Dirty Job: Reactivating the semi-comatose Nevada Test Site is considered crucial to the development of a new set of nuclear warheads. Hence, the rush to test by any means necessary -- even with a crude, mammoth fertilizer bomb. Unstated in the official documentation, and seldom considered by critics, the Department of Defense is also desperate to start up the testing again for another reason entirely: The human infrastructure that developed and managed America's nuclear arsenal is retiring or dying off.
We stopped underground testing in 1992 and haven't developed a new nuclear weapon since the W88 Trident II warheads over a decade ago. The human knowledge-and-experience base that learned how to handle nuclear weaponry and the skill sets that can only be attained firsthand are melting away over time. Reviving the Nevada Test Site would give the Department of Energy that runs the facility for the DoD a valuable training ground to rebuild that knowledge base. It would also give a new generation of technicians and engineers the hands-on experience they need to keep the nuclear ball rolling. If they can get the Test Site up and running soon, even for a fertilizer bomb, the veteran technicians left over from the Cold War will still be available to instruct and mentor the nuclear newbies. Unfortunately for them, time is not on their side.
Eat Dirt: As citizens immediately downwind demanded evidence that Divine Strake would not raise soils still contaminated by generations of previous nuclear explosions, Pentagon spokespeople offered the usual assurances, even while admitting that they had little in the way of data to back them up. Nothing resembling an environmental impact assessment had been done, but the implication was that the Pentagon's word should be good enough. Richard Miller, an industrial health technician, has documented that six nuclear detonations from the 1950s were conducted within eight miles of the proposed Divine Strake site, contaminating the surface soil with radioactive debris that could be dangerous for many decades to come. Local activists who have visited the Nevada Test site note that DoD employees do not allow them to pick up and carry off stones from the area because, they were told, even dirt sometimes sets off the Geiger counters wielded by the guards at the gate.
Contrary to Pentagon claims that the 10,000 foot mushroom cloud from Divine Strake should dissipate within a mile or two of the explosion, Miller's research shows that a similarly large debris column that leaked from the "Baneberry" underground test in 1970 was caught up in the jet stream and carried all the way to Canada before falling out. Climate scientists who are studying how dust from storms in Mongolia coats Colorado mountain snowpack would not find this surprising; nor would scientists who suspect that high background levels of mercury in Western states can be explained by the prevailing winds sweeping across toxic residues from open-pit gold mining in Nevada and carrying mercury as well as other harmful chemicals hundreds of miles downwind.
Miller's previous studies of fallout patterns from the Nevada Test site showed that, according to the government's own reports, radioactive materials from both aboveground and underground tests traveled much farther than previously assumed and in greater concentrations -- some hot clouds of fallout settled on places in the Midwest and even on the New York/New Jersey metropolitan areas. Back in the 1950s and 60s, radiation from the Nevada testing grounds reached deep into food chains, contaminating grain harvests and milk production sometimes thousands of miles away. Although airborne debris from a non-nuclear explosion will contain less harmful materials than the debris from an actual nuclear blast, no analysis has been done of how arsenic and other naturally occurring toxins as well as the more exotic toxins that will result from blowing up 700 tons of ammonium nitrate will be dispersed into the wind. Clearly, however, whatever is in that dirt ball will land on playgrounds, lawns, farms, cattle, and watersheds. We have learned the hard way from pollution, cancer, and global climate change that we all live downwind and downstream from one another; that, through a complex global food web, we also eat each others' dirt.