Excerpt: 'Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base' by Annie Jacobsen
From The Daily Beast:
In 1957, with the arms race in full swing, the Department of Defense had decided it was just a matter of time before an airplane transporting an atomic bomb would crash on American soil, unleashing a radioactive disaster the likes of which the world had never seen. This dirty bomb menace posed a growing threat to the internal security of the country, one the Pentagon wanted to make less severe by testing the nightmare scenario first. The organization needed to do this in a controlled environment, away from the urban masses, in total secrecy. No one outside the project, absolutely no one, could know.
Officials from the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project decided that the perfect place to do this was at Area 51. If the dirty bomb was set off outside the legal perimeter of the 1,350-acre Nevada Test Site, as Area 51 is, secrecy was all but guaranteed. As far as specifics were concerned, there was an apocalyptic prerequisite the likes of which no government had ever dealt with before. Weapons testers needed “a site that could be relinquished for 20,000 years.” Code-named the 57 Project, and later Project 57, the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Air Force, and defense contractor EG&G would work together to simulate an Air Force airplane crash involving an XW‑25 nuclear warhead—a crash in which radioactive particles would “accidentally” be dispersed on the ground. The land around the mock crash site would be contaminated by plutonium, which, according to scientists, would take 24,100 years to decay by half. At the time, scientists had no idea what accidental plutonium dispersal in open air would do to beings and things in the element’s path. The 57 Project was a test that would provide critical data to that end.
Lake Groom, 1917