United front: Huntsman wants the test relocated; Matheson, Bennett and Hatch demand more data
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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. wants the government to scrap an upcoming explosion at the Nevada Test Site.
Speaking Thursday at his monthly news conference, the Republican governor echoed concerns voiced this week by members of Congress, saying Utahns need better proof the "Divine Strake" blast won't harm them or spread nuclear contamination from previous tests in the environment.
"We are downwind," said Huntsman. "I believe that, obviously, we need a strong national security position, a strong defense position, and capabilities to protect us abroad. But do the testing somewhere else, where citizens aren't downwind."
The remarks came the same day U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson and U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett demanded, once again, that more basic safety data be made public. The mounting information requests also signal the possibility of a delay in the controversial experiment, an explosion of conventional explosives, not nuclear ones.
A 700-ton blast aimed at fine-tuning the government's skill at destroying underground bunkers, Divine Strake is set to take place in just five weeks. Before that time, the Pentagon and the Energy Department may need to follow up on information the Utahns requested, but they also must get an air-quality permit from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, which also wants details.
"Until we have a chance to review [the additional data], it's probably premature to comment," said Dante Pistone, a spokesman for the Nevada environmental agency.
The three Utah lawmakers dispatched aides to the desert test site Wednesday. Afterward, they agreed federal scientists should share the scientific data that validate their assertion the test won't kick up contaminated dust from past atomic tests nearby and won't be a precursor to a resumption of nuclear testing.
In addition, Hatch has called for a public information meeting in St. George, and both Republican senators have requested private briefings with the agencies behind the test, the Nevada Test Site and the National Nuclear Security Agency, both controlled by the Energy Department, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a Pentagon office.
"The information from yesterday's briefing is not reassuring," Matheson said in a news release. The Democratic congressman added that DTRA still has not responded to his April 7 letter requesting information about possible new nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, Hatch and Bennett indicated the Divine Strake agencies have bumbled public relations for the test. While aides learned that the federal agencies already have some of the details they have requested, that information was not included in the draft environmental assessment released in November, and the final, official version has not been published. "After our briefing, I'm not confident the public has enough information about this," Hatch said in a news release.
"My staff learned safety details from test officials [during the tour] that could have helped the public if they had been released long ago."
Bennett said in a statement that the agencies are evidently taking precautions to ensure the test is safe. But he still wants a briefing before deciding whether the test should proceed.
Darwin J. Morgan, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said his agency already has begun to provide some of the requested data. He said he also expects Divine Strake to go forward on time.
"I don't want the people of Utah to take this personally," said Irene M. Smith, a DTRA spokeswoman. "It would not be happening if it was a danger."
The explosion involves putting ammonium nitrate and fuel oil - the makings of a conventional bomb, like the one used in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing - in a 37-foot-deep pit that is being dug into a mountaintop about 90 miles north of Las Vegas. The pit lies about 100 feet above a 1,000-foot-long tunnel, which has been used for 45 past tests. Detonation will cause a blast comparable to a 3.1- to 3.4-magnitude earthquake, based on the Richter scale, said Matheson's office. The debris cloud is expected to shoot 10,000 feet into the air, but environmental reviewers say the debris won't cross the Nevada Test Site boundary eight to 10 miles away.
Thousands of Utahns are among the downwinders - Westerners who blame cancer and other illnesses on fallout from atomic tests conducted at the Nevada site in the 1950s and '60s. Two downwinders have joined with members of the Western Shoshone Indian tribe in trying to have a court block the test.
Reporters Rebecca Walsh and Robert Gehrke contributed to this article.