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Strake may mimic small nuke
Nevada may halt test because of insufficient data
The Spectrum, UT
By BRIAN PASSEY
ST. GEORGE - A Defense Department official reportedly confirmed Thursday morning that the large conventional blast scheduled in Nevada next month will provide data simulating the effects of a low-yield nuclear explosion.
Rep. Jim Math-eson, D-Utah, met with Dr. James Tegnelia, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, because of concerns stemming from the planned June 2 explosion of 700 tons of ammonium nitrate-fuel oil at the Nevada Test Site, 150 miles west of St. George. Budget documents for the test originally indicated it would simulate a nuclear explosion, but the DTRA later said the test was for conventional purposes only and to help determine the force necessary to defeat hardened targets such as underground bunkers.
However, Matheson said Tegnelia reportedly told him that the test, code-named Divine Strake, has a "dual-use." Though the DTRA maintains motivation for the test is the development of powerful non-nuclear weapons, the effects of the large blast will be strong enough to simulate a small nuclear weapon and that data can be used to develop new nuclear weapons.
"I'm still skeptical because the change in the budget documents just happened in the last year," Matheson said Thursday afternoon.
Vanessa Pierce of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah was in St. George on Thursday to take part in a debate about fallout from previous atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site. Pierce said the nuclear connections to Divine Strake are troubling.
"It might not be radioactive but it's a nuclear test," Pierce said in reference to how the data could be used.
Pierce's concerns about new, low-yield nuclear weapons go beyond the testing stage, however. She said the scary thing about so-called "mini nukes" is that the military would be more likely to use them against enemies, as some Department of Defense officials have mentioned, as a possible way to destroy underground targets in Iran.
She questioned what would happen to the American soldiers who then had to search the detonation sites to verify if they had actually hit their targets.
The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection also has lingering concerns about Divine Strake and is still awaiting data from the National Nuclear Security Administration regarding radiological contamination of soils near the designated blast site.
The federal government conducted above-ground atomic testing at the test site in the 1950s and 1960s and continued below-ground atomic tests in tunnels until 1992. Many believe radioactive fallout from the above-ground testing has caused cancer in thousands of U.S. citizens, often referred to as downwinders.
The division's Bureau of Air Pollution Control sent a letter to the NNSA on April 28 requesting a dispersion modeling report for the blast. In the letter, Michael Elges, BAPC chief, wrote, "A number of question have been raised regarding radiological contamination that could be potentially resuspended as a result of the proposed test."
Elges also wrote that the NNSA and DTRA had previously committed to provide the state with a detailed analysis of surface and subsurface contamination in the area and the potential for the blast to "liberate radiological contaminants into the air."
BAPC again requested the information and said as its evaluation proceeds more data may be needed. Elges wrote that a timely response from the NNSA would could help BAPC finish its own technical evaluation of the blast in time for the planned June 2 detonation date.
Dante Pistone, a public information officer for the Nevada Division of Environmental of Environmental Protection, said in a statement that the state again told the NNSA that the test "cannot proceed until authorization from NDEP has been received."
Pierce, who saw the letter Thursday, said it raises questions about why the NNSA has hesitated in releasing information to the state. But she said it also is "par for the course" for the Department of Energy, the NNSA's parent organization. Pierce said the DOE did not release studies or tell the truth during the atomic testing of the past and "old habits die hard."
She said the delay in response is all the more reason for Utah's delegation to Congress to use its power in fighting the test. Since Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, recently made comments about using his influence to stop the blast if he had any real concerns, she called on him to exercise that power.
Hatch recently requested data from the blast's environmental assessment for an independent analysis.
Others also want an independent analysis and implementation of more safety measures. Pistone wrote in his statement that Nevada plans to conduct a comprehensive independent review of the federal government's submittal to ensure that no state or federal air quality regulations will be violated by the blast.
"We will require field monitors to ensure the accuracy of NNSA's claim that no radioactive materials will be re-suspended into the atmosphere," Pistone wrote.
The state has also asked the Nevada System of Higher Education's Desert Research Institute to provide third-party monitoring at various locations.
Matheson said his meeting with Tegnelia also covered some of the congressman's safety concerns about the test and he thinks some progress has been made in terms of ensuring safety. One of the recent changes is the addition of helicopters to monitor the air following detonation.
Matheson said he also asked for monitoring in the blast's tunnel location to track any venting of radioactive material. Tegnelia said there is no radioactive material in the tunnel, prompting Matheson to respond that it should then be easy to provide assurance of that.
He also requested monitoring of the dust plume that will result from the blast and that all monitoring information be made public after the test. Matheson said transparency is necessary in order for the public to have confidence in the test.
"I think the citizens in the surrounding area deserve that," Matheson said.
Tegnelia also reportedly announced a series of public meetings preceding the test. The congressman said he hopes one of those meetings will be in St. George.