During the height of the Cold War, the vastness of the Nevada desert played a crucial role as the United States raced to maintain nuclear parity with the Soviet Union. This remote expanse, specifically the Mojave Desert, was deemed an ideal locale for testing the formidable arsenal of nuclear and radioactive weaponry that would underpin American deterrence strategy.
Amidst the numerous tests, “Project Faultless” stands out as a pivotal yet somewhat obscure episode in the annals of U.S. nuclear testing. This initiative represented a departure from the atmospheric detonations that characterized earlier trials. Instead, it pursued the effects and feasibility of deep underground nuclear tests, a response not only to the technical and strategic demands of the time but also to the more terrestrial complaints of influential individuals.
The detonation site, selected for its remoteness, was situated far from the luminous hubbub of Las Vegas, a concession to the complaints of casino magnate Howard Hughes and other concerned residents who were discomfited by the tremors from previous tests. Hughes’s vociferous objections, notably to President Lyndon B. Johnson, prompted the Atomic Energy Commission to seek a new testing location that would minimize seismic disturbances to the burgeoning city.
In 1968, Project Faultless executed an underground detonation at Central Nevada Test Area, approximately 50 miles from the small town of Tonopah. The test involved a 1.0-megaton thermonuclear bomb, buried 3,200 feet below the desert’s crust. The aftermath was a dramatic testament to the power of nuclear energy: the surrounding earth buckled and collapsed, creating a subsidence crater over a mile wide and displacing millions of cubic yards of soil.
However, the trial did not yield the anticipated results; the seismic waves were more intense than predicted, casting doubt on the viability of using such detonations for peaceful purposes like creating reservoirs or redirecting rivers. Moreover, the test was meant to explore the potential of using these large yield nuclear devices for excavating large volumes of earth, part of the Plowshare Program, which aimed to find constructive uses for nuclear explosions.
The site today remains a poignant reminder of this potent and turbulent era. A lone steel pipe stands sentinel where the ground once swallowed the force of a megaton blast. An understated plaque affords visitors a brief history of Project Faultless, though it scarcely captures the scale of the event or its place in the broader narrative of the Cold War.
The Project Faultless site is accessible via a dirt road branching from US-6 E. Traveling toward Moores Station, one can find the steel monument standing as a testament to this period of atomic testing. The journey to this remote site is an immersion into a landscape marked by human attempts to harness the atom, and it requires a high-clearance vehicle capable of traversing the rugged desert terrain. Visitors to the site can reflect on the profound impact these tests had on geopolitical dynamics, the environment, and the psyche of a nation entangled in a global standoff. Detailed directions and precautions should be reviewed before embarking on this desert excursion.