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Divine Strake

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Will residents of Las Vegas be seeing a mushroom cloud over their city next month?

As I write this, "Divine Strake," the big bang with the macabre and vaguely blasphemous name (the military-industrial complex is playing God again), has been postponed from June 2 to June 23, thanks to legal proceedings against the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the National Nuclear Security Administration, related to unanswered environmental-impact questions. Maybe the delay will be enough of a wedge to allow the passionately bitter opponents of the blast -- and they are legion -- to build the necessary momentum to stop it altogether.

I hope so. Nothing good can come of this retempting of fate, this re-engaging of the human-annihilation machine known as the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Divine Strake is not itself a nuclear blast, but it's so big that many observers "have said that the new test is simply an attempt to defy the congressional ban and advance Defense Department research into nuclear weapons," according to the Las Vegas Sun. Specifically, it's seen as a covert way for the government to research the killed-in-Congress Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a.k.a., the bunker buster.

Divine Strake would be the mother of all fertilizer bombs (eat your hear out, Tim McVeigh): 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, which the DoD wants to set off above a limestone tunnel at the infamous Nevada Test Site, where 928 above- and below-ground nuclear tests were conducted between 1951 and 1992, and downwind of which millions of people continue to reap the horrific consequences of the fallout.

The blast would be big enough to simulate a nuclear weapon; it will raise a 10,000-foot mushroom cloud of debris, some of which may be radioactive. Indeed, one known hot spot is only 1.1 miles from the blast site. Despite this, Defense and Energy Department spokesmen have assured people there will be "no significant impact" to the environment. Yeah, sure.

It's all the worst sort of deja vu for the "downwinders" of Nevada, Utah, Idaho and other states (the whole country is, in fact, downwind of the site): not just the idea of a mushroom cloud -- or, as an editorial cartoon in the Las Vegas Review-Journal put it, "a very large, extended middle finger" -- blocking out the sun again, for the first time since 1962, but the insidious governmental assurances that the public has nothing to worry about. The feds, after all, stonewalled the downwinders about the lethality of the Cold War-era testing for four decades, as radiation-related cancers and other illnesses claimed loved one after loved one.

In other words, the bomb makers are also liars. Think about this for a moment, especially those of you with Strangelovian sympathies, who regard WMD capability -- and a reckless willingness to use that capability -- as crucial to U.S. security. Building and testing a nuclear arsenal is guaranteed to destroy the health -- to kill -- many of our own citizens. The government has decided this domestic price is worth it, but lies to those it has written off as expendable. This combination of ruthlessness and cowardice is what characterizes the "security state," and to my mind its ascendancy can only diminish real national security.

What's happening with Divine Strake right now is a head-on confrontation with the arrogant and contemptuous security state -- in rural Utah, Nevada, Idaho, among the reddest of the red regions of the country. Opposition to the blast -- both out of immediate concern over dirty fallout and the even greater fear that it will just open the door to more nuclear testing, more lies and more deaths -- is widespread.

"I think (the delay) clearly shows the clout of the opposition," Preston Truman, director of Downwinders, an organization representing Cold War-era nuclear-testing victims, told me. "Even more important is the other thing the feds had to give in hopes of defusing the opposition downwind, and that is to have a couple of town-hall meetings in Nevada and in St. George, Utah to explain the test. . . . (This will lead to) escalating demands for hearings from Las Vegas to Boise.

"Instead of quieting the ticked-off natives," he said, "the delay is only going to give the downwinders that much more time to organize and pressure their elected representatives and show this isn't just some noisy activists and anti-nukers, but the region's residents across the board drawing a line in the sand and saying NO, there are enough of us -- downwinders -- already and we will not allow another generation of us to be created."

Are you listening, Rummy? W? The electorate is mad as hell, and they're forcing even the most conservative of their reps, such as Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch, to stand up and demand answers from the defense establishment.

The Divine Strake controversy comes at a crucial juncture, with the Bush administration threatening not only war but nuclear war with Iran, and in doing so inevitably inflicting the arms race on the Third World, as developing nations come to see, in the words of Dr. Kurt Gottfried, chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, that "the only way for a country to deter nuclear attack is to acquire its own nuclear arsenal."

Humanity's future remains hostage to the nuclear demon. But as the downwinders know, the place to stop it is not in Iran. It's here in the U.S., where the demon was unleashed.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

© 2006 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.