THE BLOG

Uproar Downwind

05/31/2006 07:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

That "perfectly safe" mushroom cloud that was supposed to rise 10,000 feet over the Nevada Test Site this month will have to remain a mere gleam in Donald Rumsfeld's eye for the time being.

The security state, which had planned to jump-start its WMD program with a supposedly conventional explosion large enough to mimic the effects of a small nuclear weapon, has run smack into the ghosts of its own fraudulent past. The citizens downwind of the test site, the furious sons and daughters of the victims of earlier testing and earlier lies, have forced the government to regroup.

A serious legal challenge in U.S. District Court and general outrage among the locals -- the largely conservative residents of Nevada, Utah, Idaho -- have complicated the plans of the Departments of Energy and Defense to set off a major above-ground explosion at the site, the first since 1962, without public input or even a legitimate environmental impact statement. The big bang known as Divine Strake, a 700-ton concoction of ammonium nitrate, fuel oil and God knows what else, is on indefinite hold.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, in a press release issued May 26, worded the retreat ever so gingerly: It is "withdrawing its Finding of No Significant Impact" for Divine Strake.

Come again?

Can a finding withdrawn really have been a "finding" in the first place? You can imagine the awkwardness for a government agency that, at that delicate point of contact with the public, must maintain a certain level of credibility. The NNSA had already OK'd Divine Strake as a go for June 2. If locals hadn't challenged this, the sky over Las Vegas would be lighting up tomorrow. But the uproar among the downwinders -- who have borne the consequences of our Cold War-era nuclear testing program in the form of shattered health and lost loved ones -- was sufficient to force, first, a three-week delay of the blast and now indefinite postponement.

The agency's official explanation is that it must regroup in order to find a way to explain, as spokesman Darwin Morgan told me, "what will happen with the background radiation once it's in the dust clouds." The naturally occurring radiation in the soil is what the public had been asking about, he said -- which, FYI, is untrue. The downwind public is far more concerned about unnaturally occurring radiation: The Divine Strake blast site is only a mile from a hot spot left from a previous nuclear test. The public is also worried that the allegedly non-nuclear blast might usher in a new era of "low yield" nuclear testing.

The government was faced with "a lot of political fallout," Preston Truman of the organization Downwinders said. "You have (Utah Sen. Orrin) Hatch being hit with petitions in St. George. The Salt Lake City mayor demanded there be a hearing in Salt Lake City. Also, (Idaho Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo) demanded hearings in Boise. These politicians simply had to do something to cool it down or they'd be in trouble."

And, oh yeah, the NNSA's sudden concern about background radiation is, he said politely, "a meadow muffin." This is how much credibility the Department of Energy, which lied to the residents for four decades, has in these parts.

Utah Congressman Jim Matheson, whose father, Scott, the former governor of Utah, died from fallout-related multiple myeloma at age 61, noted, "We in Utah are extremely skeptical when we're told not to worry."

He's also skeptical that no larger Bush administration agenda lies behind Divine Strake. "I do think the administration does have an interest in developing new nuclear weapons," he said, citing three common-sense reasons to prevent this from happening:

First, the "low yield" weapons (e.g., the bunker buster) Rumsfeld and Co. want to perfect would hurtle humanity into unprecedented danger because they're actually meant to be used, unlike the doomsday nukes of the Cold War era. Second, developing these weapons at the same time we're trying to stop nuclear proliferation sends utterly the wrong message to the world. And third, nuclear weapons testing causes illness and death, which is something downwinders -- his constituents, his own family -- "won't forget."

In the breathing space that has opened up before the DoD and DoE attempt to reschedule Divine Strake (count on it), we may also want to consider the warnings of Patricia Axelrod, a Reno, Nevada-based weapons-systems analyst and expert in Gulf War I illnesses, who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the safety and legality of the blast.

"I will say to you they are busily engaged in camouflaging the true nature of this test," said Axelrod, a self-described "tough Irish broad" who has pushed the Nevada Attorney General's Office to the edge of its tolerance of knowledge-seeking citizens in her quest for Divine Strake-related documents. "After conducting my research I'd say it's highly likely Divine Strake would employ radioactive elements, including depleted uranium."

"If the U.S. drops a nuclear weapon in a conflict, we lose," Matheson said. I'll second that, adding: We also lose if we drop one on ourselves.

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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.