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The 21st Century motto ought to be "Not on my planet"
The Spectrum, UT
Divine Strake - the detonation of 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO) at the Nevada Test Site - has been postponed while the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) gathers more detail about the test's environmental impact.
According to the NNSA, Divine Strake will be a non-nuclear explosion; all its effects will be local; and none of those effects will harm humans. I'm not so sure. The test will loose many tons of toxic chemicals. Since our planet's air and most of its water are interconnected, Divine Strake's waste may travel far from the detonation site. Even if it's not a nuclear explosion, Divine Strake is a bad idea on these grounds alone.
The Divine Strake Revised Environmental Assessment (REA) dated May 2006 states that Divine Strake will be in compliance with all federal and state air quality regulations, but there's no real way to confirm that assertion given the arrogant secrecy of the Bush administration. In a tactful understatement, a Nevada official told me that the NTS "does a lot of its own self-monitoring."
The Divine Strake REA asserts that all the material used in the test will be "detonated" and that the resulting cloud will "dissipate." That can only mean that concentrations will decrease locally, not that by some magic the debris and gases will disappear completely or be rendered biologically neutral. Unless there is no wind whatsoever and it rains right after the test, it is implausible that all the combustion products of Divine Strake will stay on the NTS.
It is especially galling that the NTS once again plans to wait until the winds blow northward to detonate the explosion. During the nuclear testing years, some residents of adjoining states were forewarned of the site test schedule, but Idahoans and Montanans were told almost nothing - while receiving the highest doses of Iodine-131 released from the NTS. Clearly, today as in the past, populations downwind of the site are considered entirely expendable.
Just what will Divine Strake put into the atmosphere? ANFO is a mass of hydrocarbons. According to the REA, the test will produce two tons of cyanide compounds, 25 tons of particulates, a ton of hexachloroethane, a ton each of tetrachloroethylene and tetrachloromethane, a ton and a half of phosgene, nearly a ton of sulfur dioxide, more than 31 tons of carbon monoxide, seven tons of nitrogen oxides, nearly two tons of chloroform, and many other noxious compounds. Who wants to be downwind of that?
Some of these chemicals break down benignly in air or water. However, several are persistent in the atmosphere. For example, it takes about 30 years for hexachloroethane, a chemical used to make smoke in military and pyrotechnic applications, to migrate out of the lower atmosphere into the stratosphere.
Tetrachloromethane, formerly used in dry cleaning and refrigeration, stays in the atmosphere for 30-50 years and has been detected at the South Pole. The National Toxicology Program rates both hexachloroethane and tetrachloroethylene, the latter also a dry cleaning solvent and metal degreaser, as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." Phosgene was used as a chemical weapon in World War I. Sulfur dioxide is the cause of acid rain.
It is true that the chemicals released by Divine Strake will be diluted in the air so that humans outside the NTS will probably not be exposed to high doses. But there is more and more evidence that lower exposures, exposures to combinations of chemicals, and interactions between hormones and chemicals, can result in serious health effects, particularly for pregnant women, fetuses and children. There may even be synergistic effects between radiation and chemical exposures. And, as with radiation exposure, problems stemming from chemical exposures may not surface for years and by then are difficult to trace conclusively to a particular source.
The products of the explosion do not have to reach the stratosphere to travel. For example, soils and mine tailings in Nevada may be the source of alarming levels of mercury in the Great Salt Lake and Idaho's Salmon Falls Creek Reservoir. Certain airborne pollutants released at or near ground level even cross the oceans. Some dust reaching Florida from North Africa contains 2 parts per million of mercury - far greater than amounts normally found in the air, probably coming from Algerian open-pit mines. Likewise, the U.S. receives pollutants traveling across the Pacific Ocean from coal-fired plants in China. Many industrial chemicals also move by atmospheric transport toward the poles, which is why polar bears have some of the highest levels of PCBs in their tissues of any animals on the planet.
These facts show that we are all Downwinders eventually, whether the toxins falling on us are radioactive or chemical. Yet the Nevada Environmental Protection Bureau of Air Pollution Control appears to be the only governmental entity pushing back against the NTS even a little. Given that the defense-related federal agencies stonewall federal environmental monitoring, environmental and health agencies in downwind states ought to join with Nevada to protect their citizens. The motto for the 21st century should be, not NIMBY- "Not In My Back Yard" - but rather NOMP: "Not On My Planet."
Valerie Brown is a freelance science writer based in Oregon. She is an Idaho native and a thyroid cancer survivor.