Editor’s note: This story originally aired March 29, 2012.
MYSTERY WIRE — Great minds have been puzzled for years about what to do with the Nevada National Security Site, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site. One idea currently making the rounds is to build an accelerator for use in producing medical isotopes.
But the idea that might create the most jobs and cast the biggest shadow is to build a pandemic center, the equivalent of Noah’s ark, under the sands of the test site.
“There was a time in the early ‘60s when Mercury, Nevada, was the third largest city in the state of Nevada,” says nuclear weapons expert Troy Wade.
During the heyday of the test site, when thousands of scientists, technicians, miners, and construction workers bustled throughout the sprawling one-of-a-kind facility, building things then blowing them to bits, all in the name of national security. For a time, 1 in every 9 jobs in Las Vegas was tied to the site.
Treaties ended atomic testing, and the site has been searching for a new role ever since. The place has unmatched advantages. It’s huge, it’s secure and it’s a long way from anything else
“We measure encroachment by distance to the nearest McDonald’s,” Wade says. How far exactly? “Thirty-seven miles. Nobody else can do that.”
Which means it’s the perfect place to test dangerous stuff. So long as nuclear weapons exist, the site will have a role, to make sure our bombs still work, and to make sure we know how to detect the bombs of others.
Wade thinks the development of equipment used to verify disarmament treaties will keep the site active for many years. It has also become a hotbed of anti-terrorism training, teaching agents how to detect components of a dirty bomb, for instance, or how to track down a bio weapons lab. A proposal to create the country’s first commercial spaceport died because the technology wasn’t up to the job at the time, and the state of New Mexico took the idea and ran with it.
The test site is honeycombed with tunnels and underground facilities, places that might be perfect for ultra-secure data storage, already being explored by the people at switch, the data center giant.
Of all the ideas proposed for the site, though, this might be the biggest game changer of them all: a national “pandemic center.”
“It is a big reach, but the guy behind it has made big reaches before,” Wade says.
The idea was pitched by businessman Robert Bigelow at a brainstorming session last year. Bigelow is known for creating his own space program from scratch and already has two of his satellites in orbit. He declined to speak about it on camera, but his staff has produced a book on the plan. They estimate the idea could produce nearly 22,000 permanent jobs, not counting the huge construction force needed to build the center. So what is it?
An underground Noah’s ark, to be built inside a mountain at the test site. A permanent home for 5,000 people. A place where society would survive if all hell broke loose elsewhere.
“By having research labs underground that could survive a pandemic attack and be recovered after that attack is over,” Wade says. “That would be enormous if we were to do something like that. It would take years to construct it, and a lot of construction jobs, and then a huge economic impact if you had researchers in there working all the time.”
But unlike Raven Rock or Cheyenne Mountain — built to protect government and military leaders in case of Armageddon — the pandemic center would include a mix of regular folks, people whose skills would be vital in rebuilding society, like welders, electricians, teachers. Bigelow’s team has drawn specific ideas what the complex could be. Living quarters, working quarters, its own water and food supplies … enough to last a long time.
There’s a plan for how people would be selected, how it would be used full time, so there are always 5,000 people inside.
The impetus for the center is the strong possibility that a bio attack is inevitable. Studies show how quickly a virus could spread, like a nightmare from a Hollywood movie.
But the threat is real.
The pandemic center could not only save Nevada’s economy, but save humanity itself if the worst ever happened.
The paper that was written identified a population of about 13 million people from whom the final cut would be made. Doctors and nurses would be included of course, but other skills as well. The idea was pitched some months ago to local business leaders and test site overseers, but didn’t gain much traction. The public would need to make some noise for it to happen.