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Planned 'Divine Strake' Bomb Test Incenses Locals


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The government is calling it Divine Strake, an explosion of 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil at a former nuclear test site in Nevada. It is designed to gather data on destroying underground tunnels. The test has been delayed twice, thanks to public and political pressure. Now, the government is reaching out, trying to convince people that it will not kick up radioactive soil at the site.

But as NPR's Ted Robbins reports, that's been a tough sell.

TED ROBBINS: Here's what you saw if you were one of the 300 or so people entering a meeting room at the Dixie Center in St. George, Utah - government experts like Michael Skougard of the NNSA, the National Nuclear Security Administration, standing next to posters with photos of enemy missiles and headlines like "Foreign underground facilities are a growing threat."

What you heard in the room was skepticism.

Unidentified Woman: How can we believe any of this when they've lied every time?

MICHAEL SKOUGARD: All I can tell you is that we are being open to the public with everything that we're doing here.

ROBBINS: To understand this mistrust, you have to go back to the 1950s. St. George was a small town, about 135 miles from the Nevada test site, downwind. When the government tested 100 above-ground nuclear weapons, this is where the fallout landed. All around this meeting room, people talk about parents, siblings, themselves, battling cancer and radiation poisoning. In the mid-'80s, after a long court battle, the government settled with the people who came to be known as downwinders.

In the middle of the meeting room is one of them. Michelle Thomas sits in a wheelchair. She has an autoimmune disease. She's also had ovarian cysts, a mastectomy, a salivary gland tumor and a thyroid disorder. She's quietly sobbing.

MICHELLE THOMAS: My mother went to one of these meetings in 1951 when she was pregnant with me, and they said there would be no danger.

ROBBINS: Divine Strake is a non-nuclear test, but it will create a 5,000-foot mushroom cloud. And in that cloud, some people fear, will be radioactive soil from earlier nuclear tests on other parts of the test site. An environmental assessment says that no dangerous particles will be released. So Darwin Morgan of the NNSA said this meeting was held to answer questions and calm emotions.

DARWIN MORGAN: This is not the government of the 1950s. If this was the government of the 1950s, this test would've already been conducted.

ROBBINS: Of course, without public outcry, it's likely the test would've been conducted. Nevada Indian tribes sued to halt the test. Utah and Nevada Congress members called for closer scrutiny. At least one local official in Nevada has pointed out that the environmental assessment does not look at small inhalable dust. Darwin Morgan again.

MORGAN: That's the type of comments that we're looking at, to see is that something that we should've looked at?

ROBBINS: But people here don't even seem to trust the test's stated purpose, which David Rigby says is purely scientific. Rigby is with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, part of the Pentagon. He assures doubters that Divine Strake will just update existing data on how much force it takes to destroy enemy underground tunnels.

DAVID RIGBY: This does not indicate the development of future nuclear weapons, nor does it presage the development of any conventional weapon.

ROBBINS: The Pentagon's budget request last year says the explosion will help the military decide what strength nuclear weapon will destroy underground facilities. Pentagon officials later called that an error. But the nuclear reference upset downwinders like Michelle Thomas. She says using new nuclear weapons or stirring up old radioactive dirt makes the U.S. little better than its enemies.

THOMAS: Kim Jong Il, the gentlemen in Afghan-- all of them - they'll say we have to have these weapons because of these rogue dictators. Well, to do what we're doing to our own people, that's what a rogue dictator would do.

ROBBINS: The decision now is whether to proceed with Divine Strake based on existing data or to do a full-blown environmental impact statement complete with public hearings. Utah's governor is scheduled to hold a public hearing of his own in St. George tonight. But if this meeting is any indication, no one here will be satisfied unless Divine Strake is cancelled.

Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.