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October 21, 2014

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Critics urge more Divine Strake study

Two federal agencies planning to detonate 700 tons of explosives at the Nevada Test Site rolled out their proposal for the public this week, but the effort has failed to calm critics who are asking for more debate over the test.

Activists in four states have asked for more meetings or formal hearings and more study of the proposed Divine Strake , which the Defense and Energy departments say will provide information on how underground, "hardened" structures are affected by large surface blasts. The data could be used for development of a nuclear or conventional "bunker busting" weapon, although officials emphasize that the research is not designed to further any specific weapon.

The first public meeting to discuss the test, being planned by the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, attracted about 40 people Tuesday night in Las Vegas. Two more public meetings were scheduled for Utah this week.

The blast of an ammonium nitrate-fuel oil mixture would send a mushroom cloud a mile above the Test Site, and activists, citing concerns that the explosion would expose people downwind to radioactive dust from old nuclear explosions, have filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to stop the test.

Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Nevada's Citizen Alert, complains that the meetings to discuss the 275-page environmental assessment, which was released Dec. 22, are too narrowly focused.

"They want people to make comments on the environment only," she said. "How many people have read the environmental assessment? There's a whole lot of questions that need to be answered."

Among those who attended Tuesday's session was a Clark County Air Quality and Environmental Management analyst, Algirdas Leskys, who said the environmental assessment failed to discuss the important issue of extremely fine dust that is less than 2.5 microns in diameter - about .0001 of an inch - and is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency through the state government.

Leskys, who emphasized that he was speaking personally and not for Clark County, said the environmental assessment also improperly calculated and "significantly underestimates" the amount of coarser dust that the test would put into the atmosphere.

Leskys said his models showed about 521 tons of dust will be produced by the blast - about 30 times more than the federal estimate. The total amount is important because the federal estimate of how much radiation people could be exposed to is based in part on how much dust goes into the air.

The Energy Department has estimated that the amount of radiation that would be carried outside the Test Site at 0.005 milirem, far lower than the threshold of 0.1 milirem that would require independent approval from the EPA. Critics, among them Bob Hager, an attorney in the lawsuit to block the test, have said the federal estimate proves that radiation will escape the Test Site and will be dangerous.

Leskys said he based his estimate on a standard model used by, among others, Clark County's air quality department.

Michael Skougard, an environmental scientist for the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, said both issues raised by Leskys need to be addressed.

"We're going to be looking at it very closely," Skougard said during Tuesday night's meeting. "He raised some very good points."

On the issue of the finer particulate matter, Skougard said that analysis may be included in a final environmental assessment. On the more course particulate matter, he said his agency needs "to go back, review assumptions, and if necessary, make changes or be able to explain why we're correct."

Skougard said the identification of potential weaknesses in the environmental assessment is why there is a public comment period and why his agency is holding the information sessions.

"Our objective is to present an honest assessment," he said. The Energy Department's goal is to ensure that the test is safe for the public, for workers at the Test Site and for the environment, Skougard added.

"I believe it is safe."

But others criticize the number of meetings and their format, arguing that the sessions and the environmental assessment need to be replaced with a full environmental impact study - a process that could take years - and formal hearings.

The entire Idaho congressional delegation has asked the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to schedule public hearings on the blast.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. also has asked for more meetings on the issue - and is scheduling his own hearings this month to gather public comments, which, he said, he will forward to the federal agencies. Those agencies have suffered the slings and arrows of their critics, but they have also suffered from their own missteps. Ten pages were deleted from the environmental assessment released Dec. 22. The National Nuclear Security Administration, which completed the study, extended the public comment period last week, from Jan. 24 to Feb. 7, to compensate for the deletion of largely technical, background material, including footnotes and definitions of technical terms.

And on Tuesday, the federal government changed the venue for tonight's information session in Salt Lake City.

For Preston Truman, an Idaho resident and director of a group called Downwinders who believe they or family members were exposed to radiation from nuclear bomb tests, said the recent missteps are "just one more indication that they (the federal agencies) haven't got their act together."

He intends to attend the Salt Lake meeting tonight. Truman, 55, lived outside of St. George, Utah, during the era of nuclear testing, which ended in 1992.

"I'd like to see a full-blown hearing and not this education road show," said Truman from his home in Malad, Idaho. "We've had enough of those over the last 55 years. Telling us one more time that there is no danger is just not going to cut it."

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