Bomb test stirs up fear in Nevada desert

Proposed blast raises alarm over lingering radioactivity and talk of bombing Iran

  • 'Will the cloud from the Divine Strake blast look like a giant mushroom?' 'No -- the Pentagon says it should appear to downwinders as a very large, extended middle finger.'

    Jim Dayos, Las Vegas Review-Journal

"I don’t want to sound glib here, but it’s the first time in Nevada that you’ll see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas since we stopped testing nuclear weapons."

James Tegnelia of the federal Defense Threat Reduction Agency made this remark in March. He was talking about Divine Strake — the planned detonation of a 700-ton pile of conventional explosives to test how much power is needed to eliminate deeply buried targets. The blast could launch a 10,000-foot-high plume of dust over the Nevada Test Site in June.

Initially, the experiment — one of series of so-called "bunker buster" tests with monikers like Divine Helcat and Divine Hates — drew little public attention. But Tegnelia’s comments stirred up citizen and lawmaker concern throughout Nevada and neighboring states, and by the time he apologized a week later, the damage was done. What might have been just another explosion in the desert became a frightening reminder of the cancer-causing blasts that began in Nevada in the 1950s. It has also raised fears of a potential new arms race.

Nevada and its neighbors are filled with downwinders, people exposed to radioactive fallout from nuclear testing during the Cold War. Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch, R, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D, have taken up their cause, lobbying for assurance that Divine Strake will not stir up the radioactive remnants of previous blasts, creating another generation of downwinders. Matheson’s father, former Utah Gov. Scott Matheson, died in 1990 of multiple myeloma, a cancer often caused by radioactive fallout.

Although the Defense Threat Reduction Agency insists that the blast area is clean, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection has yet to authorize the test, saying it is still awaiting air-quality impact data requested more than a year ago from the Defense Department. Dante Pistone of the Nevada agency says chances are remote that radioactive dust from a 1970s underground test site about one mile away has migrated to Area 16, but the state is looking closely at one excavation pile.

Nevada attorney Robert Hager is not waiting for the state to decide. Immediately following Tegnelia’s remark, he filed suit against the Defense Department on behalf of two downwinders and members of the Western Shoshone tribe, citing the potential for radioactive, biological and chemical contamination. The lawsuit also says that the test site still belongs to the Shoshones, and that the blast would continue the desecration of tribal lands that Hager says have been used for decades as the government’s weapon "playground."

Divine Strake is not a nuclear test, but it’s hardly conventional: The pile of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, roughly the size of five tractor-trailer loads, is 70 times more powerful than the largest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal. That may be small by nuclear standards, but experts agree: Any weapon of Divine Strake’s magnitude would have to be nuclear.

The Pentagon’s line zigzags on whether the test is nuclear-oriented or not. In 2002 and 2006, Pentagon budgets included experiments "to simulate a low-yield nuclear weapon" as part of its drive to create battlefield mini-nukes, in spite of the fact that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty prohibits actual nuclear testing. After members of Congress balked, the Pentagon removed the nuclear reference from the 2007 budget. But the experiment remained.

"We revised the language … when we became concerned that some could confuse this experiment with the actual design or use of nuclear weapons — which has never been our intent," says Cheri Abdelnour of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The agency has no plans for developing nuclear weapons, she says, but the "experiment will provide data to help determine how much ground shock is necessary to damage a tunnel, regardless of how the energy is applied." As recently as April, however, agency officials privately admitted to Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists that Divine Strake is the test mentioned in the 2006 budget. In other words, it is a nuclear simulation.

Tests like Divine Strake show that the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is interested in pursuing new missions for nuclear weapons, says Robert Nelson, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Such concerns were amplified across the globe this spring, by reports that Bush administration officials are considering using a mini-nuke on Iran.

"We should be reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons," Nelson says, "not finding new uses for them. When we emphasize the utility of nuclear weapons, other countries will, too, ultimately diminishing our own security."

A Memorial Day weekend rally protesting the blast is planned, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency now says it will hold public hearings prior to the test, which has been postponed from June 2 to at least June 23. That pushes it into the summer storm season, which officials had previously said was off-limits. A well-aimed lightning strike could detonate the pile of explosives before the government does, stealing its thunder.

The writer is an HCN intern.

High Country News Classifieds