The Blast!

November 3, 2017

Upcoming Events at the Museum


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

Recent Lecture: Dr. Sergei Khrushchev

More than 175 people attended our distinguished lecture with Dr. Sergei Khrushchev on Saturday, Oct. 28.  Dr. Khrushchev, son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, spoke on relations between the United States and Russia, both in the past and in the present.  The lecture coincided with the 55th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Dr. Khrushchev touched on during his lecture.  Dr. Khrushchev, who is now a U.S. citizen and formerly taught at Brown University, also spoke about the Soviet space program, including a joint lunar mission proposal, and cultural differences between the U.S. and Soviet Union that exacerbated Cold War tensions.

Several media outlets covered the lecture–you can read those stories in the “In the News” section below.  The lecture was made possible by a grant from Nevada Humanities, and the generous support of Dr. Linda Miller.  Dr. Miller supported many aspects of this lecture, including pursuing the grant, and we offer our sincere thanks to her for bringing this unique event to the museum.

 Distinguished Lecture Next Week: Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative

This is the lecture you’re looking for… Scientist and television personality Ben McGee will join us on Friday, Nov. 10, for our next distinguished lecture on Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as the “Star Wars” program.

McGee’s talk will address the intriguing crossover between science fiction and science fact in this lecture conspicuously timed to coincide with the upcoming release of “The Last Jedi.”

He will not only explain SDI’s many methods for destroying nuclear ICBMs from space, but he will also reveal that the logic behind associating SDI with Star Wars–a term meant to mock the program as a fantasy–is no longer relevant in a world that strongly resembles the formerly-fictional landscape of robots and spaceplanes.

He explores the surprising suggestion that, in the modern context, science fiction might actually have much to teach us about space warfare, including the use of SDI systems that history may one day view as having been ahead of its time.

A meet and greet will take place at 6 p.m., followed by the lecture at 6:30 p.m.  Please RSVP by calling 702.794.5151.

 New Distinguished Lecture Added: The Radiation Risks for Space Travel with Dr. Francis Cucinotta

Scientist, author, and UNLV professor Dr. Francis Cucinotta will join us for one final distinguished lecture this year, The Radiation Risks for Space Travel, on Friday, Dec. 8, with a meet and greet at 6 p.m. followed by the lecture at 6:30 p.m.

Of all workers exposed to radiation around the world, none face greater exposures than astronauts. The unique sources of radiation found in outer space, including outbursts from the Sun and particles propelled by distant, exploding stars, means exposed astronauts risk developing cancers, cataracts, circulatory diseases, and changes to their cognition and memory.

Further, the high-energy nature of the most hazardous form of space radiation, galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), make them difficult to shield; the shielding material itself can create a hazardous kind of atomic shrapnel known as secondary radiation. Because so few humans have ventured beyond Earth, large uncertainties remain in estimating just how much health risk the space radiation environment poses to astronauts.

Dr. Cucinotta will review the state of knowledge regarding the health risks and uncertainties for GCR exposure, what this means for long-term human space exploration missions, such as to Mars, and what research might help mitigate this risk for future off-world explorers.

This radiation-centered lecture will complement the museum’s new exhibit, “Exposure: Our Radiation World.”  This new exhibit explores the science of radiation and its place in the world around us.  In time, the exhibit will change to focus on other topics related to radiation, including medical applications and well-known radiation accidents.

To RSVP, please call 702.794.5151.

NATM Partners with Nevada Ballet Theatre For Veterans Day

Nevada Ballet Theatre will present “Classic Americana” at the Smith Center on Saturday, Nov. 11, and Sunday, Nov. 12.  Veterans and active duty military can buy tickets for these performances and get a second free, by clicking the link here and entering code NBTATMVETS at check-out.  As an added bonus, if you bring your receipt for this special military ticket deal to the National Atomic Testing Museum, you’ll get free admission to the museum!

The “Classic Americana” performance will include Tchaikovsky’s Serenade with choreography by George Balanchine; Company B, a jiving journey back to World War II; and Western Symphony, a love letter to the Old West featuring popular folk tunes.

NATM Hosts CCSD New Teacher Seminar

The National Atomic Testing Museum was thrilled to host another group of new Clark County School District teachers for a seminar on Operation Morning Light, given by docent and trustee Jack Doyle, followed by a tour of the museum on Thursday, Nov. 2.

Many of the teachers who participate are new to Las Vegas, and some are just new to CCSD.  Feedback on this program has been excellent, and we strive to offer 2-3 of these seminars each year.  We’ll be hosting another one in March 2018.

About 50 teachers participate in each session, which qualifies the teachers to receive professional development credit.  Many thanks to CCSD for their continued support of and partnership with the museum!

Glenn Podonsky Honored with NTS History Walk Brick

Long-time museum supporter Glenn Podonsky was honored with a brick on the NTS History Walk during a National Day of Remembrance event at the museum on Oct. 30.  The annual event honors Cold War veterans, and remembers those whose lives have been lost.  Glenn sent us the following note after the ceremony:

I just wanted to thank the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation Board of Directors for the tremendous honor bestowed upon me at the recent Cold War Patriots Day of Remembrance held at the Atomic Museum. While it is always my privilege to visit with and speak to the former workers of the NTS, on this occasion, I was totally surprised and humbled by the very kind gesture of the NTSHF Board.  While it was unnecessary since just knowing all of you is a privilege by itself, I do appreciate the thoughtfulness of the action.

Veterans Tribute Concert at UNLV

The UNLV Wind Orchestra will present the President’s Concert on Thursday, Nov. 16, to pay tribute to U.S. veterans and French Legion of Honor recipients in Nevada.  Guest conductors for this concert will include the director emeritus for the United State Marine Band and the former conductor of the U.S. Air Force Band.

Proceeds from the concert will benefit UNLV’s Yellow Ribbon Fund. This fund assists veterans returning to civilian life with college expenses not covered by the post-9/11 G.I. Bill.

The concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. at Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall at UNLV.  Tickets are $10, and $8 discounted tickets are available for seniors, military members and UNLV faculty and staff.  UNLV students can get one free ticket with their ID.  To purchase tickets online, click here.

Museum Store Product Highlight:
Alien Sunglasses

Our alien sunglasses are the perfect holiday stocking stuffer, and they’re a steal at $4.95!

You can purchase your sunglasses online here. Your purchases in our store go directly to supporting the museum’s programs and mission–we appreciate your support!

Remember: you can visit the Museum Store any time during museum hours without purchasing admission to the museum.  Come on down and shop for some unique gifts!

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.

Several media outlets covered our distinguished lecture with Dr. Sergei Khrushchev.  You can read the article from the Las Vegas Sun here, the article from the Las Vegas Review-Journal here, and the story Fox 5 Las Vegas did 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 25: Teaching Not Just the How but the Why

Our The greatest challenge we have at the National Atomic Testing Museum is making the history associated with the era of nuclear testing and the Cold War relevant to generations of the 21st Century. I cannot tell you how many bright and talented young people I have had the pleasure of speaking with as they tour our museum. By and large, new generations take away positive educational experiences from their visits. The number of youths touring the NATM is increasing, and we are ecstatic about that!

It still amazes me, however, that many younger people, even with graduate degrees, have absolutely no concept of what the term “Cold War” means.  I, in fact, recently had a very gifted film producer in the museum doing a feature. She had advanced degrees in film studies and presented herself as extremely in tune with the world in which she grew up as a mid-20s professional. However, just before the filming she asked me if I could “just in one sentence explain what the term ‘Cold War’ meant.” She said she “had heard the term, once before.” That is not uncommon, especially for our American audience. Most people under 30 have a vague idea that the Atomic Age started in World War II with the Manhattan Project, yet the 1950s through about 1990 are a total oblivion unless they grew up in that time. Some feel a reason for this is that the Internet has changed the way in which younger people process information. Spatial and non-linear reasoning are more the norm now than temporal thinking. The long-term trend of deemphasizing history, civics, and geography in our school system is also responsible. Validating this are the younger international visitors we receive at our museum who have a much greater awareness of liberal arts and as a result tend to focus on “why” and “what” as opposed to just the “how.”  We are endeavoring to expand our museum experience and teach people the why.  Why-lessons of the past are a good way to understand the present. In doing so the “how” is given better relevance.

In that way, history and engineering complement each other. I, in fact, just had the pleasure of giving a tour to a nuclear weapons specialist who had served in that role for the past 45 years. He said that in the real world, especially in technical areas like nuclear weapons stewardship, it is so important to not just understand how things work but why they work and what the relevant lessons are.

It may be the only positive aspect I can find in the growing tensions with North Korea. I hesitate to even use the term positive, although recent developments in their nuclear arms race do have analogies to what we and the Russians were doing years ago during the Cold War. It is a teaching tool! Certainly, the ever-increasing news stories on North Korea have helped bring a whole new interest in our museum from younger generations. This is especially true in our social media following. In fact, we are getting just as many people visiting us online now as tour the museum in person. This is a phenomenally important new trend. It is a progressive trend that modern museums are striving for, as well as many areas of higher learning such as libraries and universities. We push our museum toward higher standards and continue teaching not just the how but the why.

Backed Against the Wall

The news coming out of North Korea is relevant in so many ways to many of the themes with which we deal. Tensions have risen dramatically in recent weeks as Kim Jong Un walks an unpredictable course. Although analysts from all disciplines are now cautioning against backing North Korea against a wall. This includes warnings from China and Russia. It is for that very reason China and Russia have been hesitant to fully implement international sanctions. Previously, sanctions have not seemed to deter Kim Jong Un from his speedy development of nuclear and ballistic missiles. Kim has, in fact, concentrated just as much energy into improving the North Korean economy, and he has made dramatic progress despite the sanctions.

Most recently, the United States has pushed even harder to isolate and, more importantly, strangle North Korea’s access to foreign currency. Now, even China and Russia seem to be closing loopholes available to Kim. All this, however, is still not deterring North Korea’s nuclear program, but it may finally be hurting Kim’s efforts to master the economy, which is showing signs of faltering. It has to be asked-will this push Kim Jong Un in some new unpredictable direction?

Indications are very preliminary, yet they suggest Kim Jong Un is finally feeling the pressure.  Effects of a summer drought in North Korea’s small but critical grain region may also just now be pressuring food supplies that for the first time in years have been adequate. This is significant because since assuming power Kim Jong Un has effectively ended starvation in his country. Now things may be tipping backward. Ri Jong Ho, a former high-level North Korean economic official who defected in 2014, believes the most recent UN sanctions could be hitting hard. He explains that if this is true, the economy and most importantly the food supply can reach a critical point within just 12 months.

In October, rhetoric from North Korea intensified and sounded more desperate than its usual bellicose nationalism. Perhaps Kim Jong Un is starting to sweat it out? Recent reshuffling of the politburo and an elevation of his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to even greater authority may be a sign that he is preparing for the worst. Apparently, he lives in fear of being targeted by a coalition strike team. There is some evidence that the United States and South Korea may be preparing just such an operation. Kim has recently consulted with 10 former KGB experts on how to increase his personal protection. This may be why Kim now uses doubles who travel as widely as he does. That is a long-accepted practice that both Churchill and Hitler used to advantage in World War II. During one of the most recently publicized missile launches, Kim posed as he always does for photos. However, he chose to make that launch at night perhaps to protect himself from surveillance.

Meanwhile, rhetoric from the White House has been more somber, although just as disturbing with phrases like “Calm before the storm,” and “Sorry, but only one thing will work!” Even the cautious Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recently used the phrase “Diplomacy will continue until the first bombs drop.” Defense Secretary James Mattis has also publicly stated the armed forces must be ready with military options. The military is, of course, always ready with options. That is their job.  Rarely, though, does a Secretary of Defense make a point of publicizing it.

Things may be starting to happen. United States and South Korean forces have engaged during October in more naval maneuvers involving 40 warships. This, after repeated warnings from China that the already two recently completed yearly military exercises have inflamed the situation with North Korea to a dangerous level. A researcher at The Institute for American Studies at the North Korean Foreign Ministry has warned that the recent naval exercises will lead to a response of some kind from Kim Jong Un. The nuclear-powered super carriers USS Ronald Reagan, USS Nimitz, USS Theodore Roosevelt,and the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine USS Michigan are now in the region. The Michigan carries 154 UGM-109 conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles and can also deploy Navy Seals. In fact, on a recent port call to the South Korean city of Busan the Michigan was photographed with two silos attached to its rear upper deck that are commonly used for SEAL operations. This is rather unusual because routinely those silo attachments are not carried because they cause so much drag to the ship’s performance.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has announced it has boosted its offensive munitions stockpile at Guam’s Anderson Air Force base by 10 percent. Additional F-35s have arrived at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. In the last week of October, at least one nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bomber left its home field in Whiteman Air Force Base, Miss., for the Pacific on what was said to be a “familiarization flight.” In South Korea, the New York Times reported practice evacuations of non-combatant American personnel. Called “Courageous Channel,” it only served as an exercise, however, such evacuations would likely be the first move made by the U.S. if war came to Asia. Meanwhile, North Korea reports mass evacuation and black-out drills throughout their country “in preparation for war.” No evidence, however, has been seen of this so far in Pyongyang. Japanese press in The Asahi Shimbun reported that North Korean border guards, who typically do not carry live ammunition in order to prevent an accidental incident, have now been issued live rounds.

We field questions on a daily basis at the National Atomic Testing Museum regarding our state of readiness if North Korea would go so far as to launch a missile at America or its territories. Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and the editor of the Nonproliferation Review, states that defending from an ICBM is no easy task. He noted in a recent article for Defense One that “Ballistic-missile defense, or BMD, is a stunningly ambitious and complex undertaking, unforgiving of the smallest problems.”  Pollack details further:

“It’s composed of a network of radars, space-based sensors, battle-management systems, and ‘hit-to-kill’ interceptor missiles designed to smash an attacking warhead through the sheer force of the collision.  A total of 36 interceptors are currently deployed-four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and 32 at Fort Greely in Alaska. Another eight are to be installed by the end of the year in silos at Fort Greely. Called the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, the system is operated by U.S. Northern Command, which is charged with the defense of American homeland.”

A three-tiered, anti-ballistic missile system is based in and around South Korea and is designed to protect the local region. The third component of this system arrivedjust this year when the long-awaited and highly controversial THAAD missile system deployed in South Korea. Known as the Lockheed Martin Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system, it supplements existing SAM or surface to air and Patriot PAC-3 missile systems already in place, bringing a radical new three-tiered defense posture. Unfortunately, none of these systems can adequately contend with an overwhelming number of simultaneous missile launches, nor do they protect completely against the low trajectory of submarine launched missiles that North Korea is now also testing.

The THAAD missile deployment is extremely controversial. Both China and Russia are concerned about the advanced radar system used by the THAAD’s radar-controlled firing system. The system can reach into neighboring Chinese and Russian territory, and is thus considered, from their perspective, to be an “invasion of national security.” The THAAD system could also, with modification, be adapted to host offensive ballistic missiles yet absolutely no plan for this has ever been suggested by the United States.

Although the THAAD system has been deployed for months, there have not been any trained personnel in place to service it.  Only in the first week of November has a unit from Fort Bliss, Texas, arrived in South Korea to bring the missile system fully online.

Raymond Lockey, former special advisor on energy and security to the Office of the President, detailed some important points about this regional missile defense:

“South Korea’s only benefit from the THAAD system, versus the Aegis and Patriot defensive missile systems it can deploy, is that it maintains its close military alliance intact with the United States. Aside from that, THAAD would not be of material use against a North Korean ballistic missile attack using nuclear-tipped short or intermediate range missiles in the DPRK’s arsenal. Those ballistic missiles do not involve, as an ICBM does, launching the payload into a space orbit and reentering the atmosphere down range to strike a target thousands of miles away. So on that basis, THAAD really does not provide South Korea with critical defense against North Korean ballistic missiles; it protects the U.S. mainland. However, on that basis, it is a detriment to South Korean security, and obviously also its trading relationship with its largest export market, being China.”

This may, indeed, be the calm before the storm. On a recent trip to North Korea, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof noted a decided change from what he had seen during previous trips on Thursdays’ CBS This Morning:

“North Korea is always a bizarre place and there’s always a certain amount of over-the-top rhetoric. But this time the country has really galvanized for war.  There’s constant talk about missile attacks on the U.S. There are billboards around the country showing missiles destroying the U.S. Capitol, destroying the U.S. flag. There is discussion about how a nuclear war with the U.S. is inevitable, and maybe most striking, about how North Korea will defeat the U.S. in this nuclear war. And it’s not only survivable but actually winnable.”

With all the pressure building up on North Korea it seems as they are still getting help.  This is evident in the area of Computer Numerical Control or CNC machines.  These are big grey boxy machines pre-programed to produce intricate parts for all sorts of industrial products ranging from cell phones to automobiles.  They are most vital, however, in the production of nuclear munitions and ballistic missile components. Nuclear weapons experts say CNC machines have helped Kim Jong Un accelerate missile and nuclear testing despite international sanctions. Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies at Monterey, Calif., states that, “North Korea’s centrifuges and new missiles all depend on components made with CNC machine tools.” Kim Heung Kwang served as a computer science professor in North Korea prior to his defection in 2013. He estimates, based on interviews with more recent defecting factory workers, that North Korea has about 15,000 CNC machines. This is an ample supply and most of these machines are made in China.A United Nations panel monitoring sanctions on North Korea reported that Tengzhou Keyongda CNC Machine Tools Co of China had been a supplier of Pyongyang’s new CNC machines. Lee Choon Geun, a senior fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in South Korea states that despite sanctions, “CNC machines are commonplace across North Korean manufacturing and are brought in through China and Russia.”

So yes, the sanctions on such products as textiles and seafood, for example, are now being enforced by China and Russia. Yet the oil still flows and, so it seems, critical technical assistance. Sanctions only create significant hardships on the North Korean marketplace and average citizens. They are also a bigger part of a dangerous process that may destabilize the North Korean economy. Yet, the arms build-up goes on while Kim Jong Un still enjoys support from his citizens and total devotion from the military.

Everyone agrees something must be done to contend with an unpredictable nuclear-armed regime like North Korea, but what? The North Korean leadership-and its people- will not give up their nuclear weapons under any circumstance, despite the hardships. As Vladimir Putin states, “they will eat grass first.” Unfortunately, many of the actions taken to date have not really hindered North Korea’s weapons-making capacity. Fudan University professor of international studies Shen Dingli agrees.  He has stated to The New Yorker staff writer John Cassidy that even if China cut all aid to North Korea, Kim Jong Un would not give up his nuclear program.  John Cassidy’s recent New Yorker article examined just how much China can influence North Korea:

“Despite [Chinese President] Xi’s elevation by the Party Congress, the Trump Administration may also be overestimating the amount of freedom he has to maneuver on this issue. China and North Korea, recent tensions aside, have had a mutual-defense pact since 1961, which commits each country to support the other in the event of an attack by a third party-such as a preëmptive strike by the United States. Moreover, China’s military has long feared that any U.S. attack on North Korea would be a prelude to a unification of the country, with U.S. troops and missiles moving up to the Chinese border. If Xi were seen to countenance any approach that might lead in that direction, he could encounter significant opposition within the Party and the military. In view of all this, it seems unlikely that Xi will go much beyond his current stance: supporting economic sanctions and calling on the United States to enter direct talks with North Korea on the basis of Pyonyang agreeing to freeze its missile program and Washington agreeing to halt its military exercises in South Korea. The Trump Administration has refused to negotiate unless Kim first expresses willingness to roll back his nuclear program. Of course, he has said he will never do that. Having watched what happened to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi after he gave up his nukes, the Chinese may think this is a logical stance on Kim’s part.”

Experts warn if Kim Jong Un gets to the point that he feels his back is against a wall, he may do anything. The fact is, no one knows what he may do. On October 17, North Korea went so far as to warn of nuclear war on the floor of the United Nations-the same stage that the U.S. president recently used to state he would “destroy North Korea.” In recent days North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho stated, “the United States should take literally his government’s threat to test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.” This would be known as “Juche Bird.”

Jeffery Lewis of the East Asia Nonproliferation Programme coined this term for North Korea’s self-reliance slogan and as an analogy to Frigate Bird. (Five months before the Cuban missile Crisis in May of 1962, the United States launched their first submarine-launched missile with a live nuclear warhead from the USS Ethan Allen in a successful test detonation code-named “Frigate Bird.”)

The current thinking is that Kim Jong Un feels he must soon prove he can launch a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile. The problem is the only way to do that is by a live-test demonstration. The reasoning goes that Kim feels the United States is skeptical that he can do such a test. The historical analogy goes back to a similar skepticism by President Lyndon Johnson to the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964 and their claim that they had miniaturized a device for missile deployment. The President slighted their claim by stating, “Many years and great efforts separate the testing of a first nuclear device from having a stockpile of reliable weapons with effective delivery systems.” In reaction to this, China simply changed their arranged plans for a following underground test and put their nuclear device on a missile and launched it. This proved that they could pose a threat with a nuclear armed missile.

The thinking in the fall of 2017 goes further. It follows that such a live-fire test would be the last straw for the current American administration and would result in a retaliatory unilateral strike against North Korea.

Yet the rhetoric alone is enough to cause great concern. Analogies of verbal exchanges like these remind many of the summer of 1914 and the prelude to World War I. This is the thinking of one of the best-read commentators on such analogies. Graham Allison is the director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans. He is a New York Times contributor and author of a new book “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Allison teaches by using parallels of history, and he sees unsettling similarities with that of 1914 and today’s world. Retired and active generals alike are also starting to agree. North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently warned that a war on the Korean Peninsula could be disastrous. Careful study suggests that action against North Korea, small or large, will mean war. Now with President Donald Trump heading for a tour of Asian states with intense domestic political problems on his mind, world leaders urge a calming of the rhetoric. Many fear a growing perfect storm. Hopefully, lessons of the past will prevent a flashpoint and demonstrate that understanding the “why” of world events is vitally important.


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