Explosive comment

A Pentagon official who joked about mushroom clouds over Las Vegas has raised some hackles.

“I don’t want to sound glib here, but it is the first time in Nevada that you’ll see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas since we stopped testing nuclear weapons,” said Pentagon official James Tegnelia, describing a plan to detonate 700 tons of explosives—ammonium nitrate fuel oil-emulsion—in Nevada as part of research to develop a “bunker buster” bomb (dubbed the “budget buster” by its critics) that can penetrate solid rock. The test is supposed to provide information on the impact of conventional explosives on underground bunkers or stockpiles.

Apparently, saying, “I don’t want to sound glib,” didn’t help because soon Washington officials were trying to mitigate the impact of the comment, which made news around the world.

State Department officials sent assurances to Russia that no nuclear test is planned. Defense officials tried to answer U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s questions about why the test was scheduled without any public input. U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley wanted questions answered about the pollution that will be produced by the test. Tegnelia, director of the glibly named Defense Threat Reduction Agency, issued a statement clarifying his meaning. A Washington Post columnist even criticized the code name for the test ("Divine strake").

Back in Nevada, Progressive Leadership Alliance director Bob Fulkerson called for Tegnelia to be fired.

“The downwind victims of the last wave of mushroom clouds are in the graveyards of northeastern Nevada and western Utah. I think the guy who so callously made the ‘mushroom cloud over Las Vegas’ comment should be fired and forced to apologize to their survivors. The remarks are more out of Dr. Strangelove than a modern military operation, which should leave us all very worried about their ability to safely carry out this exercise.”

Around the nation and the world, Associated Press news stories about the dispute were printed or posted side by side with a photo of a July 11, 1962, nuclear mushroom cloud that followed a nuclear test near Mercury.