February 09, 2018
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Recent Lecture: 40th Anniversary of
Operation Morning Light
Our recent lecture on the 40th Anniversary of Operation Morning Light was truly a special one! What a thrill to have so many veterans of this unique event together again. Our thanks to panelists (pictured here from left to right) Rex Windom, Thane Hendricks, Norm Bailey, Alan McGibbon, and our esteemed trustee Jack Doyle, who is responsible for bringing all these great guys together again. Jack is also pictured here with executive director Michael Hall, and our foundation chairman Troy Wade. Troy, of course, was one of the leaders of the Morning Light operation, and we are thrilled he was able to join us Friday evening for the panel. Several other Morning Light veterans and their families were a part of our audience.
While one might think the radioactive material was the biggest threat to our team during Morning Light, the panelists actually shared that the extreme cold weather (sometimes down to -100 degrees!) was actually the most serious challenge. The guys had to get very creative in keeping the equipment–everything from radiation detectors to cameras to aircraft–warm enough to operate. Most importantly, each of these men talked about the incredible teamwork on this project, and that included the team up in Canada and the wives who stayed at home with their young children back in the U.S. (and often teamed up as each other’s handywomen and babysitters!).
Many thanks to Rex, Thane, Norm, Alan, Jack and their families for sharing so many stories, photos and artifacts with our audience. What an honor to host all of you!
Pop Culture of Area 51
We are very appreciative of our patrons who have an interest in Area 51. Their admission dollars literally help us keep the doors open! Initially, Area 51 served as part of the Nevada Test Site and virtually everyone who visits the National Atomic Testing Museum soon acquires as much interest in the overall history portrayed by the museum itself. However, for those die-hard Area 51 enthusiasts, we welcome you to our latest display, Area-51 Exposed, a look at the pop culture of Groom Lake. Kathy Powell, our ace marketing director, has presented an excellent introduction to this new exhibit:
In 2012, when the National Atomic Testing Museum debuted the first-of-its-kind “Area 51: Myth or Reality” exhibit, visitors flocked from around the globe to learn everything they could about the mysterious military site. Their most burning question: did evidence of extraterrestrial life exist at Area 51 and was it being intentionally concealed from the public?
Fascination and lore surrounding the remote desert outpost has persisted for decades, and the history of Area 51’s entanglement with aliens and UFOs is a rich one, influenced more by popular culture-books, television and movies-than any official government documents.
The 1947 crash of an Air Force balloon in Roswell, New Mexico, took alien and UFO lore mainstream, popularizing concepts of government cover-ups and conspiracies to withhold the existence of extraterrestrials from the public. It was rumored that an alien spacecraft had crashed into the New Mexico desert and that alien bodies recovered from the site were taken to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to be studied. Stories about the crash at Roswell spread, and sparked a growing cultural interest in extraterrestrial life.
Area 51, however, wasn’t associated with aliens and UFOs until much later. In fact, it wasn’t until 1989 that Area 51 was brought to the public’s attention at all. At this time, a man named Bob Lazar gave an interview to Las Vegas journalist George Knapp claiming that he was working on project to reverse engineer alien spacecraft at Area 51. Lazar released diagrams of the alleged spacecraft, and suddenly Area 51 had its pop culture link to all things extraterrestrial. That link was solidified in the 1996 blockbuster, “Independence Day,” which propagated the idea that the alien bodies recovered from the Roswell crash ended up in a secret bunker at Area 51. Since that time, popular interest in aliens and UFOs has continued to grow and evolve, with Area 51 inextricably linked to the lore.
Area 51 is located adjacent to the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site) 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. In 2013, a Freedom of Information Act Request revealed documents that popularly acknowledged the existence of the top-secret military installation to the public for the first time. However, Area 51 was named in declassified documents decades prior to this time-notably a 1963 Atomic Energy Commission report that referenced personnel traveling from the Nevada Test Site to Area 51. At the time, however, stories of Area 51 hadn’t mainstreamed yet, so the 2013 documents provided the biggest revelations to a public now hungry for any information on the covert site.
With immense secrecy still shrouding the site, some of the best information and stories about Area 51 have come from the people that worked at the military base and on the important projects developed there, and newly declassified documentation on these projects. This notably includes the CIA’s development of the stealth SR-71 aircraft at Area 51. Within this exhibit, you’ll learn about those incredible engineering and aviation projects, but the popular culture component of the Area 51 story cannot be ignored. In fact, it’s probably why you’re here today. Expect it to continue to evolve-from alien conspiracy stories to the development of new military aircraft and other technological advancements, its unique history has emerged.
In Memoriam: Frank Tyner
We are sorry to share that former Nevada Test Site photographer Frank Tyner died at his home in Lake Havasu, Ariz., on Jan. 28. He was 78 years old. He is remembered by friends and former colleagues as a colorful and talented filmmaker and photographer who wasn’t afraid to get the difficult shots. For more than 30 years he had responsibility for production on government contract projects at the NTS. He is survived by his life partner Shannon Murphy, a son, Eric, duaghter-in-law Tanja, and two grandsons.
Coming Soon: Stockpile Stewardship Exhibit
by Michael Hall
We are actively planning updates to the museum’s displays as part of a long-term and evolving initiative now that our master interpretive plan has been completed by the renowned design firm of Andrew Merriell and Associates. In the short-term, however, we are making some very positive interim changes to select displays. The first phase of Exposure: Our Radiation World is already complete. This exhibit, in conjunction with customized STEM-inspired lectures which are now available upon request, educate the public on all aspects of natural and man-made sources of radiation.
Next, we will soon have an updated exhibit on the Stockpile Stewardship program, which you’ll find in our main exhibit space following the Underground Testing galleries. A wonderfully informative video on the stockpile stewardship program is already on rotation in the Silo Theater, and exhibit panels detailing the program will soon follow.
This is a critical area that we must develop. The museum is designed to tell a specific story in a clear, chronologically controlled traffic flow via its floor plan, culminating in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which ended American and Russian nuclear testing in 1992, following the end of the Cold War. After this area of the museum, the exhibits do not adequately continue the current story of the Test Site, which remains active today as the Nevada National Security Site. The stockpile stewardship program is one example of some of the incredibly important activities ongoing at the Site, and it’s one directly connected to the testing years, as it’s objective is to maintain the safety, security, and reliability of our nuclear stockpile.
Most people are amazed to learn that although nuclear testing ended in 1992, so did the production of nuclear weapons. When I recently explained this to a young eighth grade student on a school field trip tour, she immediately spoke up and said “oh, thank heavens we do not have nuclear weapons anymore.” I patiently explained while we no longer make nuclear weapons we still have them, and many other countries do as well, which is why we have to keep up a strong defense. The key point, however, that even adults fail to recognize is that nuclear weapons can not simply sit on a shelf like a can of condensed soap for the day that you may need it.
Nuclear weapons have plutonium in them and plutonium creates heat. Since many of the components of nuclear weapons have synthetic components they are susceptible to heat. In addition, plutonium, itself, is a man-made product and has only been in existence for about a half a century. So no one knows how long this substance will stay viable.
Furthermore, nuclear weapons evolved during the days of nuclear testing from the simple fission design. The image below shows a bomb similar to what was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. It is an atomic weapon, or “A bomb,” which creates a nuclear chain reaction by the process of fission. Fission is used in nuclear power plants, as well.
Pictured below is what is known as a Hydrogen, or “H bomb,” which is the modern-day successor. It is basically a “two-stage” device-meaning it uses an atomic bomb to trigger a thermonuclear bomb containing deuterium and tritium. This creates a fusion process like that which takes place on the Sun. Thermonuclear or H bombs are more advanced and tremendously more powerful. They are considered modern nuclear weapons, however, our most modern nuclear weapons are still more than 40 years old because by treaty we stopped producing and designing nuclear weapons in 1992.
While nuclear stockpiles have been decreased and many still older weapons retired, this age factor of existing nuclear weapons is a concerning problem. The bottom line is nuclear weapons require a lot of maintenance and attention. Testing of bomb components including the plutonium continues, but no longer involves nuclear chain reactions. This is all allowed by treaty and each year it is the responsibility of the national laboratories via their work at the Nevada Test Site to certify the nuclear stockpile as safe and reliable.
Here is an analogy that may put it in perspective. Imagine that you still drive your favorite car from the 1960s. It would, of course, still serve you well provided you gave it a lot of maintenance and TLC. Once a year, if not more, a mechanic would have to give it a check over to make sure it remained safe and reliable to drive. Our forthcoming display will provide more detailed information on how scientists assess our nuclear arsenal, what information the work provides, and why the Nevada National Security Site is the ideal place for this important work. Please stay tuned–we’ll be sure to update you here when it’s in place.
Smithsonian Affiliations Announces New Interim Associate Director
The Smithsonian Affiliations team has exciting news to share! Interim Director, Myriam Springuel, has appointed Tricia Edwards as Interim Associate Director for Smithsonian Affiliations. She will join the team in late February.
Tricia has served as the Head of Education for the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History since 2006. In that capacity, she developed and directed strategy and growth of public engagement initiatives, forged partnerships and collaborations with museums nationally, and led new program development as part of the Center’s senior leadership team. She developed Spark!Lab, the Center’s flagship educational initiative, and created a national network of Spark!Labs, three of which are at Affiliates. In the process, Tricia expanded her deep knowledge of the museum field, which she developed in previous positions as Director of Education at the Baltimore Museum of Industry and at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and as Education Manager at the Delaware Museum of Natural History.
Please help us welcome Tricia to the Smithsonian Affiliate family!
Support the NATM Through Amazon Smile
Do you shop on Amazon as much as we do?! Did you know that you can support the NATM with your Amazon purchases and it’s SUPER easy?!
Access Amazon via www.smile.amazon.com and select the National Atomic Testing Museum as your chosen organization. We’ll get .5% of eligible purchases whenever you shop Amazon by visiting the smile.amazon.com site! We much appreciate your support!
Museum Store Product Highlight:
Area 51 Warning Mug
Our Area 51 warning mug features the famous warning sign seen by many in the Nevada desert, and it’s yours for only $6.95, an out-of-this-world bargain!
You can purchase your mug 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.
Read about the “Atomic Pin Up Girls,” including the well-known 1957 Miss Atomic Bomb Lee Merlin, in Popular Science 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.
Mahlon E. Gates
Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation Board President Linda Smith recently suggested we run an article on former Nevada Operations Office federal manager Mahlon E. Gates. After reading her insightful article on Gates in the 2013 Journal of the National Atomic Testing Museum, I knew we had an important story with which to reacquaint our readers. Almost all of the following research is thanks to her. There is no one better to recall the times of this great personality and talented leader. Linda Smith began a career at the Atomic Energy Commission in 1965 and, by 1994, she had risen to acting deputy manager of the U.S. Department of Energy Nevada Operations Office. She knows this history because she not only lived it, but also helped make it. We hope as you read this story of Mahlon E. Gates you will share any memories you may have of this remarkable figure.
July 17, 1972
Imagine stepping into a job where you managed 10,000 employees and had a budget of $1.5 billion. Oh, and by the way, your job description includes testing nuclear weapons. That was the position Mahlon E. Gates assumed when appointed federal manager of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada Operations Office on July 17, 1972. Steering the nation’s nuclear weapons testing program would be no small job.
Gates had recently retired from the Army as a Brigadier General. Jim Schlesinger, Chairman of the AEC, chose him for the position at the Nevada Operations Office. It would be a tough assignment because an air of controversy then surrounded the AEC. Years of atmospheric testing had led to many environmental and health effects grievances. A tough man would be needed and Schlesinger knew he had one. Gates would certainly have to deal with the literal fallout on all those issues as time went on.
Gates’ appointment appeared to many at the time as a stark departure from previous practice. Federal managers were typically chosen from related fields in the AEC weapons laboratories. Yet Gates’ background gave him good organizational skills, and he certainly was not a stranger to the nuclear energy field. As early as 1945, after a tough combat tour in Burma as an Army major where he fought with the famed Merrill’s Marauders and won the Bronze Star, he entered the nuclear development program at Oak Ridge. There, his former West Point engineering professor, Colonel K.D. Nichols, supervised operations as a part of the broader Manhattan Project. Gates went on to serve as Nichols’ assistant at Oak Ridge for two years. He then attended the University of Illinois, earning a master’s degree in civil engineering. Next came an assignment in the Pentagon that gave him further experience in the Air Force Special Weapons Center, which included nuclear weapons. His military career went on to an assignment in NATO, then three years back at the Pentagon working as Assistant to the Director, Joint Staff, in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.An assignment followed to Iran, advising on engineering projects with the Iranian Army. Next came the Army War College, which is a key milestone for all career military and, after that, Gates went to Ft. Benning as commander of the 1151st Engineer Group and earned his jump wings. After returning to the Pentagon, he had duty as Director of the Engineer Officers Assignment Branch and then attended Harvard Business School. In 1966, Gates volunteered for duty in Vietnam where he served in engineering and bridge construction projects, winning the Distinguished Service Medal. In Vietnam, he earned his general’s star as commander of the Cam Ranh Bay Logistics Command and Director of Construction on General Westmoreland’s staff.
This is Not the Army
Despite a long and successful military career, Gates’ management style did not follow typical military tradition. He, in fact, instantly endeared those around him because he did not focus on his military background. Instead, he insisted everyone refer to him by his family nickname of “Ink” and not General.
Linda Smith, former acting deputy manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nevada Office and 30-year veteran of federal work, recalls Gates fondly. “He wanted his close staff to know that he would rely on them for advice and assistance, and also that he was very proud of what he believed to be the program’s accomplishments. He was warm, friendly, articulate and professional.” Linda Smith is now a passionate steward of history as president of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation and the National Atomic Testing Museum. She recalls that Ink Gates and his wife, Esther, contributed 10 excellent years to Nevada.
Former Department of Energy Nevada Operations Office manager Nick Aquilina also recalls Gates’ elegant style. “Ink was a master of public outreach. So many admired his skill for dealing with the media and public. He remembered names and faces and all those on his immediate staff of over 200, as well as memorized their personal backgrounds.”
Gates’ official record while in Nevada is notable and much of it is still classified. He oversaw the safe and successful execution of 230 underground nuclear tests. Six of these involved the diplomacy of working with the United Kingdom on joint tests. His tenure also involved the period of tedious transition of the Atomic Energy Commission into the more bureaucratic Energy Research and Development Administration, which itself evolved into the even more bureaucratic cabinet-level Department of Energy by 1977.
Troy Wade, pictured here with Gates, recalled him as someone who not only personified an air of professionalism and respect but also as a very human soul:
“Three days after Ink’s arrival, Deputy Manager Charles Williams dispatched then nuclear safety branch chief Troy Wade to escort the new NV manager to the series of pre-event briefings at the Nevada Test Site for a large weapons effects test called Diamond Sculls. So early in the morning of July 20, Troy drove to the Gates’ temporary quarters in an apartment complex adjacent to the Hilton Hotel. He was under strict orders to ‘be on time’-AND to remember that he was escorting a recently retired West Point brigadier general. When Troy arrived-right on time-Ink was ready and waiting. Troy had carefully planned his background briefing for the new boss, providing some critical information about the event during the 90-minute drive time to the Control Point at the NTS. By the time they made the left-hand turn from Paradise to Sahara, heading for Tonopah Highway, Troy began his well-rehearsed “backgrounder.” He was immediately interrupted by his new boss, who asked ‘Son, sorry to interrupt, but where’s the cheapest place to buy Jack Daniels?’ Troy says it was all downhill from that point onward.”
Both Ink Gates and his wife were highly engaged in the local community. Linda Smith recalls:
“Ink and Esther opened up their home on countless occasions for celebratory events, welcoming staff members at all levels of the organization. . . When Ink arrived, ties to the Southern Nevada community were slim to non-existent. By the time he retired, the Nevada office had a network of community alliances, including media representatives, which he personally forged. .He also actively maintained positive working relationships with representatives of state and local governments. In those days, the Nevada complex was a very significant economic contributor to the state of Nevada-and Ink made sure that it was a recognized and respected force in the at-large community. He also made sure that his key staff took part in these activities.”
Linda Smith also stressed that Gates brought a new respect for diversity to the work place long before it became common practice.
“Early on, it became obvious to Ink that his new organization had no formal approach, or apparent interest, in recruiting, developing or otherwise supporting minorities and females in the work force. Those who rose to positions of power were mostly white males, and no one really questioned that fact. Ink, of course, was married to a woman who had reached the highest professional ranks in the U.S. Postal Service, and they were a team that brought an entirely new perspective to the Nevada culture: formalize the diversity development programs, hire a Federal Women’s Program Manager, and provide mentoring to those in the work force who reflected the capabilities and talents to progress. It was rough going at first, but over a period of months and years, the culture changed significantly. Several women and minority selections resulted in progression up through the ranks.”
A great deal of transition in nuclear testing occurred during Gates’ tenure. He oversaw the last of the long line of Plowshare tests. This was the project to explore the possible peaceful use of nuclear blasts in civil engineering projects, and although the Russians proceeded with such projects, the United States eventually abandoned the idea. The last test of Plowshare’s 26 tests involved an underground explosion to expand, or “fracki” as we say today, the sandstone formations and extract or stimulate natural gas from an expired drill site. That test was called Project Rio Blanco and took place in May 1973 in the Piceance Basin of Colorado, some 50 miles north of Grand Junction. It involved using three 33-kiloton nuclear devices which were detonated almost simultaneously in a single “emplacement well” at depths of 1,779, 1,899 and 2,039 meters below ground level. Linda Smith recalled in her recollections of that time:
“A new AEC Chairman, Dixy Lee Ray, had just taken the reins, and made it clear to Ink (Gates) that she intended to be present for this test. Ink, always epitomizing political correctness, made sure that she was a welcome and accepted part of the oftentimes charged technical debate surrounding these experiments. He knew that Chairman Ray was a strong proponent of the weapons testing program. She sometimes made the national news for her unique method of travel: driving her 28-foot motor home, accompanied by her two dogs, Jacques (a miniature poodle), and Ghillies (a 100-pound Scottish deerhound). When she visited the Nevada office, Ink made sure that the canine contingent was well cared for in the main conference room, often requiring carpet cleaning thereafter. This friendship remained well after Dixy Lee Ray left the AEC and became governor of the state of Washington.”
Ongoing treaties and efforts to limit or even stop nuclear testing became another facet of the decade in which Gates worked at the Nevada Office. To give a little history, in1963, the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water. After that, the days of atmospheric testing were over save for a few tests by China and France. So, testing went underground. Next came a treaty on the Limitation of Underground Nuclear Weapons Tests, which became known as the Threshold Test Ban Treaty or TTBT. In 1974, the TTBT established a nuclear “threshold” by banning tests exceeding 150 kilotons in yield. Linda Smith recalled in regard to the diplomacy of the time:
“Ink Gates was the right man at the right time. He possessed a skill set well-suited to play a major role in these complex negotiations. Esther Gates recalls that Ink and other Nevada principals kept their bags packed, ready for the international shuttle diplomacy that preceded and followed the signing of the TTBT in 1974. As a result, the United States and Soviet Union agreed to pursue further restrictions on nuclear testing. A team of U.S. experts, including Nevada representatives, were sent to Moscow for technical talks. This then led to many years of technical exchanges related to verification issues, culminating in the verification tests conducted by the USSR at the NTS and by the U.S. at the Soviet test site in the late 1980s.”
Another reality of that time, which continues to this day, concerns the threat of nuclear terrorism or extortion. No system yet existed for response to the threat of a nuclear device being planted in a major American city, which would then literally be held for ransom. There were some early hoaxes involving reports of nuclear weapons being set to detonate in a particular city. All such threats had to be addressed and it did bring the concept of nuclear terrorism to attention. Deputy manager of the Nevada Operations Office,Troy Wade, had a great deal to do with the concept and organization of an emergency response team and Gates had the political will to make it a reality. They formed what became well-known as the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST). (Today it is called Nuclear Emergency Support Team) NEST formed officially in 1974 at the Nevada Operations Office under Gates’ direction. Linda Smith has stated that this was the challenge that gave Gates his greatest sense of accomplishment:
“The accomplishment in which Ink Gates professed gave him the most pride was the development of this nation’s Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST). He also gave much credit to his staff, especially Troy Wade in his role as federal director of the Nevada Operations Office’s Nuclear Safety Division. In May 1974, the FBI received a letter, demanding that $200,000 be left at a specific location or a nuclear bomb would be detonated somewhere in Boston. In response to this threat, scientists and technical personnel associated with the weapons testing program, led by Nevada, were dispatched to Boston to search for the alleged device. This event, combined with many others over a 10-year period, resulted in the creation of NEST. The team included scientific and technical staff from Nevada, the national weapons laboratories and support contractors. A high-level directive assigned the Nevada Operations Office with the responsibility for search and detection operations, but this was also a complex, multi-agency endeavor-something that well suited the talents of Ink Gates, a master of integrating interagency response efforts. Grace Plummer, former Nevada program manager, recalls that Ink exhibited a strong knowledge of ‘how government works and the interactions necessary for program development and implementation.’ In subsequent years, NEST personnel deployed to a number of U.S. cities in response to several nuclear extortion threats. Ink assumed an active leadership role, representing the AEC at the highest levels.”
We have all heard about NEST and the fear of nuclear terrorism, but very few people today recall a real nuclear threat that occurred in 1978. In January of that year, the Russian Satellite Cosmos 954 crashed into Canada’s Northwest Territories. Satellite debris was nothing new at the time, but this one proved very unique because Cosmos 954 contained a nuclear reactor using enriched uranium. Numerous pieces of the nuclear-powered generator survived reentry and debris fell between the Great Slave Lake and Baker Lake. Someone had to respond. A valuable and experienced collection of talent for such emergencies did exist – the newly formed NEST.. This contingent included the rare breed of people tasked with nuclear testing and they rose to the occasion. Responding to the emergency, Gates lead a team with Troy Wade and 75 people involving NEST specialists as well as key Nevada Test Site contractor and scientific laboratory personnel.. They all headed to the great Canadian Northwest Territory to work in cooperation with the Canadians to address the situation. Jack Dole, a distinguished Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation trustee and museum docent, has recently provided a series of lectures on this endeavor, given the name “Operation Morning Light.” Jack explained that at the time NEST people wore many hats and formed a cooperative initiative to which numerous civilian Nevada Test Site contractors and scientific laboratories contributed personnel. The firm EG&G, for which Jack worked, is a good example. An emergency one year later at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility utilized many of those same specialists, representing many scientific and technical disciplines. This included health physicists, diagnostic specialists, logistical personnel, photographers, and many other specialties. In a speech to the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation in 2000, Gates recalled Operation Morning Light:
“I recall Troy Wade coming into my office in early December 1977 and telling me about the pending satellite crash somewhere unknown in the world. That began what was to become Operation Morning Light. . . I had to conduct daily press briefings at the Edmonton [Alberta, Canada] hangar, responding with the confidence provided by sound scientific data to the hundreds of questions thrown their way. The initial goal was to search the entire 15,000 square-mile area; but as U.S. scientific data came in and more was learned about debris distribution, search priority was given to population centers and traffic corridors. Radioactive debris was located and recovered in four general areas, all of them in remote areas of the Northwest Territories. By mid-March, our team had concluded their tasks.”
Back in Nevada, Gates can also be credited with promoting greater outreach to the local community and to the public in general. He encouraged his staff to be active in the local community, and he, himself, set an example to follow in that effort. He even served as the director of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. He also worked to accommodate public tours of the Test Site. He recognized, even in his day, that history was being made at the Nevada Test Site.
A Thorny Issue
The issue of nuclear waste storage in the Nevada area has been around for a long time and goes back to the days of Gates’ tenure. This began with Nevada Governor Mike O’Callaghan and then State Senator Richard Bryan (later Nevada Governor and U.S. Senator) who led an initiative to address the dangerous practice of storing high-level nuclear waste on-site at nuclear power plants across the nation. They proposed to move the waste to a more secure and safer facility at or near the Nevada Test Site. This of course, like everything related to nuclear issues, had significant political implications; however, a major downturn in the local economy at the time made it seem like a reasonable venture for the State of Nevada to pursue. Gates certainly had a highly professional manner of working with all state and local officials and he gained tremendous respect in his dealings with political figures. Linda Smith remembers:
“In the early 1970s, it was not unusual for Nevada Governor Mike O’Callaghan and Lieutenant Governor (now U.S. Senator) Harry Reid to stop by the Nevada Operations Office on Highland Avenue-via helicopter. The chopper would land adjacent to the west parking lot, and Governor Mike, as he was known to all, would gingerly hop out, despite having a prosthetic leg due to a war injury. Governor Mike, wearing his characteristic big grin, was always met by Ink and a small contingent of Nevada staff. The relationship of the AEC and especially the Nevada staff with state officials was at its apex. A downturn in the economy led Governor Mike, State Senator (later U.S. Senator) Richard Bryan and others to actively and willingly explore the possibility of bringing high-level nuclear waste temporarily stored at nuclear power plants across the nation to the Nevada Test Site. The AEC had been conducting studies of salt domes near Lyons, Kansas, as a possible storage site, but those had led to the conclusion that other sites must be explored. The Nevada Test Site was a very viable candidate for many reasons. This state-federal team developed a proposal, which actually resulted in state legislation in 1975, expressing support for Nevada as a candidate site. Ink’s role in this was significant. He not only forged the federal-state relationship, but worked the ‘internal piece,’ as well, meeting frequently with headquarters officials responsible for devising a solution to the nation’s high-level waste challenges. Ink established the first formal organization within Nevada dedicated to conducting scientific planning studies related to high-level waste storage, and personally selected a well-qualified team to oversee these responsibilities. One of the ‘hires’ was Robert ‘Bob’ Nelson, an experienced engineer with naval nuclear reactor operations experience, who Ink mentored, and who-much later-became Deputy Manager and Manager of Nevada. In later years, former Governor O’Callaghan and then U.S. Senators Bryan and Reid recanted their earlier support and became avid foes, as did most elected politicians in the state of Nevada. Bruce Church, who was Nevada’s health physics director at that time, attributes the beginning of this ‘about face’ by state officials to a high-profile event that occurred in 1976 at a private low-level waste facility located near Beatty, Nevada. Its employees had been removing articles from the site and passing them on to the public, some of which was contaminated drill pipe from an AEC nuclear test. When this was uncovered by the media, it made national news, events that led the state of Nevada to strongly oppose high level waste storage within state boundaries.”
After his 10-year tenure at the Nevada Test Site as manager of the DOE Nevada Operations Office, Gates served briefly as Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy in Washington, D.C., Gates had also been asked by the Republican party to run in the Nevada Governor’s race, but he declined. He left Las Vegas in 1983 and moved to San Antonio to serve as senior vice president of operations at the Southwest Research Institute where he served until 1989. The institute’s president, J. Dan Bates, called him an “exceptional person” who “provided critical leadership.” In his semi-retirement he authored a book titled Preventing Nuclear Terrorism. Adding to his lengthy resume, Gates had established the Southern Nevada Federal Executive Association, became a member of the Association of the U.S. Army Athletic Association, served as a director of the Nevada Development Authority, served on the Advisory Board of the Desert Research Institute of Nevada, and was a founding director of the Continental National Bank of Las Vegas. Gates also served as president of the Boulder Dam Area Boy Scouts Council, and chaired the Advisory Board of the Clark County Community Colleges. He also proudly served as a member of Rotary International, the Harvard Breakfast Club, the Majestic Club, and the K Supper Club. He finally served as a director of the USAA Bank.
He was a man who enjoyed life and found time for a productive retirement, traveling the world. He and Esther visited 26 countries and sailed many of the world’s seas. His Army biography states that “his greatest joy came from the close relationship he shared with his four children, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.”
Mahlon E. Gates passed away in San Antonio, Texas, in 2008. So, unfortunately, we cannot ask him for his personal retrospective on his years at the Nevada Test Site. Although if we could ask him, he may very well say something similar to the address he gave to the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation on October 24, 2000. They are fitting final words:
“The development of nuclear weapons was of massive importance in American weaponry and national security. Let us remember, however, to be effective, an atomic weapon must work properly. A dud is of no use in wartime. Resting a weapon or weapons must be accomplished before it can be placed in the stockpile. The importance of the programs at the Nevada Test Site cannot be denied. . .Witness the many historical markers through our country commemorating the Civil War, the world wars, the war in Korea, and now the Vietnam Wall. Many of these great sites properly honor those persons who have given their lives for our country. The Nevada Test Site memorial honors the many persons who did not have to give their lives but were saved from what could have been the most disastrous war of human conflict.”
Mahlon E. Gates proved a hero of his time. He, and many other veterans of the Nevada Test Site, helped win the peace of the Cold War. His example helps our museum to use lessons of the past to better understand the present.
Thank you to National Nuclear Security Administration Archive Manager Martha DeMarre for her assistance on researching this paper.
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