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Bomb testing valley's patience


Action growing over huge explosion
Public meetings to address concerns on health, environment
By Launce Rake
Las Vegas Sun

A swelling chorus of community concern in Southern Nevada and Utah has prompted planning for town hall-style meetings about a huge explosion scheduled by the Defense Department at the Nevada Test Site.

Defense Threat Reduction Agency officials said Thursday they would schedule the meetings to provide information on the blast and answer questions. The move was in response to requests from Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The action comes as Nevada's government is asking for additional environmental information before it will grant a permit for the explosion and as a Nevada activist, already a party to a federal lawsuit to stop the blast, threatens another lawsuit against the state government.

The Defense Department plans to detonate a 700-ton mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil - a much greater amount of the same mix that decimated Oklahoma City's federal building in 1995 - at the Test Site on June 2. Agency Director James Tegnelia's comment that the blast would "send a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas" ignited a firestorm of controversy.

Times and places for the meetings have not been determined. Energy Department spokesman Darwin Morgan said his agency, which manages the Test Site, will participate but is leaving the scheduling to the Defense Department.

David Rigby, Defense Threat Reduction Agency spokesman, said his agency has been in contact with congressional staff members about town hall meetings before the test, known as Divine Strake.

"It is the agency's intention to participate in these meetings to be held in Nevada, as well as Utah, to address public concerns regarding the potential consequences of the Divine Strake experiment," he said. Environmentalists and "downwinders" - who blame federal above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada in the 1950s and early '60s for health problems, including cancer - have sued to stop the test.

Federal officials, who in budget documents a year ago referred to the test as a step toward a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator weapon, now say the test could be used to develop either a conventional or nuclear bunker buster for use against underground structures.

Some congressmen from Utah and Nevada have expressed concerns about the environmental impact and the possibility that the test could be used to develop nuclear weapons. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, have asked for clarification on both points, as has Hatch, who also asked for meetings so that people could directly question federal officials.

Sharyn Stein, a Reid spokeswoman, said the Senate minority leader welcomes the town hall meetings. Last month, Reid asked the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to do a better job of explaining the test to the public. "Sen. Reid wants to make sure that Nevadans have all the information they need," she said.

Hatch, in a statement, also welcomed the meetings, which he said would be akin to taking earlier congressional briefings to the public.

"I'm grateful that DTRA has agreed to my request for briefings," he said.

"It's vital for the people of Southern Utah and Nevada to have full knowledge of what will take place should this test go forward."

Berkley spokesman David Cherry echoed the comments: "Why shouldn't we give the ability to the public to comment and ask questions?"

He noted that his boss is still awaiting a response to a letter earlier this week that asked for more information on both the environmental and weapons-development issues.

To find answers to the outstanding questions, "continued pressure from all sides is still important," Cherry said.

Some of those who have worked against the planned test are not satisfied. Patricia Axelrod, a Reno peace activist, said she filed a 30-day, intent-to-sue notice against Nevada if the test, as planned, goes forward.

"It is an unsafe venture," Axelrod said. "I want to stop the test. The nature of the test is so very dangerous, the consequences so dire, I don't believe it is appropriate to conduct this test in proximity to people, animals, places, things."

Test Site managers have said there would be no negative environmental impact from the test, that dust from the blast would not be radioactive and would not drift off-site, and that Las Vegas residents would not be able to feel, hear or see the blast.

In Las Vegas, Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, an environmental advocacy group, said she still wants a full federal environmental impact study completed before the test can go forward. Such a study usually takes at least two years.

Johnson, who has railed for years against the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, said town hall meetings are only as good as the information presented: "It depends on whether they will tell us the truth. They have to put in writing in a legal way that this is not going to have any impacts."

Johnson said she would urge people to attend a local meeting, but it may not change the course of the federal government.

"We could get 20,000 people to sign a petition against it," she said, "and they're still going to do what they're going to do."

Launce Rake can be reached at 259-4127 or at lrake@lasvegassun.com

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