January 10, 2007

With posters, maps and charts on radiation exposure, government scientists tried to assure about 35 residents Tuesday that the Divine Strake non-nuclear blast planned for the Nevada Test Site will not harm their health or the environment.

But most of those who attended the meeting by the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency were skeptical that the bunker-buster experiment, if conducted, will be as harmless as the officials assert.

Denise Kelley, a former nuclear plant worker in Ohio who moved to Las Vegas, said, “I have serious concerns because the Atomic Energy Commission (a forerunner of the Department of Energy, the NNSA’s parent agency) has never told the American people the truth in all these years.”

Kelley added, “I really think we need to worry about this thing. I think it’s being rushed because they want to bomb Iran with it.”

Jane Feldman, conservation chair of the local Sierra Club group, said she has concerns about where plutonium from past nuclear tests at the test site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is welded to the surface of the soil and whether the explosion from 700 tons of an ammonium nitrate fuel oil slurry will inject bits of it into the atmosphere.

“That would be one of my first questions. Where is this plutonium and how much of a risk is there from that?” Feldman asked.

“Nevadans have such a low level of trust listening to government officials … about how things at the Nevada Test Site are not harmful that it really has to be proven way far above and beyond a shadow of a doubt for us to have any comfort,” she said. “And that sense of comfort is not there.”

Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, a statewide environmental group, said the open-house format for the meeting and two others scheduled for today in Salt Lake City and Thursday in St. George, Utah, is not effective for gathering input. Instead, formal public hearings should have been scheduled.

“This is to close down communications and close down dialogue and to close down critical thinking,” Maze Johnson said.

“They now have said the fallout is going to go beyond the test site. We’ll we don’t know how far. … How can we trust what they are saying? What is the rush to get this done? Why can’t they do it the right way and have a full environmental impact statement, have real public opinion?”

Some wanted to know how many of the 60 radionuclides listed in an assessment of the Divine Strake site will be carried in the blast’s mushroom-shaped dust cloud.

“We expected to find low levels of man-made radioactivity that is typical of atmospheric fallout, and that is what we did find,” NNSA nuclear engineer Thomas Enyeart said in explaining to a Las Vegas man that the fallout came not only from nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site but also from weapons tests in Russia and China and elsewhere including the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Government documents show that at least six above-ground nuclear tests — Turk in 1955, and Smoky, Shasta, Kepler, Galileo and Coulomb B, in 1957 — contaminated the Divine Strake area with fallout.

The draft environmental assessment for the Divine Strake blast said that the dust cloud will rise to 4,800 feet, roughly a mile above the 5,100-foot elevation of Syncline Ridge, where a pit for the explosive material has been dug. That means the dust cloud will rise about 10,000 feet above sea level.

The assessment said that no significant effects on human health and safety were identified.

“In reality, the levels that anybody could be potentially exposed to off-site would be virtually indistinguishable from any background radiation they’d receive in their normal life,” NNSA spokesman Kevin Rohrer said.

Reno attorney Robert Hager, who is representing downwinders in a case to thwart the Divine Strake blast, was unconvinced.

“Once this stuff becomes airborne, you don’t know where it’s going to come down. … To apply a computer model that only goes out 80 kilometers is another attempt to perpetrate a false assurance on the public that this test is going to be safe,” Hager said.

He said his lawsuit will succeed in stopping the test if the agencies issue a finding of no significant impact and try to proceed with the test.

“They’re either going to try to pull the plug for the third time, or they’re going to walk into court and lose,” he said.

Because of the proceedings, the Divine Strake test “is not going to happen anytime soon,” said a Defense Threat Reduction Agency spokesman, David Rigby. “It will be several months into the future.”