Divine Strake Update

Please read article: Divine Strake Test Dead

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TEST SITE EXPLOSION: Divine Strake blast dead
Opposition to bunker-buster experiment strong
By KEITH ROGERS REVIEW-JOURNAL

Fears that a mushroom cloud from the massive non-nuclear Divine Strake blast would carry dust laced with radioactive particles off the Nevada Test Site were laid to rest Thursday when a Pentagon agency canceled its plans for the bunker-buster experiment amid opposition from downwinders, politicians and environmentalists.

“I have become convinced that it’s time to look at alternative methods that obviate the need for this type of large-scale test,” James Tegnelia, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said in a one-page statement.

Members of Nevada’s congressional delegation who were contacted by the Review-Journal said they were relieved that the blast was finally canceled. They said Defense Department planners failed to quell fears expressed by Nevadans and their neighbors in Utah and Idaho.

“I think we should be grateful that it was canceled,” Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after a meeting with educators in Las Vegas. “It could have been the safest thing in the world, (but) they did nothing to alleviate the fears of the people of Nevada.”

The blast was to be the last and largest in a series of bunker-buster experiments using conventional chemical explosives designed to crush tunnels deep in limestone where an enemy could store weapons of mass destruction.

Miners had dug a 36-foot-deep pit near the top of Syncline Ridge at the test site, 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas, to hold an explosive slurry that when detonated would send shock waves through a 100-foot-thick block of bedded limestone to crumble a tunnel in the ridge.

A lawsuit filed by Reno attorney Robert Hager representing downwinders and Western Shoshones from the Winnemucca Indian Colony and concerns voiced by some elected officials in Nevada and Utah prompted a series of postponements of the test originally scheduled for June 2, 2006.

Tegnelia apologized last year for saying the blast from a 700-ton slurry of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil would send a “mushroom cloud over Las Vegas.” But his statement Thursday stopped short of saying public outcry and thousands of comments made at public meetings opposing the Divine Strake detonation convinced him to cancel the test.

Instead, an amended statement issued two hours after the first one from the agency’s headquarters in Fort Belvoir, Va., adds the sentence: “This decision was not based on any technical information that indicates the test would produce harm to workers, the general public, or the environment.”

Asked what did convince Tegnelia to cancel the test, agency spokesman Don Kerr said, “As for his reasoning, I don’t have anything more.”

Kerr said delays spurred by a lawsuit and the need to prepare an environmental assessment added $2 million to $3 million more to the initial cost of $23 million for the proposed Divine Strake experiment.

The agency’s statement concludes there is “a national consensus on the need to improve conventional capabilities to defeat underground targets that pose a threat to the United States.”

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency “will attempt to develop alternative scientific means for obtaining the important data that this experiment would have provided,” the statement reads, adding that “confirmatory experiments at a much smaller scale” will be conducted.

Instead of conventional explosives, the U.S. military could use a nuclear earth-penetrator bomb to destroy a deeply buried cache of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, but more than a million people would be killed or seriously injured from fallout, radiation and the blast itself, a National Academy of Sciences report concluded in 2005.

Hager said his lawsuit dealt the final blow to Divine Strake and stopped it from spreading contamination left from historic nuclear blasts at the test site.

“Absolutely. There is no doubt that litigation killed this boondoggle,” he said by telephone. “This was an ill-conceived idea from the beginning. There is no way that you can safely detonate a huge bomb on the surface of the Nevada Test Site and not spread deadly radioactivity for hundreds or thousands of miles.”

Despite the lack of a judge’s final decision, Hager said, the lawsuit was successful because “this bomb will never be detonated. And the big news is we have finally evolved as a society to the point where we can stop our own government from nuking its own citizens.

“Obviously, that was not the case in the ’50s and ’60s. If it had been, tens of thousands of families would have been saved of the horrible effects of fallout that were perpetrated on them by our government by atmospheric testing at the Nevada Test Site,” he said.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., agreed that Divine Strake was felled by public outcry. Another likely factor, she said, was an inability by the Pentagon to guarantee there would be no health dangers from the test.

“They could not provide to the appropriate state agencies the information on environmental safeguards,” she said.

Berkley said she was not notified by the Defense Department the test was being shelved, nor given a reason for the cancellation.

“We were never told they were going to do it, and they never told us when they weren’t going to do it; but we sure made their lives miserable in the meantime,” she said.

Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., said he is glad the Defense Threat Reduction Agency chose not to set off the Divine Strake blast but part of the agency’s job is to “send a message to the terrorists and rogue nations that we have this type of equipment.”

Porter said he thinks the agency should continue developing a conventional bunker-buster bomb for deeply buried targets.

“I would prefer they try it in Iraq and not Nevada,” he said prior to meeting with reporters at the Review-Journal.

Nevada Environmental Protection Division scientists had asked the National Nuclear Security Administration, which was hosting the experiment, to show that the blast would comply with the test site’s air permit.

Specifically, calculations must demonstrate that the blast’s mushroom-shaped dust cloud would not carry off any radioactive or toxic contaminants from the soil as the cloud rose 10,000 feet into the atmosphere.

NNSA spokesman Darwin Morgan said with the cancellation “we have stopped all activities associated with the environmental assessment.”

Porter said the Divine Strake cancellation is another example of how the community can get involved and express opposition in hopes of thwarting a project such as the government’s effort to entomb deadly nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The Yucca Mountain program is plagued by “multiple broken systems,” Porter said. “It’s the biggest waste of money in the history of the country.”

Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, a statewide environmental group, said Defense Threat Reduction Agency officials should admit that the thousands of comments opposing Divine Strake made by residents in Nevada, Utah and Idaho “means there is a level of concern out there that they can’t ignore.”

“I think our government needs to acknowledge that,” Maze Johnson said. “Between people saying Yucca Mountain is dead and with Divine Strake being canceled, I’m going to Disneyland.”

Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault and Review-Journal writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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