American “Atomgrads” of the Cold War era…and beyond

Nevada Test Site (now NNSS) security gate – Source:

Back on May 6th and May 8th respectively, posts were published on the “Atomgrads” of the Soviet Union. One pertained to the nuclear weapon “Atomgrads,” while the other discussed nuclear energy ones. This post will list the four (4) known “Atomgrads” of America’s Cold War era.  These “Atomgrads  (Atomic Cities)” were newly planned and designed to provide housing and community services first for the construction workers and later for the scientists and their families that would live there.

Fast Flux Test Facility at the Hanford Site –

As the photos in this blogpost will clearly show, remote, often mountainous locations were preferred, partially to limit unauthorized access, but also to provide an extra level of topographic protection for nearby civilian communities in case of atomic mishaps. As is now clearly known, the mountains near Mercury, Nevada did little to limit the fallout from the atmospheric nuclear tests, as they directed the radiation into unintended areas, as well as intensified the effects of the atomic radiation through upslope rainfall and snowfall, which later flowed into the farming valleys below.

Mushroom cloud rising to the NW of Las Vegas in the 1950s – Source:

A recent 2017 study by the University of Arizona indicates that as many as 690,000 Americans have died over the years due to radiation-related illnesses and diseases resulting from the atmospheric nuclear tests that took place in Nevada. The report notes the following alarming data (emphasis added):

“One estimate places the total atmospheric release of radioactive material from the NTS as over 12 Billion Curies between 1951 and 1963. In comparison, Chernobyl released an estimated 81 Million Curies of radioactive material (LeBaron, 1998). These nuclear tests exposed millions of Americans to harmful radioactive material and many people are still living with the consequences of this pollution today.”

“The cumulative number of excess deaths attributable to these tests is comparable to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

SOURCE: Some Unintended Fallout from Defense Policy: Measuring the Effect of Atmospheric Nuclear Testing on American Mortality Patterns, Keith Meyers University of Arizona, Current Version October 24, 2017

Cold War era security sign near the Hanford Site – Source:

In addition to these disturbing impacts of America’s atmospheric testing, the atomic/nuclear facilities at all four (4) locations have unfortunate legacies regarding occupational and environmental health that arose from research, testing, and production that took place there.

Below are brief summaries about the history of each of these four (4) communities.

Los Alamos, New Mexico (1943-present):

Los Alamos, NM – Source:

  • Established as a secret city by eminent domain in 1943 for the Manhattan Project.
  • Referred to as Site Y during the war years to maintain secrecy.
  • Home to Los Alamos National Laboratory, which employs more than 10,000.
  • Very consistent population over the past 50 years with an estimated 11,814 residents in 2015.
  • Nicknames of “Atomic City,”The Hill,” and “Secret City.”
  • Sister city with Sarov, Russia – site of much nuclear research.

Preserved Main Gate at Los Alamos – Source:

Mercury, Nevada (1950-present):

Mercury, NV – Source:

Atmospheric test at the Nevada Test Site – Source:

Oak Ridge, Tennessee (1942-present):

Topographic map of Oak Ridge National Laboratory- Source:

  • Secret city developed as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.
  • Moved to control by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 and became incorporated in 1959.
  • War time population peaked at over 75,000. Estimated 2019 population of 29,156.
  • Sadly developed as a segregated community, but schools were first in Tennessee to desegregate in 1955.
  • Home of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y-12 National Security Complex – also known as the Clinton Engineering Works.
  • Sister cities include Naka, Japan which is home of the a research facility for Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency and Obninsk, Russia which is home of many Russian atomic research institutions.
  • The city’s seal honors its atomic heritage (see above).
  • City nicknames of “Atomic City” and “Secret City.”

Oak Ridge in 1959 – Source:

K-25 in 1945: once the world’s largest building – Source:

Richland, Washington (1905/1943 -present):

Richland street map in 1953 – Source:

Aerial view of Richland in the 1950s – Source:

  • Was a small farming community of approximately 250-300 residents until it was purchased in 1943, along with two other communities by the United States Army. All existing residents were evicted, as the new city of Richland serving the Hanford Site was developed. The towns of Hanford and White Bluff were abandoned.
  • Hanford Site was home to the first successful plutonium production reactor.
  • Eventually nine (9) reactors and five (5) plutonium processing facilities occupied the site.
  • Numerous environmental and occupation health issues related to the Hanford Site.
  • Decommissioning and cleanup has been taking place for many years.
  • Richland became an independent city in 1957.
  • Population rose rapidly during the last two years of WW II, rising to as many as 25,000.
  • Estimated population of 58,225 in 2019.
  • Nicknames include “City of the Bombers” and “Atomic City.”
  • Portions of the Hanford Site have been designated as Hanford Reach National Monument, occupying more than 70,000 acres of land (see second photo below).

Hanford Site (Engineering Works 1943-1945 – Source:

Hanford Reach National Monument – Source:


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