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Defense officials try to allay fears of stirring up nuclear debris


Not just conventional?
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune

WASHINGTON - A Defense Department official told Rep. Jim Matheson that data gathered at a major explosion in Nevada in June could be used for nuclear-weapons development as well as for chemical munitions, Matheson said.

"It's going to look at shock value from a conventional weapon, but it also gives data that would reflect a nuclear weapon as well," Matheson said. "Let's call it what it is. It's a dual-use test. They should've said that all along."

The Pentagon plans to detonate 700 tons of explosives at the Nevada Test Site as part of a test called Divine Strake.

Matheson also said he received assurances Thursday that there will be additional air-quality testing conducted at the test site, including helicopters to monitor airborne particulates.

Meanwhile, Nevada environmental officials have demanded more information
on surface and subsurface radiation contamination at the test site, and reiterated their contention that the test cannot proceed until the Pentagon gets permission from the state.
Once the state gets the information, it will need time to analyze the results, wrote Michael Elges, director of the Nevada Bureau of Air Pollution Control.

"Based on the time required to evaluate the data to be provided, BAPC cannot ensure being able to provide a final determination" before the scheduled June 2 test date.

But a spokesman for the agency overseeing the test site expressed optimism that all the required information will be turned over in time to allow the project to stay on schedule.
"For the last several weeks, we've been aggressively working with the state of Nevada to provide them with the data they need to make a decision on the air permits," said Kevin Rohrer, National Nuclear Security Administration spokes- man.

He said it has provided additional computer models to show the explosion and air particulates would comply with the existing air permit, and are working to provide additional data and modeling.

On Friday, the National Nuclear Security Administration issued a revised environmental impact for the Divine Strake test. The new assessment notes that earlier information on the test was sent to numerous officials and none commented, except the state of Nevada, which said the test "is not in conflict with state plans, goals or objectives."

The revised environmental document also corrects an earlier discrepancy in the distance from where the explosion would be conducted and another network of tunnels where nuclear
tests had been conducted. The document had listed 1.5 miles, but the revised distance is 1.1 miles, a discrepancy raised by staff to Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Nonetheless, additional radiological surveys "confirm there is no radiological contamination within the impact area of Divine Strake; therefore, no contamination could be resuspended into the environment."

Monitors will gather data on ground shaking and damage to a below-ground tunnel to help make computer models for weapons development.

A Defense budget document said the test would help develop computer models to allow war planners to pick the smallest nuclear weapon possible to destroy a buried target, although defense officials later said the inclusion of "nuclear" in the document was a mistake.

Matheson said he now wants to have meetings with policymakers at the Defense Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration to find out if there are plans for any nuclear-weapons development.

In 1994, Congress banned development of low-yield nuclear weapons, but the Bush administration successfully argued for the partial repeal of that prohibition in 2003.
The explosion would be nearly 50 times larger than the biggest conventional weapon in the U.S. stockpile.

Matheson said the Defense Department's James Tegnelia committed to have helicopters in the air to monitor the test site, as well as monitors on the ground at the test site and outside the installation.

Matheson has also asked for monitoring in the tunnel and for soil samples beneath the blast site to make sure the explosion does not stir up radioactive remnants from past weapons tests.
Tegnelia also told Matheson the agency is considering holding public meetings or open houses before the test.

"If all of these things happen, I think there's going to be an ability of a lot of folks to get more comfortable with the potential health effects of this specific test," Matheson said. "I like to think we're making some progress in terms of ensuring health and safety."

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