Mushroom cloud blast in Nevada delayed indefinitely

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Mushroom cloud blast in Nevada delayed indefinitely

May 26, 2006


The federal government on Friday indefinitely postponed
a massive explosion that planners said would generate
a mushroom cloud over the Nevada desert and critics
feared would spread radioactivity across the West.

Officials said delaying the non-nuclear explosion
dubbed “Divine Strake” would allow time to answer
legal and scientific questions about whether it would kick
up radioactive fallout left from nuclear weapons tests
conducted at the Nevada Test Site
about 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

“The previously announced date of no later than June 23
is no longer accurate,” said Darwin Morgan, spokesman
for the National Nuclear Security Administration in
North Las Vegas.
“The experiment will be scheduled at a date later to be
announced pending the legal action.”

Anti-nuclear activists, an Indian tribe and Utah and
Nevada congressional lawmakers have pressed the
government to address safety concerns raised since
James Tegnelia, director of the federal Defense Threat
Reduction Agency, said the blast “is the first time
in Nevada that you’ll see a mushroom cloud over
Las Vegas since we stopped testing nuclear weapons.”
He later retracted the statement, saying it was inaccurate.

A federal judge in Las Vegas let government lawyers
on Friday withdraw a finding that there would be
“no significant impact” from the blast without
acknowledging any shortcomings alleged in a lawsuit
filed by the Winnemucca Indian Colony and
several Nevada and Utah “downwinders.”

U.S. District Court Judge Lloyd George said he wanted
questions about the test resolved.
“You tell the bureaucrats that the time has come
for this thing to move in a timely fashion,”
the judge told Justice Department lawyers as he
canceled a June 8 hearing but called for written filings
from both sides within four weeks.
“I will not endure delay after delay,” the judge said.

The explosion was first scheduled June 2 and
delayed to June 23 to allow time for a court review
of the lawsuit filed by Reno-based lawyer Bob Hager.
The suit claims the federal government failed to complete
required environmental studies before planning to detonate
the 700-ton ammonium nitrate and fuel oil bomb.
Designers said the blast would be of the same material but
some 280 times larger than the bomb that destroyed
the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

“This is the second time they have announced the intention
to explode this bomb at the Test Site and the second time that
we’ve stopped them,” Hager said.
“Until they do the science right, they’ll never be allowed
by the court to do this test, and that’s the way it should be.”

A spokesman for the federal Defense Threat Reduction Agency
declined comment. The agency has said the explosion would help
gather data about penetrating hardened and deeply buried targets.
Critics have called the planned blast a surrogate for a low-yield
nuclear “bunker-buster” bomb.

This week Hager filed an affidavit from John Burroughs,
executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy
in New York, calling the test “wholly inconsistent” with
U.S. nuclear weapons nonproliferation treaty obligations.

Hager also submitted opinions from experts, including
Richard Miller of Houston, author of the
“U.S. Atlas of Atomic Fallout,” and Dr. Thomas Fasy,
a board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility
in New York City, that the blast posed a risk of increased
cancer to people living downwind of the Test Site.

The planned blast rekindled fears of illness among
“downwind” residents in Nevada, Utah and Arizona
who recalled government assurances that nuclear tests
in the 1950s and early 1960s posed no risk.

Since 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
has provided for payments to downwinders who
contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases.

Opponents have collected signatures in Utah to block
the explosion, and a Memorial Day weekend protest is
planned at the Nevada Test Site.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate minority leader,
and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah,
issued statements welcoming the delay.

“We have always been concerned about background radiation
at the site,” Hatch said. “We have been repeatedly told …
that this was not a concern. But since we’ve asked them to back up
their conclusions with scientific evidence, it looks like our concerns
are justified.”

A spokeswoman for Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said
the postponement showed explosion planners were
“proceeding responsibly and with appropriate caution.”

Associated Press Staff Writers Erica Werner and Jennifer Talhelm
contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.