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Mixed signals received on Test Site blast
DOE says it plans to go ahead with Divine Strake
By Launce Rake and Lisa Mascaro, Las Vegas Sun
Despite claims to the contrary, the planned detonation of 700 tons of chemical explosives at the Nevada Test Site is not quite dead.
In a U.S. District Court hearing conducted by telephone last week, government officials said they had no immediate plans to move forward with the fuel oil-ammonium nitrate explosion, and agreed to a stipulation that the earliest the test could go forward would be September. Designed to simulate an atomic-sized blast on underground structures, the explosion was originally scheduled for June 2 but has been postponed because of the court challenge.
Kevin Rohrer, an Energy Department spokesman working in Las Vegas, said Monday that his agency continues to work on the project: "We have not scrubbed it, canceled it, or whatever. We are still moving forward pending the outcome of the litigation."
In Washington, however, congressional members got conflicting information about the blast, leaving them with little insight into the Defense Department's intentions or schedule.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said she had been told as recently as Monday that the Defense Department had indefinitely postponed the blast, only to learn later in the day that Energy Department officials in Nevada were laying the groundwork for the explosion.
"They're double-talking. If it's postponed indefinitely, then why are they going forward with it, doing all this planning?" asked her spokesman, David Cherry. "Until such time that she is satisfied that the test can be done safely, she will not sign off on it. She is opposed."
A spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said he believes the test will go off in the fall.
Reid has supported the test as a way to develop conventional weaponry that could be strong enough to knock out underground targets, but he has reserved the option to reconsider if the blast is shown to have ties to nuclear weaponry or if the testing is harmful to residents.
At the heart of the current legal challenge is a question about the blast's potential to pick up and transport particles out of the test area. Critics fear those particles might include radioactive material from the years of above and below-ground nuclear testing at the site.
The Energy Department, in an environmental assessment prepared earlier this year and a follow-up notice in May, said there would be "no significant impact" from the test, but withdrew those findings this month "to re-evaluate the existing data, analyses and conclusions."
The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection must grant a permit for the test blast, dubbed "Divine Strake," to proceed.
Rohrer said the federal government has an obligation under federal law to obtain the state permit before it can proceed: "We have firm requirements under the Clean Air Act. We have been working vigorously with the state."
The Energy Department, which manages the Test Site, is working on the environmental documentation, while the test itself would be conducted by the Defense Department.
Attorney Robert Hager, who on behalf of the Winnemucca Indian Colony and other residents near the Test Site has been pressing for stricter oversight of the government's plans, said he worries that the government will continue to move forward with "junk science" and without adequate environmental review.
"I am more concerned today than I was when they pulled the plug on this two weeks ago," he said after last week's court ruling. "This is good news for the downwinders - they know they won't be breathing radioactive dust at least until September."
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Defense Department agency conducting the test, has agreed to public meetings on the issue once the lawsuit is resolved. A Senate staffer said those meetings could come later this summer.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said it remains unclear whether the test can be conducted safely. The Defense Department "has assured me that the test will not go forward until we have the environmental data I've requested in hand, we've had time to analyze it, and the public has been fully informed," Hatch said in a statement.
Republican Rep. Jon Porter, who along with Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons supports the project as part of continued weapons testing, said he trusts the state to determine whether the blast is safe for Nevadans.
Funding for the project expires at the end of September 2007.
Critics, among them arms-control advocates, have charged that the blast is a step toward a new, nuclear "bunker busting" weapon. Defense Department officials say the test could help them develop either a conventional or nuclear weapon.
Hans Blix, the former U.N. chief weapons inspector, said in a report last month that countries should not pursue low-yield nuclear weapons for fear of creating a new arms race.
"Of particular concern would be the adoption of doctrines and weapon systems that blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons, or lower the nuclear threshold. Such modifications could over time have a domino effect and give rise to a renewed demand to resume nuclear testing," according the report issued by the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, of which Blix is chairman.
"We're going to be asking our (elected officials) to demand a full-blown environmental impact statement," said Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, a Nevada-based group opposed to the planned test. "We want more people and more science."