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Know the West

Bombs tested in Nevada

  The Department of Energy is worried that its nuclear bombs won't blow up. So on July 2, it performed the first in a series of underground detonations at its Nevada Test Site, a 1,350 square-mile area in Nye County, northwest of Las Vegas. The Department of Energy insists the tests are safe and necessary, but environmentalists and arms control groups say they violate the 1992 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a 61-nation agreement to halt all nuclear explosions and weapons research.

Department of Energy spokesman Greg Cook says the tests, in which scientists blow up canisters of plutonium in an underground chamber, will help ensure the safety and reliability of the nation's stockpile of 9,800 aging nuclear warheads. The results, says Cook, will allow scientists to simulate nuclear tests on supercomputers, part of the agency's long-term weapons management plan.

Cook says there's no treaty violation because the tests are "subcritical," which means they don't involve nuclear chain reactions. He says the tests are an addition to the agency's regular inspection program, which involves visits to storage facilities and chemical experiments that gauge the weapons' stability.

Sam Cole, spokeswoman for Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nationwide advocacy group, says there is no evidence that the tests are necessary. "The government is hiding behind "safety and reliability" to enhance their knowledge and fuel the arms race," she charges.

More tests are scheduled for the fall and over the next several years, at a cost of $15 million-$20 million each.

*Emily Miller