Hard of hearings
Northern Nevadans get involved in the effort to stop the “Divine Strake” simulated nuclear explosion in Southern Nevada
“Let’s not use the term scoping,” Marjorie Sill said. “That’s a very technical term.”
The group surrounding the veteran environmental leader agreed and dropped use of the term, favored by federal bureaucrats and meaning evaluating.
There were 11 of them gathered in a room at a Reno community center. They were there to try to get a Northern effort going against “Divine Strake"—a planned explosion of huge amounts of conventional explosive at the Nevada Test Site in Nye County.
The group quickly focused on a couple of goals—pressuring some key officials and getting the word out.
“The last thing they want is for people to know about any role this has in weapons development,” said Lee Dazey, who moderated the meeting. She was referring to the role of the explosion in development of the “bunker buster"—a guided deep-penetration bomb.
The group of locals decided to (1) try to pressure Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to get them to demand an environmental impact statement (EIS) before the test, (2) sound out several state legislators about a resolution demanding an EIS, (3) try to get Republicans and the Mormon Church involved in opposing the test, (4) try to track who will make money from the test, and (5) hold public events.
“I don’t think it should be just a Democratic thing because they’re very conservative out there in the small counties,” Sill said, adding, “and if there’s an EIS, it will take about three years. And guess what happens in three years?”
Dazey responded that there would be a new president by then, and that even if it’s a Republican, “it won’t be Bush.”
The group wanted an EIS in part because federal officials have not been reliable sources of information on Strake. In May 2006, those officials said Strake would not kick up old radioactive materials on the desert floor—or, in bureaucratese, “would not result in the suspension or dispersion of radioactive materials or human exposure to radioactive materials.”
But a new federal environmental assessment said the test would do exactly that—historical fallout would, in that same bureaucratese, be “resuspended from the detonation, have potential to be transported outside the [test site’s] boundary by wind. They may, therefore, contribute radiological doses to the public.”
A Nevada Test Site spokesperson still disagreed with the assessment.
The Reno activists felt that the environmental assessment turned up troubling information that should trigger a full-fledged environmental impact statement. Dazey said the sloppy Pentagon handling of environmental issues merits further scrutiny.
The EIS would serve another purpose, too. It will help get a delay.
“And any delay will allow more people in the public to become engaged in the process,” said Hadder.
The test, called “Divine Strake,” would detonate 700 tons of ammonium nitrate fuel oil in Nevada, sending aloft a 10,000-foot mushroom cloud.
On Dec. 20, the National Nuclear Security Agency released the revised environmental assessment and also said it had scheduled a series of public meetings on the test. Those meetings were held on Jan. 9 in Las Vegas, Jan. 10 in Salt Lake City and Jan. 11 in St. George, Utah. It did not, however, schedule hearings, only meetings with displays and briefings. The officials wanted to talk, not listen.
St. George was hard hit by cancers and leukemias during the atomic testing era in Nevada. The Strake meeting there reportedly drew the heaviest attendance of the three.
Hadder, of Citizen Alert’s Reno office, issued a statement pointing out that “these sessions will not include a public hearing on the issue. Instead, NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] officials said that the public sessions are basically open house meetings where people can look at informational posters and ask questions.”
Dazey, of the Western Shoshone Defense Project, called it “the same old dog and pony show.”
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, both of Utah, issued a statement blistering the NNSA for failing to hold a hearing at which members of the public could testify and question federal officials about Strake on a public record: “This only increases the much deserved distrust that many Utahns have toward statements made by the federal government regarding radiation and activities at the Nevada Test Site.”
To add to citizen suspicion, the federal agency suddenly switched the location for the Salt Lake City meeting the day before it was held.
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., responded to the federal information sessions by calling some real hearings under the auspices of his state’s Department of Environmental Quality. They were held on Jan. 18 in St. George and Jan. 24 in Salt Lake City. Huntsman has not taken a position on Strake itself, but his spokesperson said the public was entitled to a hearing.
At the Reno community meeting, the group discussed the stance of Nevada’s new governor and decided to sound him out about taking a stronger posture. Dazey noted that on Nov. 28, former Gov. Kenny Guinn sent a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman asking for a comprehensive environmental impact statement, but that Gov. Gibbons has been “largely silent. … Likely that torch has been set down.”
As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gibbons in March 2006 issued a statement saying a 2005 report indicated there would not be a safety risk or adverse environmental impact from the test. He said he would follow the dispute, but he didn’t object to the plans for the explosion.
Since the Reno community meeting, Divine Strake has had a higher public profile in Northern Nevada. A week later, a letter was sent to Gov. Gibbons asking him to support an EIS. He did not reply to the letter but released this public statement: “Weapons testing is a critical component of our military’s readiness capabilities; however, it is critical that we ensure that the NNSA is taking all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of all Nevadans and the surrounding environment.” No state hearings, like those in Utah, have been held or scheduled.
On Feb. 3, protest marchers walked from the Nevada Legislature to the Governor’s Mansion to try to throw a spotlight on Gibbons’ stance.
But the response was not encouraging. “It is dead quiet out there from our elected leaders,” Dazey said.
Northern activists will meet again on Feb. 15 to try to decide how to proceed.But the politicians have not been a good barometer of how Strake events would go. Reid’s spokesperson said last summer that he believed the explosion would take place during the autumn. It didn’t.