A tour of tunnels at the Nevada Test Site provides a glimpse of the possibilities for large-scale underground facilities. Investigative reporter George Knapp explores questions about our own tunnels and what we might do if other nations go underground.  Aired on Nov. 5, 1998, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas. Last of 3 Parts.

MYSTERY WIRE — There are no firm figures on how many miles of tunnels crisscross the Nevada Test Site. Most of the tunnels were dug for use in nuclear experiments but have been converted to other programs, many of which remain classified.

Larry Ashbaugh, head of the Nevada Office of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, led visitors on a 1998 tour of the underground facilities.

Larry Ashbaugh, head of the Nevada Office of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. (KLAS-TV)

“Put your hat on, you can come with me,” he said.

One tunnel on the tour has been the site of eight tests. Now it’s where rookie miners learn the techniques of digging into rock and dirt. Not everybody is cut out for work as a miner and underground digging way down into the earth.

“No. Lord, no. I think a lot of people get claustrophobia,” Ashbaugh said.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, formerly the Defense Nuclear Agency, is a Pentagon outfit that does a lot of things no one can talk about. Ashbaugh says the military has been tunneling at the test site since the late ’50s. The test site has more underground expertise than any place in the world. Despite this, the miners have developed some superstitions over the years.

“There’s always lore as far as tunnels and as far as miners go,” Ashbaugh said. “And I think we went back and had the group called the Tommyknockers, which was the tunnel elves.”

At one time, left a can of tobacco down at ground zero so the Tommyknockers would give us good luck.

Larry Ashbaugh

Documents obtained from various agencies show the government has had secret underground plans for decades. A 1974 study by Bechtel, the company that now manages the test site, predicted a huge increase in demand for underground military bases. A 1975 study by Ashbaugh’s employer projected bases could be built as deep as 5,000 feet.

As far back as 1960, the Army Corps of Engineers identified Nevada as a potential site for underground bases. That same agency has built classified underground facilities all over the country, but wouldn’t tell us what it had dug in Nevada.

And asked if the Air Force really has a vast base under Area 51 as rumored, its answer: What’s Area 51?

The so called P tunnel at the test site is like a big tree with branches. Traveling by underground rail, visitors pass numerous work areas and facilities. It wouldn’t be hard to get lost.

The tunnel has its own power plant. Walk through a curtain, you’re in a whole other tunnel. In another area, a gigantic pipe formerly used in nuclear tests.

A concept drawing of an underground weapons storage area. (KLAS-TV)

One project under way is to figure out what other nations might do in their own tunnels. Say a rogue nation was building nuclear weapons underground, could they hide it from us? And how could we disrupt it? Ashbaugh confirms that part of his work is to blow up tunnels.

George Knapp: If we had to somewhere in the world, take out a tunnel or an underground facility, we’d know how to do it.

Ashbaugh: We’re doing the research work and trying to come to that conclusion to understand how we would do it.

Knapp: With so much room at the test site and Nellis Range, there’s plenty of space for secret stuff, especially underground. But can secrets still be kept?

Ashbaugh: I think … I think there’s a lot of secrets in this country.

“There are still things that have happened out here that we’ve done that are still classified. Part of national defense,” said Darwin Morgan of the Department of Defense.

Tunnels’ secrets include military uses, underground networks — Part 1
Tunnels show potential for safe, secret operations in Nevada — Part 2