LAS VEGAS (AP) – A non-nuclear explosive test planned by the government could have spread lethal radioactive particles across the Nevada desert and beyond had it not been canceled, experts testified Wednesday.
“A new generation of ‘downwinders’ would have been created, with cancers and birth defects,” said Robert Hager, a Reno lawyer who summoned witnesses to try to drive a stake through any future plans for the “Divine Strake” test at the Nevada Test Site 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The explosion of a 700-ton fuel oil and fertilizer bomb was proposed to gather data about penetrating underground bunkers that produce and store weapons of mass destruction. But the prospect of a mushroom cloud in the desert prompted a lawsuit and intense opposition in Utah and Nevada, where critics feared it would scatter decades-old radioactive material from previous Cold War-era tests.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency canceled the test in February.
Justice Department lawyers urged U.S. District Judge Lloyd George not to hold Wednesday’s hearing, arguing the cancellation made the issue moot.
“DTRA has no plans to conduct either the Divine Strake experiment or any tests using open-air explosive detonations at the (Nevada Test Site),” government lawyers Caroline Blanco and Sara Culley declared in documents filed in the case.
“We think it should be completely over,” Blanco said Wednesday.
But Hager pleaded with the judge to order the government to provide notice and an opportunity for public hearings if a similar test is resurrected.
Hager also sought the recovery from the government of $400,000 in attorney and legal fees he claims were racked up forcing DTRA to pull the plug on the Divine Strake experiment.
He said the government first postponed the test and later canceled it only after his clients, the Western Shoshone tribe members and others in Nevada and Utah, filed a lawsuit and found fatal flaws in the environmental impact reports.
The judge, who has heard months of arguments since the blast was initially scheduled for June 2006, did not make immediate rulings on those requests. He gave both sides several weeks to file briefs before he decides.
But he agreed to hear the experts Hager brought to Las Vegas to testify that the government failed to adequately study possible health effects of the blast.
Plutonium expert Michael Ketterer, a chemistry and biochemistry professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, testified that government soil samples found “no doubt” there was radioactive contamination at the blast site.
Diane Stearns, a Northern Arizona University biochemist and uranium expert, faulted a December 2006 draft environmental report on the proposed blast for failing to answer what she called the “obvious” question.
“The public wants to know: What are the health risks from the fallout?” she said on the witness stand. “We know this radioactivity is carcinogenic. We know it can cause cancer.”
Government officials a year ago downplayed surface contamination, and then said they didn’t expect the blast would disturb fallout left from the 100 aboveground and 828 underground nuclear weapons tests conducted at the test site from 1951 to 1992.
Thousands of people who lived near the test site – called downwinders – were exposed to cancer-causing radiation from the weapons tests.
Ketterer said Wednesday that plastic shovel sampling for a December 2006 environmental study was so “abbreviated and hasty” he could not tell how much plutonium there was on the surface around the Divine Strake site.
“They didn’t test enough so that a report could be provided to represent the danger?” the judge asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Ketterer replied.
“The report as far as you’re concerned was inadequate?”
Over the image of a huge crater left from a July 1962 nuclear test dubbed “Sedan,” Richard Miller, a researcher, author and former federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance agent, testified that for many years radioactive fallout from
Nevada traveled across the U.S.
Miller compared the 10,000-foot dust plume that officials said would have been generated by the Divine Strake blast with a dust cloud kicked up by the 104-kiloton Sedan test, which was detonated at a shallow 600 feet below ground.
Miller also offered charts showing widespread and random radioactivity deposits around the nation after nuclear tests in the past, and called it impossible to predict where microscopic particles cast so high in the atmosphere would settle.
“A debris cloud can be scavenged by a thunderstorm and 99 percent of the material can come to Earth within an hour,” Miller said. But he said measurements also found radioactive clouds wafted north to Canada, west to California or east as far as Maine.
Hager noted that the government had predicted dust churned up by the Divine Strake test would settle within about 50 miles – or near the boundary of the Nevada Test Site.
The blast was to have been 280 times larger than the bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
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