Scientists explore concrete bunker lost under 1957 Nevada nuke test

Military Tech

You’ve heard stories about archaeologists finding buried tombs filled with treasures. Well treasures of a different sort have been discovered that the Nevada Test Site. An underground bunker believed to have been untouched since the heyday of atomic testing has been unearthed by test site staffers. Aired on Nov. 22, 2001, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.


September 1957, government scientists and military personnel were making final preparations for a unique experiment — an atomic experiment.

Atop a 500-foot tower was a 12 kiloton nuclear device codenamed Fizeau. Other weapons were mounted on smaller surrounding towers. Up through the middle of it all was a huge pipe packed with scientific gear. And just a few feet from ground zero, 12 feet below the surface, was a sturdy concrete bunker filled with the finest scientific monitoring equipment of the day.

Emory Whitlow was part of the team that installed all the high-tech doodads in the bunker.

 “You know I spent from May until September, 10 to 12 hours a day, down in that hole. It’s part of my history,” Whitlow said.

He was already a veteran of more than 100 oddly named atomic tests.

“Buster-Jangle, Tumbler-Snapper, Upshot-Knothole, Teapot, Plumbbob, Hardtack II,” Whitlow recalled. “After the shot we had to wait a month before we could go in because the radiation was so hot. And so, after, we went in and recovered the records.”

With test data in hand, the bunker was sealed up with its equipment still inside. A 10,000 pound steel dome was placed atop its entrance and everyone basically forgot about the place. Everyone but Whitlow.

Several months ago, he told his former employers that the bunker was still out there somewhere — that it had been lost in the vast expanse of the test site. Lost, too, in history.

Test Site staffers quickly found the steel dome sitting beside twisted metallic spaghetti strands, all that remained of the once imposing tower. Those in the know were pretty jazzed about the prospects of opening up the bunker and getting a glimpse back into history.

A battle plan was mapped out, a huge crane was brought in to lift the dome, a team was assembled and ready, and safety gear was donned.  Finally, the descent began.

Onlookers including Emory Whitlow watched the operation via TV monitors. It was an electric moment. But to the amazement of everyone, someone had already been inside, like a test site Tomb Raider, and had taken the real prize — the original tape recorders.

“It’s a disappointment to me that somebody had gone in and raided it and scrounged it. And I figured that no way with the dome weighing as much as it is that anybody would ever take that dome off and go in there,” Whitlow said.

But this is no Al Capone’s vault story. There’s a happy ending here. Although they didn’t find everything inside the bunker that they hoped to discover, those who study the history of the test side regard this as a major find.

Bill Johnson. (KLAS-TV)

Test site archaeologist Bill Johnson wasn’t completely disappointed. “We were delighted with what still is here,” he said.

Johnson said the assorted batteries, buttons and knobs, the huge equipment racks mounted on pogo stick contraptions will tell us plenty about the early days of nuclear testing a unique period in world history.

“When people think of the 20th century, they think of the mushroom cloud,” Johnson said.

On the walls of the bunker, graffiti calculations scribbled before the blast and the initials of those who were here, including the initials of Emory Whitlow. Everything here will find a place in the planned test site museum, and who knows.

“There were a lot of bunkers built and the records from those days aren’t readily accessible these days,” one official told us. “So, it’s a very good possibility there could be stuff out there.”

Backers of the planed test site museum expect to break ground sometime in 2002. It will be partially funded from revenues generated by commemorative license plates, featuring a mushroom cloud.

Emory Whitlow’s initials are among the notes on a board inside the bunker, sealed since 1957. (KLAS-TV)

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