We enter the mountain through a fifty-year-old tunnel, blasted into the rock and lined with green-painted concrete. The corridor slopes gently upwards at a one-half percent grade, ten feet wide and a similar height, drainage gutters on each edge of the path. Most of the lights overhead are burnt out. A hundred yards into the hillside a pair of blast doors stand open. Just past them in a large room on the left a locomotive-sized diesel generator looms, battleship gray in the glow of our flashlights. Exhaust vents run up through the ceiling. Nearby is an emergency escape ladder. The climb to the surface at this point is 285 feet vertical.

The main access tunnel continues another hundred feet, passes a dark narrow passageway on the left, and then widens. The ceiling is higher here. A hoist hangs from an overhead beam, pulley chains dangling. On each side of the hall are separate chambers: office spaces, briefing rooms, a small restroom. Walls are covered with plywood; floors and ceilings are tiled. Random bits of debris lie scattered about.

The tunnel continues on, dark and low. Another fifty feet and the path divides. One passageway leads around corners with wrong-way dead end alcoves, designed to diffuse the force of an accidental detonation. Right, then left, then left again, and we enter a well-lit space. The floor here is graphitic concrete, made to eliminate static electricity; a grounding strap runs along the wall like a chair rail, above no-spark outlets; overhead lights are covered by wire mesh. A humidity sensor is ready to sound a stop-work alarm if the air becomes too dry. This is a disassembly and repair room, where high explosive components were examined and maintained.

The other connecting tunnel runs steeply upward: a two percent grade to ensure a good draft in case of fire. If something begins to burn here its smoke must not be allowed to contaminate the rest of the underground complex. Around a corner and we reach four storage rooms. Bank vault doors stand open; inside, the shelves are now vacant. Each compartment once held millions of dollars worth of nuclear materials.

Back down the corridor and to one side, then through a gas-tight door, we reach a pair of small chambers, walls painted stark white. Here is where gloveboxes stood, under negative air pressure to keep radioactive dust from escaping. Here is where plutonium pits, warm to the touch from their own decay, were disassembled by hand. Here is where bomb cores were checked for damage, where neutron triggers were replaced, where critical nuclear components were tested and rebuilt. The Holy of Holies, innermost shrine of the early Atomic Age. Nothing remains. Just two empty rooms, 570 feet below the surface of the earth. Silent, and terrifying.

Saturday, March 11, 2000 at 19:05:48 (EST) = 2000-03-11

TopicPersonalHistory - TopicProfiles

(correlates: ShakespeareanIvy, 2007-09-17 - Artemesia Dusk, WarningSigns, ...)