Divine explosion

Is the planned Divine Strake explosion a precursor to more nuclear-weapons testing?

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

The U.S. government “indefinitely postponed” a massive weapons test in southern Nevada on Friday after a grassroots campaign against it, a campaign fueled by widespread suspicion that the explosion was being staged to simulate a nuclear test. Critics called it an effort by the Bush administration to get around a congressional ban on nuclear testing and a congressional cancellation of funding for a “bunker buster” earth-penetration weapon.

When plans for the explosion were first announced in March, a federal official named James Tegnelia made an impolitic comment that got wide attention. “I don’t want to sound glib here,” said Tegnelia, “but it is the first time in Nevada that you’ll see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas since we stopped testing nuclear weapons.” (Mushroom clouds are not peculiar to nuclear explosions. They are produced by any explosion involving heat and convection.)

The image was a loaded one, and soon U.S. diplomats were trying to calm Russian officials about a resumption of tests, and defense officials had to assure Congress the Pentagon was not looking to breach the congressional ban.

But even with the mushroom-cloud comment taken as a poor choice of words, the initial news coverage also raised questions about why such a massive explosion was needed if it were not related to nuclear weapons. Princeton University international-affairs professor Frank von Hippel, a former national-security official in the Clinton administration, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on March 31, “If this is really being done to simulate a conventional weapon, I don’t understand why they aren’t using 20 tons [of explosives] instead of 700 tons.”

The Washington Post called it “a conventional alternative to a nuclear weapon”—the “bunker buster” that Congress will not allow the Bush administration to research or develop. (The weapon is also known among some critics as the budget buster.)

The explosion, if it is rescheduled, will be created by 700 tons of ammonium-nitrate fuel oil. By one estimate, that is enough explosive material to make 280 Oklahoma City-style bombs. The blast will be almost 50 times larger than that produced by the largest conventional weapon the U.S. military possesses. “This is the largest single explosive we could imagine doing,” Tegnelia said.

In April, a Bush-administration budget document surfaced that said flatly that the explosion is intended to simulate nuclear weapons: “Conduct the Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration(s) (ACTD) Full-Scale tunnel defeat demonstration using high explosives to simulate a low yield nuclear weapon ground shock environment at Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site.”

Meanwhile, grassroots anxiety was growing over the notion that the explosion would kick up radioactive dust and debris from the Nevada Test Site. On April 21, four members of the Winnemucca Indian Colony and two downwinders (people who lived in the cancerous paths of fallout from 1950s and ’60s atomic tests in Nevada) filed suit to stop the explosion.

Ursula Powers Sindlinger of Native Unity used the moment to point out that the test was happening on land taken from American Indians: “It must be stressed that the presence of the United States military on Western Shoshone land is uninvited.”

The test was originally scheduled for June 2, but after the lawsuit was filed, it was postponed to June 23. Now, it has been postponed without being rescheduled at all.

That delay allowed more time for organizing against the explosion and for federal officials to try to sell their case better. It also has meant growing national news coverage.

Surprisingly, in view of the federal government’s history of deception in Nevada nuclear matters, most members of Nevada’s five-member congressional delegation have been willing to accept federal assurances and have shown little interest in the issue.

Nevada U.S. Representative Shelley Berkley has been the most aggressive. Six weeks ago, she told the House, “Anytime an administration official starts talking about mushroom clouds and Las Vegas, I want answers.” This month she wrote to Tegnelia demanding written assurances that the explosion was conducted solely for conventional weapons research.

She also asked Tegnelia to “also include in your written response documentation that the purpose and rationale of the Divine Strake test arise solely within the framework of conventional, not nuclear, weapons development. Further, I ask that you provide assurances and documentation in writing that the Divine Strake test is not a ‘dual use’ experiment that could contribute to either a conventional weapons development program or a nuclear weapons development program.”

Nevada Congressmen Jim Gibbons, Jon Porter and John Ensign said they were notified of the explosion last year but have said little else.

Nevada Senator Harry Reid initially expressed some concern, and then, after meeting with Tegnelia, put out an April 6 statement saying that he was “satisfied that a controversial explosion at the Nevada Test Site will not threaten the health or safety of Nevadans.”

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said he was not willing to take the word of federal officials for that. He and U.S. Representative Jim Matheson sent their aides on a tour of the Nevada explosion site. Then they both issued statements expressing continued skepticism.

“I don’t want any testing to harm Utahans again,” Hatch said, “and I’m still concerned about a bomb test so near to a past nuclear test site.” At another point, he said, “The more I look at this, the more upset I become.”

Utah officials have been much more assertive on the issue of the Strake explosion (a development that has been commented on in the Utah press), possibly because Utah residents suffered much more from the downwind effects of nuclear testing in Nevada and from the deceptive assurances of safety from federal officials.

The Utah politicians also have had their minds focused by some grassroots opposition to the test and pressure from local officials.

In St. George, Utah, a petition drive against Strake was under way. The town is an emotional touchstone in the state because it was ravaged by cancers and leukemias after the 1950s-1960s atomic tests in Nevada. (It was near St. George that the famous killer movie, The Conqueror, was made. About half the cast and crew are known to have contracted cancers, and many—including stars Susan Hayward and John Wayne and director Dick Powell—died.)

Matheson had his worst suspicions confirmed when federal Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) official Doug Bruder was interviewed on CNN about Strake and said, “There are some very hard targets out there, and right now it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to defeat with current conventional weapons. Therefore, there are some that would probably require nuclear weapons.”

Matheson, whose father (former Utah Governor Scott Matheson) was a downwinder who died of cancer, put out an angry statement: “Officials who say they are using this Divine Strake test in planning for new nuclear weapons seem to be ignoring congressional intent about no new nuclear weapons and that concerns me.”

Subsequently, Bruder made additional comments that made it clear that Strake is a nuclear simulation: “It could be nuclear or advanced conventional. A charge of this size would be more related to a nuclear weapon.”

That was on April 28. Eight days later, Tegnelia—Bruder’s superior—wrote to Hatch to say, “It is not tied to the development of a new nuclear weapon. Divine Strake is in no way a precursor to resuming nuclear weapon testing.”

Thus, within an eight-day period, two federal officials made contradictory statements, fanning the suspicions of locals.

While Nevada Congress members have been relatively passive about Strake, Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn’s administration has been more forceful. The state insisted that the Pentagon produce proof that the blast will not violate state environmental laws and said it would not permit the test unless that information was forthcoming. State environmental official Leo Drozdoff informed the National Nuclear Security Administration (which administers the test site) that it was “prohibited from allowing this test to proceed until authorization” from his agency.

Federal officials have been busy issuing soothing statements to try to quiet the concern and criticism, and last week they said they would hold town-hall style meetings. “I don’t want the people of Utah to take this personally,” said DTRA’s Irene Smith. “It would not be happening if it was a danger.”

But Utah officials resisted being soothed.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson demanded that the meetings be held not just in the south of Utah, hardest hit by cancers, but also in his city in the north. For many years, it was assumed that most downwinders were east of the Nevada Test Site, as it is now called. Then, in 1997, federal officials were jolted by a National Cancer Institute study that showed fallout had migrated far into areas to the north that had not previously been considered at risk, as far west as Idaho and east as New England. Those findings were later verified by the National Academy of Sciences.

That roused citizen activism in areas in Idaho that long had suffered from high cancer rates but had been told by federal officials that they were out of the flow of fallout. Opposition to Strake has spread to that state, with the newspaper in Emmett, Idaho, carrying the headline “A new generation of Downwinders?” A federal official, Darwin Morgan, hastened to assure the local television station, “There is no radioactive contamination in the soil that will be kicked up and brought into the air. Secondly, the dust cloud itself is expected to dissipate.” But a Boise television station reported that Strake was planned to take place about a mile from the site of several earlier nuclear tests.