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Former nuclear testing tower demolished in Nevada desert

By Todd Sperry, CNN Senior Producer
updated 3:41 AM EDT, Thu May 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • BREN was the tallest free-standing structure west of the Mississippi River
  • Tower was used to estimate radiation doses received by WWII nuke survivors
  • BREN was last used for research in 1999

(CNN) -- It took less than 10 seconds to bring a steel, 345-ton relic of the Cold War era crashing to the ground in the Nevada desert Wednesday. The 1,527-foot-tall BREN tower was the tallest free-standing structure west of the Mississippi River. It was also the tallest structure of its kind ever demolished, according to the National Nuclear Safety Administration.

The tower stood taller than the Empire State Building (1,454 feet) and the Eiffel Tower (1,063 feet). It was also taller than the iconic Stratosphere (1,148 feet) on the Las Vegas strip.

Originally constructed in 1962, the BREN Tower took its name from the nuclear radiation experiment for which it was built: Bare Reactor Experiment - Nevada. BREN Tower was designed to provide a way for scientists to accurately estimate radiation doses received by survivors of the atomic bombs detonated over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

The tower stood 1,527 feet tall because that was the height at which "Little Boy," the first atomic bomb used in warfare, was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

To conduct research at the time, engineers mounted a small unshielded (bare) reactor on the tower and built a mock Japanese village near the base of the tower. The mock village was intended to simulate the shielding effects that rooftops and walls had on radiation, according to Dante Pistone, public affairs manager for the Nevada National Security Site.

Scientists used the research to estimate radiation doses residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were subjected to when the bomb detonated. According to the Nevada National Security Site, the data became a cornerstone of modern radiation research.

The tower stood in a rural area about 65 miles north of Las Vegas on the Nevada National Security Site. The enormous proving ground is larger than the state of Rhode Island. In 1992 the U.S. government stopped full-scale nuclear testing on the site.

Despite its height, in 1966 the U.S. government decided to move the tower to a different location at a cost of $380,000. The move was made so scientists could conduct further experiments using BREN Tower while not disrupting underground nuclear testing in the area, according to the Nevada National Security Site.

Last used for research in 1999, in recent years the tower fell into disrepair. The beacons used to alert commercial aviation at the top of the tower had failed, and the elevator used by workers to ascend to the top was no longer safely reliable. It would have cost close to $1 million to repair the tower to its original state. Wednesday's demolition cost about half of what it would have cost to repair the tower.

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