also stresses that North Korea prides itself on an official ideology of self-reliance known as “juche.” This has been symbolic of the North Korean people since they strove to gain less reliance on China in the late 1950s. Professor Myers is somewhat controversial in that he sees the recent rise in tensions on the Korean Peninsula as indicative of a strategy by Kim Jong Un beyond just defense. Professor Myers states in regard to this:

“Why is it doing the one thing that could cause the U.S. to strike North Korea, even at the risk of South Korean fatalities? The only logical answer is that it’s pursuing something greater than mere security-and there’s only one logical conclusion as to what that is.”

Professor Myers feels Kim Jong Un seeks to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Unification may even be his ultimate goal as it was for Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Iconic mosaics in the Pyongyang metro depicts Kim Il Sung watching over a scene of reunification. This makes a lot of sense considering the fact South Koreans recently went to the polls this May to elect a new president for the vacancy caused by the impeachment and indictment of Park Geun Hye. Analysts warn the new government formed under the center-left South Korean party leader Moon Jae In will not be as conservative or pro-Washington as the former. So, Kim Jong Un may be cleverer than we give him credit for. Even recent remarks by President Trump reflects some grudging respect. Trump, in fact, compared the ongoing tensions between Kim and Washington as a game of chess. The problem of course with any chess game is that someone has to eventually lose.

We do know the growing class of young professionals in South Korea have little interest in a showdown between North Korea and Washington. They recently went to the polls with a clear message. South Korea’s business and technical professionals want renewed talks with North Korea and are critical of the growing United States’ military presence.

North Korea has been a significant issue since the close of war on the peninsula in 1953 when combatants agreed on an armistice but not a peace treaty. To this day that war remains on hold. To date, thirteen United States Presidents have had to deal with tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It is also a large question mark if China will or even can put effective pressure on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to ease his nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions. That is clearly the hope of the Trump administration. China, however, has always looked at the Korean situation with mixed emotions and priorities. China no more wants war on the Korean Peninsula than the United States, although China is not prepared to see North Korea fail as a state. The reality of the situation is North Korea is an effective buffer for China, preventing a unified Korea and forming a wide zone from South Korea and Japan. The same is also true for Russia.

On May 23, 64 Democratic legislators urged President Trump to seek diplomacy with North Korea. They affirmed in a letter that he would need congressional approval for any military strike against the North. The sixty-four Democrats signed that letter expressing those concerns which symbolize the sixty-four years since the armistice ending war in Korea. Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the last Democrat in Congress to have served in that war, warned of an “unimaginable conflict” if we have an inconsistent or unpredictable policy toward Kim Jong Un.

The National Atomic Testing Museum recently had the great honor of welcoming Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker to our Distinguished Lecture Series on May 25.

Dr. Hecker is a research professor at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, as well as a former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratories. He served as co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Co-Operation for five years and has made more fact-finding trips to both Russia and North Korea than any other nuclear scientist.

He gave us a unique update on North Korea during the lecture, which so many people had an interest in because of all the recent developments. Dr. Hecker stated that there are now no military options available to us in the Korean situation. The danger, in fact, is that this has become a hair-trigger situation. He urged the current administration to find a way to initiate talks on some level with Kim Jong Un.

The simple fact is North Korea has become a nuclear power and as in the days of the Cold War with the Soviets and Chinese, nuclear weapons have for better or worse become a deterrent. Another way of saying it could perhaps be as former EG&G president Barney O’Keefe always paraphrased, a weapon that holds all sides as nuclear hostages.

This lecture primarily focused on a new book Dr. Hecker recently edited, “Doomed to Cooperate.” Our distinguished speaker explained how after the fall of the Soviet Union, no road map existed for coping with a vast accumulated nuclear arsenal. Dr. Hecker, with other U.S. scientists, threw themselves into the urgent task of averting catastrophe. Our membership had the honor of hearing from this man who not only wrote about history, but help make it.

It will remain to be seen what happens with this ongoing problem in nuclear proliferation. Please stay tuned to our ongoing updates on the Korean situation which can always be found on the National Atomic Testing Museum’s Facebook page:

To become a new member or renew your existing membership, please call. 702.794.5151 or visit our membership page.
You may also purchase a gift membership from the Museum Store and have it sent with a recent copy of The Blast, the museum’s newsletter.  For more information regarding museum memberships, please visit our FAQ page here.


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