New York Times
January 11, 2007
by Steve Friess

Las Vegas, Jan. 10 — A twice-postponed nonnuclear bomb test in the middle of the Nevada desert may face additional legal challenges over its potential to propel dangerous radioactive particles from the soil into the air over four states.

An environmental assessment released last week showed that although the bomb, which comprises 700 tons of ammonium nitrate-fuel oil, could stir up and release radioactive material from the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles north of here, the amount would barely be measurable. The radioactive particles are in the soil as the result of above-ground and underground nuclear weapons tests at the test site from 1951 to 1992.

“According to our models, if you lived on the border of the test site, and nobody does, then starting on the day after the blast, you would receive .005 milliliters of radiation due to resuspension,” said Kevin Rohrer, the spokesman for the test site, which is run by the National Nuclear Security Administration. “You would have to stay on that border for 200 years to receive the same amount of radiation you get from watching your TV for a year.”

Officials of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, part of the Department of Defense, say they hope to detonate the bomb sometime in the first half of this year in a 30-foot-wide pit at the site. The purpose of the $23 million experiment, known as Divine Strake, is to test the impact of certain levels of force on underground bunkers, said an agency spokeswoman, Cheri Abdelnour.

At a public forum here on Tuesday night, Algirdas Leskys, a data analyst with the Department of Air Quality and Environmental Management for Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, said the new analysis did not take into account the likelihood that particles of dust as small as 2.5 microns would become airborne as a result of the test. A micron is one-millionth of a meter.

Michael Skougard, a National Nuclear Security Administration official, acknowledged that analysts looked at larger, 10-micron particles when they determined that a 10,000-foot cloud created by the test would dissipate within 13 miles. Mr. Skougard said that officials would consider Mr. Leskys’s concerns before deciding whether to authorize the test or conduct a longer-term environmental impact study.

On Monday, Robert Hager, the lawyer for two groups that filed a lawsuit that led to the test’s first two postponements, also argued that the computer model used to anticipate where the debris would travel was unrealistic.

“That model is for continuous emissions, like a smokestack, and they’ve said there will be an equal dispersion everywhere, but none of that is the real world,” Mr. Hager said. “The soil contains radioactivity. They admit that now. It’s going to be airborne. They admit that now. It’s going to leave the test site. They admit that now. Then they do this junk science that ignores the history of how this material disperses. This is the worst place in the world to set off a blast like this.”

The issue of open-air weapons testing at the test site is controversial in Nevada and neighboring states. For decades, the Atomic Energy Commission, which no longer exists, insisted to the public that the cold-war-era tests were safe even for spectators. But thousands in the region were stricken by a variety of cancers found to have been caused by nuclear fallout from the tests. Since Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990, more than half a billion dollars has been awarded to some 15,100 fallout victims and their families in Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

Plans for Divine Strake, which had been scheduled for last June, had escaped news media and political scrutiny until March, when the director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, James A. Tegnelia, told a group of journalists, “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.”

Mr. Tegnelia’s comment alarmed several groups of local residents, including members of the Western Shoshone Indian tribe who live near the test site and “downwinders,” those sickened by fallout from cold-war-era blasts there. In May, the two groups filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop Divine Strake, asserting that the agency had not conducted proper studies of the test’s possible environmental effects before declaring it environmentally safe.

The agency’s analysis did not include any study of the bomb’s impact on radioactive particles in test site soil from the 100 nuclear weapons tests conducted from 1951 to 1992.

Faced with the lawsuit, the agency first postponed Divine Strake until late June, and then indefinitely while it undertook the new study.

If the agency decides against more studies, Mr. Hager vowed to file another lawsuit to try to stop the experiment.

Representative Shelley Berkley, a Las Vegas Democrat, also opposes the bomb test. “It’s not that I don’t trust the Pentagon, but I don’t trust the Pentagon,” Ms. Berkley said. “I don’t have big confidence in this administration to protect the health concerns of the people of Nevada or the surrounding states.”