Jeffrey LewisWaPo on Nuclear Tourism

On Sunday, WaPo ran an article about visiting Oscar Zero, a missile silo in North Dakota. (See the State Historical Society of North Dakota website and an article in the Bismarck Tribune.)

You can’t actually visit it yet. And the article doesn’t contain any actual details about the visit — it is largely an exercise in navel gazing, with the Cold War-threat of apocalypse serving as a starting point for the author to discuss a book he read about the end of the world (Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization), an early 1990s visit to the Fulda Gap and his shrinking 401(K).


Come to think of it, here is the full-text of the article without the narcissistic passages:

Take a slow, loud elevator cage down into the depths of Oscar Zero, as it is called — the launch control center for what used to be a bevy of Minuteman III nuclear missiles aimed at the late, great Soviet Union — and return with us now to those days of the Cold War when, unlike today, even when things were bleak, they were at least clear.

“In the movie ‘WarGames,’ we were the first to go,” Delore Zimmerman, a Grand Forks economic development specialist, recalls cheerfully.

When you’re surrounded by 150 Minuteman III silos, with 400-plus warheads, spread out geometrically across eight very large counties from the Canadian border to Interstate 94, you have an extremely clear idea of what the end of the world looks like. Kind of consoling, actually, in its lack of ambiguity.

[snip, ponderous thoughts about the perilous state of the world]

After a while, you think about this at the bottom of Oscar Zero.

Its portion of the actual missile fields that made North Dakota one of the world’s great nuclear powers has been gone for a decade, destroyed as part of an agreement between the United States and Russia. Oscar Zero, however, has been preserved in the hope that the State Historical Society will one day be able to reopen it as a museum. Such an attraction is seen as an economic development opportunity, bringing in tourists. Oscar Zero is not yet open to the public, but if you’ve got friends in the economic development community, it’s possible to find someone with a key who will show you around.

That would be John Clark, a Cooperstown native who maintains the place just as it was on July 17, 1997, the day the nuclear warriors stood down. When Clark was in the Air Force, he served as a “nuclear weapons specialist.” He would test the cone-shaped warheads electronically to make sure they would work. You ask him if that was spooky. More in hindsight than at the time, he says.

The command post deep underground is in a concrete pod perhaps 30 feet high and 50 feet long. You enter it through a tunnel sealed by a three-foot-thick blast door. The floor on which you stand, gazing at the desks full of ancient electronics, is suspended from the top of the pod by giant shock absorbers about 2 feet across and 20 feet long. The chair on which you sit to look at the “status alert” display board — which includes lights labeled “Enabled,” “Lch in process” and “Missile away” — is similar to an airline pilot’s captain’s chair. It has a four-point seat belt that comes over your shoulders. Oscar Zero is majorly prepared for the ground to move beneath your feet.