Awaiting the Divine
The Bush administration proposes to explode a huge conventional bomb in the Nevada desert, but activ
By Perry Crowe
America's one-time nuclear weapons testing facility, the Nevada Test Site, is only 45 minutes north of Las Vegas, but it might as well be on the moon. The space between the two contains little more than desert, mountains, a prison, and an Air Force base. The gate on Highway 95 is called Mercury, and the peace camp at Mercury amounts to a dozen or so tents scattered amongst the sagebrush and rocks, hushed by a great sense of isolation. Cradled between two rows of mountains, the air is still and the vastness of the landscape swallows up most sound.
Things had been relatively quiet in the area for over 10 years, since the federal government put a moratorium on nuclear testing at NTS in 1992; the endless series of underground and above-ground nuclear blasts ended, and employment at NTS dropped from a Cold War peak of 11,000 to only a couple thousand. That is, until Divine Strake.
Under the Bush administration, NTS got noisier as employment rose to 4,000 during studies of the U.S.'s current nuclear stockpile and managing two nuclear waste management facilities. And when the Defense Department's Defensive Threat Reduction Agency planned to use the site to conduct a test called Divine Strake, which would simulate the effects of an earth-penetrating bomb on "enemy underground installations," noise outside NTS grew to a roar.
The test, which was scheduled for June 2, has been postponed due to environmental concerns regarding the effects of exploding a 700-ton ammonium nitrate fuel oil bomb 36 feet below the surface of an area that has seen nearly 1,000 nuclear explosions through the Nevada Test Site's 50 years of operation. Opponents say the enormous blast will re-suspend irradiated material into the air, where it will then drift with the winds, spreading radiation sickness across the land. It's far from an unfounded fear, as the U.S. Justice Department's Radiation Exposure Compensation Program acknowledges that individuals "contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases as a result of their exposure to radiation released during above-ground nuclear weapons tests," and provides "compassionate payments" of $50,000 per individual for people living or working "downwind" of the Nevada Test Site and $100,000 for uranium miners and DOE employees. Compensation has recently passed the $1 billion mark.
But while the Department of Energy, which runs the Nevada Test Site, has withdrawn its Finding of No Significant Impact (or "FONSI") regarding Divine Strake's environmental effect, the DOE insists the withdrawal has only been done to allow for a more thorough assessment of background radiation in the test area, and that Divine Strake will still take place. The background radiation assessment will give the DOE a baseline to determine how much radiation Divine Strake will throw into the atmosphere, and whether or not that amount would be beyond "normal" levels.
"There's background radiation just about everywhere in this country, and, for that fact, throughout the northern hemisphere," says Kevin Rohrer, spokesman for the Nevada Test Site. "When we refer to background [radiation], it's a combination of naturally occurring [elements like uranium and radon] as well as worldwide fallout from nuclear testing activities, and manmade radiation from the Chernobyl event. Don't get me wrong. There are other parts of the Nevada Test Site that are contaminated with fallout from nuclear testing and contaminated at higher levels. This area on the test site where we're doing the Divine Strake is not one of those areas and is considered to be somewhat pristine."
But thinking only of Divine Strake's potential re-suspension of radioactive material may be too narrow a focus. "The whole point is that [Divine Strake] may lead to the development of new nuclear weapons, which may lead to a resumption of testing somewhere down the line," says J. Truman, founder and director of Downwinders, a group formed in the mid-'70s with the goal of protecting citizens from nuclear and radiation hazards.
Truman's entire life has been intertwined with the nuclear testing at NTS. Born in southwest Utah in 1951, the year testing began, Truman's first memory is of sitting on his father's knee, watching a nuclear detonation at the distant NTS.
"It would light up the whole sky 200 miles away when it went off," says Truman. "You'd hear the sound when it came over. And three or four hours later, you'd have the pinkish grey cloud come over and you'd know what it was. You couldn't miss it."
As a teenager, Truman, along with 4,000 other schoolchildren in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, took part in a government study to determine whether exposure to above-ground testing had caused an increase in thyroid cancer amongst those downwind from NTS (the radioactive isotope iodine 131, produced in nuclear fission, like, say, from a nuclear test, concentrates in the thyroid). The test checked on the children throughout the 1960s, checked in again during the 1980s and found an increase in thyroid cancer, and then again last year. With last year's test, after checking 1,800 of the original 4,000, the study found a definite link to non-cancerous thyroiditis.
"After 40 years of being guinea pigs, they came back to check the cage one last time and found that the guinea pigs were nowhere near healthy," says Truman, a noticeable wheeze in his voice. "So, bye-bye funding."
There is also a funding issue surrounding the Divine Strake test. Congress has repeatedly denied funding for the so-called "bunker buster" bombs, which are low-yield nuclear weapons designed to penetrate the earth before exploding, thereby doing more damage to underground targets. Congressional opposition comes from the concern that such low-yield nuclear weapons could lower the nuclear threshold; i.e.; while the traditional nuclear arsenal is largely a deterrent against attack, a bunker buster is intended for actual use.
"[Divine Strake] is 700 tons of explosives. There's only one way that you can ever get anything to produce that same explosive yield, and that's a nuke," says Truman.
It's this development of usable nuclear weapons that concerns people like Scott Scheffer of the L.A. chapter of the International Action Committee, who sees Divine Strake as a potential ramp-up to military action against Iran or North Korea. "This is the beginning of them doing their actual planning for an attack," he says.
Scheffer applauds the growth in the current antiwar movement, and he'd like to see more. He remembers the joke President Reagan made in 1984 during a mic test for a radio address that was eventually leaked to the public. The gipper quipped that Russia had been outlawed and "we begin bombing in five minutes."
"Everybody knew it was a joke, but the world was just aghast that he would even joke about something like that," says Scheffer. "And now George Bush Jr. can talk about a new generation of nuclear weapons and there's no outcry. And there needs to be."