A Trip to an Abandoned Cold War Nuclear Research Facility
Not many people know about the Cold War relic in Dawsonville, GA. Just an hour outside of Atlanta, on state forest land, is the former location of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Lab, also known as Air Force Plant #67.
The lab played a small role in the dawn of America’s nuclear age. Built in 1951 as a joint effort by the Atomic Energy Commission, the Air Force and Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, its purpose was to research designing a nuclear-powered long range bomber (spoiler: not without killing the entire flight crew). It housed an early nuclear reactor, tethered by cables midair in-between steel towers. The reactor ran unshielded, exposing the surrounding area to radiation for weeks at a time while the lab’s personnel bunkered in underground tunnels below. In later years it was used to study the effects of radiation on military equipment and raw materials. Items were loaded onto a train, exposed to the reactor, taken to a temporary cool down site, and finally brought to the hot cell building a mile or two away for permanent storage. There are rumors that animal test subjects were also exposed to radiation, to study potential effects of a nuclear war in America. Although some information is still classified, it’s easy to see on Google Maps where the surrounding foliage has only just started to recover in recent years.
“The rumors circulating about the former site of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory have become folklore […] tall tales of deer with three eyes or two sets of antlers are common.” —Henry A. Zuckerman
There’s not much left of the facility today. The only real structure still standing is the hot cell building, an imposing concrete and steel structure protected by barbed wire and three security fences. It’s located on state forest land, next to the staging area for a local horse trail. Although it’s easy to access, unless you know its history there’s little evidence of what’s inside other than the amount of security fencing and NO TRESPASSING signs.
Scattered nearby are empty concrete foundations that no longer have any clear purpose. If you follow a muddy path into the forest and you’ll see traces of the old railway that brought radioactive material from the reactor to the hot cell building. On the spring day I visited the forest is cold and eerily calm. The only sounds are the drizzle of rain and the echo of rifle shots from hunters somewhere deep in the woods.
Following a vague map of the original complex I found online, I drove further down the road to find what remained of the main facility. This is where the reactor once hung suspended in the air, and tunnels run underground. There’s nothing left but cement foundations now. When the lab was decommissioned the laboratory was flooded and the entryways filled in with rubble.
After a little searching, I was able to find what must have been part of an entrance to the underground complex. Past the reactor area, through some underbrush and thorns, there’s a low concrete wall partially buried in the earth. Although the hatchway on top has been sealed, there’s a small hole in the cement wall you can crawl through to the inside.
I’ve seen photos from other explorers who managed to dig their way into the top level of the underground facility. This isn’t an easy task. The tunnels are still flooded, and can’t be accessed with digging into to the facility’s ceiling. There are rumors about how deep the tunnels go underground, and exactly what is still down there. I hope one day I’ll be able to come back with the right equipment and try to find those answers myself.
# Posted on February 9, 2019 by Marc Charbonneau.