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Public Pushes Back Against Planned Test on Old Nuke Site

Suspicious of government assurances that a planned desert explosion in Utah will not rekindle radioactive fallout from past events, Westerners and Native Americans want the plan halted.
 
 
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Michelle Thomas's mother took great pains to protect her children from what she suspected was something unhealthy in the dust that settled on the lawns, the cars and the houses every time a mushroom cloud appeared over the Nevada desert. Such memories have been roused recently by fears that the military will stir that dust back up by bombing the area once again.

Born in 1952 in St. George, Utah, just a few hours' drive from the Nevada Test Site (NTS), nuclear explosions were routine for Thomas. She can recall her mother -- wrapped in overalls, boots, and gloves, and with a dishtowel covering her mouth -- pulling the laundry from the line when they heard or saw another bomb go off.

By 1962, the government would have conducted 100 atmospheric nuclear tests at NTS. And eventually, St. George would be dubbed the "Fallout City" for the amount of radioactive dust that had snowed down on the town.

Thomas's mother kept a chart on the wall by their dining room table, which tracked the sudden deaths and illnesses of their neighbors during the "testing years." A square box represented every house within a three-block radius.

When Thomas's aunt, who lived across the street, died of breast cancer during the early years of nuclear testing, Thomas said, her mother marked the chart with an "X."

"And when a little 12-year-old died of leukemia suddenly a few years after the testing," she recalled, "and a 5-year-old a few doors down got leukemia, and when someone got lymphoma, she would put an 'X' on their house."

And when Thomas herself was diagnosed with a debilitating muscle disease as a young woman, forcing her to give up a dancing scholarship, her mother put another 'X' on the chart to represent their own home.

So when the government recently proposed to detonate 700 tons of conventional explosives in the areas that had etched death and disease starkly across Thomas's neighborhood, she joined other "downwinders," environmentalists and a Native American tribe to oppose it.

Thomas and others fear the non-nuclear blast will stir up radioactive dust and send it once again drifting into their communities.

The anatomy of an experiment

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), an arm of the Pentagon, wants to detonate a "single large-scale, open-air" explosion of 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel-oil in an area of the Nevada Test Site the government says never saw nuclear testing.

Just as the government launched wave after wave of bomb tests under the specter of lurking enemies during the Cold War, so, too, is the so-called "Divine Strake" test being touted as a necessary experiment to ward off "potential adversaries."

The explosion would take place above an existing tunnel complex, which DTRA says would allow it to test the United States's ability to destroy tunnels, underground bunkers and deeply buried targets.

But the exact purpose of Divine Strake is still unclear. DTRA director James Tegnelia acknowledged in an interview with the Washington Post that using a 700-ton bomb on a battlefield would be difficult. Cheri Abdelnour, a spokesperson for DTRA, told TNS that Divine Strake does not "support any specific existing or planned nuclear or conventional weapon."

Last April, Tegnelia told reporters that Divine Strake would simulate how a nuclear weapon would bust up an underground target, according to the Post. He later retracted that explanation and said the operation was for testing how much damage could be done using multiple conventional bombs against a buried target.

DTRA originally planned to conduct Divine Strake in June 2006. But the test was postponed indefinitely after Western Shoshones filed a lawsuit in April claiming the blast will take place on ancestral land and violate a historical land-use treaty.

Additionally, the suit says the Environmental Assessment is lacking, and the tribe calls on the government to conduct a full environmental-impact statement, which requires the agencies to further scrutinize the potential impact of the test.

Raymond Yowell, chief of the Western Shoshone National Council, said in a press statement in April that the Council opposed military testing on Shoshone lands as a violation of international law and "an affront to [their] religious belief [that] Mother Earth is sacred and should not be harmed."

Prior to the lawsuit, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the test site, had determined the test would not "significantly affect the quality of the human environment" after conducting an initial environmental assessment.

But after the lawsuit was filed, the NNSA withdrew this statement along with its permission to conduct the experiment, saying it would revaluate its assessment.

The agency issued a new assessment in December that is open for public comment until February 7. Along with the new assessment, the DTRA and the NNSA, hoping to quell public fears, held "public information" meetings about the planned Divine Strake test in several Western towns this month.

Trusting the government

Kevin Rohrer, a spokesperson for NNSA, said the experiment will be nothing like the past tests that haunt downwinders. He said the explosion will only send a non-nuclear dirt cloud into the sky.

Rohrer insisted the planned test will not have the same effect as the old atmospheric nuclear tests that put radiation in the jet stream and are blamed for the worst fallout in the area.

But downwinders have heard such safety promises before, and they don't buy Rohrer's reasoning. Indeed, they note that the government itself has backtracked on the matter.

In May, the NNSA said the test "would not result in the suspension or dispersion of radioactive materials or human exposure to radioactive materials." Seven months later, under public pressure, the agency released a new report stating that radioactive materials could be transported off the site by wind after the detonation and "may contribute [a] radiological dose to the public."

But the NNSA goes on to say that because surrounding communities are far from the test site, if radioactive materials were dispersed, an individual would "receive only a minute fraction" of the maximum radiological dose allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. "The Agency also says re-suspension of radioactive materials is "extremely unlikely."

"We don't have any trust in the ability of the government to really know whether [radioactive particles] are going to be thrown up into the air as a result of this test," said Eileen McCabe, a member of the Stop the Divine Strake Coalition.

According to DTRA and NNSA, the test will be conducted in an area of the Nevada Test Site known as the Nuclear and High Explosive Test Zone. While the agencies say no atmospheric nuclear tests have ever been conducted in the planned testing area, six underground nuclear weapons were detonated about a mile away during the 1960s and '70s.

NNSA maintains that the explosion would take place in "virgin rock" untouched by radioactivity and predicts the blast crater will have a 98-foot radius, well short of the 1.1 mile distance to contaminated areas.

Rohrer of NNSA said it is impossible for the NNSA to prove "that there will never be [dispersal of radioactive materials] ever, never." But Rohrer said the agency was "99.9 percent sure" that radioactive materials won't disperse.

Rohrer said he understands the public's reservations, but is adamant that more safeguards are in place now than in the past.

"We don't follow the same processes, procedures and protocols that were in place when the [now-defunct] Atomic Energy Commission conducted atmospheric nuclear testing," he said. "The public was lied to then, and they think they are being lied to now. All I can say is, if this was 1950, we would have already done Divine Strake."

Refusing to be silenced

Peggy Maze Johnson, director of the Nevada watchdog group Citizen Alert, was impressed by a recent public-information meeting on Divine Strake in Las Vegas -- but only by the lengths DTRA and NNSA took to stifle actual public debate.

Attendees were not allowed to address officials during the information sessions. Rather, they had to fill out comment cards and hand them in.

"It was just a joke," she said.

She added that with no microphone for attendees, people had no opportunity to "hear all the sides of the story."

Rohrer defended the meetings -- held in Las Vegas, St. George and Salt Lake City -- saying the agencies were under no obligation to hold a two-sided session.

Following the St. George event, the city's mayor read a statement opposing Divine Strake at the beginning of a city council meeting.The Washington County Board of Commissioners in Utah also issued a statement opposing the experiment until a full environmental-impact statement is undertaken. Rohrer said it is premature to answer whether the NNSA and the DTRA will do so.

Downwinders like Thomas are refusing to be silenced, even as they continue to battle physical hardships.

In addition to suffering from the debilitating muscle disease Polymyositis, Thomas was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993. "We are doing double-whammy," she said. "We're going to our chemotherapy and our surgeries and our funerals, and we're trying to inform the people about what happened to us in the past and light a fuse with them and help us fight this."

McCabe of Stop the Divine Strake Coalition also pointed to the larger implications of nuclear testing. "This needs to be not just a Western issue about fallout," she said. "We need to broaden our scope from our own backyards, and think, what does this test really mean? What are the ramifications if this weapon is developed? Who is it going to be used against?"

 
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