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Explosion test has Hatch upset
"The more I look into this the more upset I become," Hatch said in a statement....Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley were briefed on the planned test [Divine Strake], and said it could be conducted safely."
Concerns grow over possible dispersal of old radioactive material in Nevada
By Robert Gehrke, The Salt Lake Tribune
WASHINGTON - Sen. Orrin Hatch has joined a group of Congress members voicing concerns about "Divine Strake," a massive explosion planned this summer at the Nevada Test Site that critics say could have nuclear implications.
Hatch sent a letter Friday to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, seeking assurances that the test would not disperse any radioactive material left over from past nuclear weapons tests at the Nevada site.
"The more I look into this, the more upset I become," Hatch said in a statement. "The good people who live downwind from this test site have already been through enough, and I've given them my word that I'll never allow any nuclear testing that could harm them again. I have directed my staff to check into this very closely, and if I'm not satisfied that this will be safe, I'm going to do everything I can to put a stop to it."
The agency has said that its environmental assessment determined there was no radioactive material at the site.
But Hatch's interest was piqued when the environmental assessment first listed the blast site as being 2.5 miles from any prior radioactive testing, but in another location listed it as being 1.5 miles. Then in response to an inquiry, the actual location was determined to be 1.1 miles from prior testing.
That prompted Hatch to ask the defense agency to review its data and provide assurances the test could be safe.
Michelle Thomas, who is a Downwinder - a group of people suffering illnesses as a result of their exposure to radioactive fallout from Cold War nuclear tests - said Hatch did not express his concern during a sometimes heated public meeting with other downwinders last week. Thomas said she confronted the senator about the test safety and he defended the need for it.
"I can't even believe they're doing it," said Thomas, who has suffered a number of ailments, primarily an immune deficiency, as a result of her radiation exposure. "I vacillate between rage and tears. I really did not dream they'd try one of these above-ground [tests]."
At that Downwinders' event, according to The Spectrum in St. George, Hatch reportedly said he saw no reason to stop the test, but would put the brakes on if he thought it was unsafe.
In his letter, Hatch said there are over 1,400 hardened bunkers and underground targets in such places as North Korea, China, Iran and Libya, and he understands the need to be able to penetrate them.
The test itself, known as Divine Strake, involves detonating 700 tons of explosives on the Nevada Test Site. Pentagon budget documents say the test is intended to help war planners pick the smallest nuclear device needed to destroy hardened targets, like underground bunkers.
That prompted concern from anti-proliferation groups and Downwinders that the test would lead to development of new, low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.
The Defense Department has since said that the inclusion of "nuclear" in the budget document was an oversight, and the test is meant to gather data on ground-shaking for computer modeling.
The explosives in the test are like those used in the Oklahoma City bombing, only 280 times stronger. The blast will be 50 times larger than that from the largest U.S.. conventional weapon.
The Western Shoshone Indian tribe and two Utah Downwinders have filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the test, arguing that the blast would stir up radioactive remnants from past tests.
The plume from the explosion is expected to reach several thousand feet above the ground. Air monitors would be set up to track the debris.
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has also sent a letter to the agency, seeking assurances that there will not be any radioactive material dispersed, and inquiring if the test is truly designed to help develop new, low-yield nuclear weapons.
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley were briefed on the planned test and said it could be conducted safely.
However, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection has demanded additional air quality data and computer models for the test. Until they get those, the division said it will not grant a permit for the test to proceed.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said it would provide the requested data and plans to stick to the June 2 test date.
Hatch and Matheson will be sending staff to a special congressional briefing at the Nevada Test Site on Wednesday.