The Defense Department's plan to detonate 700 tons of explosives at the Nevada Test Site is intended to simulate a nuclear blast as part of Pentagon research into development of low-yield nuclear weapons, a science advisory group charged Tuesday.
The Pentagon refused to confirm or deny the claim, made by the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington, D.C.-based liberal policy group opposed to development of nuclear weapons.
An explosion rocks the desert floor sending smoke through the area during a training exercise at the Hazardous Material Spill Center simulating a terrorist attact, Wednesday, June 3, 1998, at the Nevada Test Site in Mercury, Nev. Plans for a Pentagon-led experiment that involves detonating 700 tons of explosives in the desert drew criticism from state leaders and a disarmament activist Thursday March 30, 2006. The explosion scheduled for June 2 at the Nevada Test Site is part of an effort to design a weapon that can penetrate solid rock formations in which a country might store nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)
But if the charge is verified, debate over the blast seems certain to shift beyond environmental effects on Nevada to international concerns over nuclear weapons proliferation.
The federation said it based its statement on a review of Pentagon budget requests since 2002 showing that the blast, scheduled for June 2, would serve as a "low-yield nuclear weapon simulation." Hans Kristensen, an analyst for the federation, said the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency has carefully ducked the issue of whether the test was nuclear-related.
Policy analysts in and out of the Bush administration have suggested that the United States develop low-yield nuclear weapons. In 2001, the National Institute for Public Policy, a conservative nonprofit think tank, said new nuclear warheads should be developed for "bunker busting."
The Bush administration followed in 2002 with its Nuclear Posture Review, which made a similar argument. One of the veterans of the National Institute for Public Policy report, Linton Brooks, became the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which directs nuclear weapons research.
According to the Washington Post, a year ago Brooks told Congress that the United States lacked a nuclear warhead capable of destroying "hardened, deeply buried targets."
Despite the enthusiasm for the weapons research, Congress since 2001 has denied funding for such nuclear programs. Last year Congress cut $4 million from the administration's request to study a nuclear bunker buster, instead supporting study of a conventional weapon that could be used against buried targets.
Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, chairman of a key House subcommittee on the weapons issue, said in December that Congress would not back a ground-penetrating nuclear warhead. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group working to reduce the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons, said in November that the Bush administration would go ahead with a test of a mock earth-penetrating nuclear warhead, but with a different name and using Defense rather than Energy Department funding.
Kristensen said the test, while non-nuclear, could be used to further development of a nuclear bunker-busting warhead.
The test "is about fine-tuning tools for fighting nuclear wars, Kristensen said. The nuclear war fighters are trying to calibrate a low-yield nuclear weapon against a relatively shallow target in limestone."
Kristensen said the goal of the test program was to find the weakest nuclear weapon that would still achieve the goal of knocking out hardened, underground structures. Lower-yield weapons would spread less radiation and fallout that would affect civilians and troops.
Kristensen's comments came less than a week after James Tegnelia, director of the Threat Reduction Agency, told reporters that the test would send "a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas." Although the agency quickly disavowed the comment and stressed that the test would be non-nuclear, the comment alarmed political leaders and residents who remember decades of atomic bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Agency spokesmen said the explosion, although large, would not be seen, heard or felt in Las Vegas and would not produce any radioactive dust to blow downwind.
Asked Tuesday about the federation's comments, agency spokesman David Rigby said, "I don't confirm them. I don't deny them. I don't discuss the quality of their information.
"This is a test to have better predictive tools to defeating hardened and underground targets," Rigby said. "It is not a precursor to a nuclear test. It is not a nuclear test."
The June blast "has been redefined over the past several years," and the goal now is to provide data on how such massive explosions and their ground shocks affect structures in different geologic situations, he said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is scheduled to meet with Tegnelia on Thursday. Sharyn Stein, a Reid spokeswoman, said the goal of the test would be discussed.
"Nevadans have heard a lot of frightening rumors about this planned test," Reid said in a prepared statement. "I look forward to talking with Director Tegnelia and getting accurate information. I'm pleased the director is able to meet with me so quickly, and I hope we'll be able to settle any concerns about the safety of Divine Strake," referring to the test.
State Sen. Dina Titus, a Democratic candidate for governor and a UNLV professor who has written extensively on Nevada's history with nuclear weapons testing, said people were concerned about a return of the atomic tests.
Past statements from the Bush administration on the need to resume such testing or develop new tactical nuclear weapons don't reassure people, she said.
"All the saber-rattling leads me to fear that they might try to resume testing," she said. "We won the arms race, so why are we starting it again?
"This is a more visceral issue even than Yucca Mountain because of the history of weapons testing. We have to have a strong defense, but I don't know why we would want to start the arms race again."
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