This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
WASHINGTON - An environmental consultant who has studied the Nevada Test Site says there is likely radioactive contamination at the location where the Pentagon plans to conduct a major explosives test, potentially dispersing the contaminants.
Richard L. Miller, author of two books on nuclear fallout from atomic testing, identified six tests conducted in the 1950s that could have spread contamination over the area where the Pentagon plans to detonate 700 tons of explosives in a test called Divine Strake.
The radioactive remnants of those tests are long-lasting, Miller said, and he is not convinced there has been the rigorous testing of soil samples that would be needed to guarantee the test area is clean.
"For sure, we've had some pretty nasty shots just east of there," said Miller. "Any time you have a radio isotope and you can inhale it or ingest it, yeah, it's a health issue."
But Darwin Morgan, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which operates the Nevada Test Site, said extensive tests have shown the Divine Strake test site is not contaminated.
And Lynn Anspaugh, a University of Utah expert in radiobiology, said he doubts that radiation would be detectable outside of the Nevada Test Site.
The Divine Strake test is planned next month to measure the shaking of the ground and damage to a below-ground tunnel to help build computer models.
Pentagon budget documents originally said the information would help war planners use the smallest possible nuclear weapon to destroy a buried target, but officials have since said the inclusion of the word "nuclear" was a mistake.
The explosion will be nearly 50 times bigger than the largest conventional weapon, leaving a crater 196 feet across and throwing up a plume of dust that is expected to reach 10,000 feet.
The question of radioactive contamination has been raised by Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Jim Matheson, both of Utah, who have asked for detailed mapping of the contamination surrounding the Divine Strake site.
The Winnemucca Indian Colony and a group of downwinders - people who have contracted cancer believed to be caused by their exposure to fallout from Cold War nuclear tests - have sued to stop the Divine Strake test and succeeded in having it postponed until after June 23 from its originally scheduled June 2 date.
Environmental officials in Nevada have also demanded additional data from NNSA to ensure the test will comply with the state's air quality standards.
Miller, whose academic background is in sociology, works as an environmental consultant in Texas, doing commercial work and testifying as an expert witness in legal cases. He has written an atlas of fallout from nuclear tests in the United States, spent eight years with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and studied whether incidences of brain cancer were tied to fallout. His biography describes him as an industrial health specialist with field experience in coordinating more than 500 safety and health investigations.
Miller identified six tests from the 1950s - Turk, Coulomb B, Kepler, Galileo, Shasta and Smoky - that were within eight miles of the Divine Strake site and could have spread contamination over the area where the Divine Strake test is scheduled to occur. He said the testing for contamination should be more scientifically based and rigorous.
"They may go in and take 100 core samples of the area that is going to turn into a dust cloud. They may do it and find there's nothing there. Well, good for them. My hat's off, but they need to be absolutely sure what's entrained in that dust cloud. Otherwise there's going to be a problem," Miller said.
Morgan said there were 165 radiation tests conducted in the area between where Divine Strake is set to take place and an adjacent area where past underground testing had been conducted, and no surface contamination was found. In addition, there were aerial surveys conducted in 1970, 1983, 1992 and 1994, which also found no radiological material.
"We have a very strong grasp on the environmental condition at the test site. We have to understand it, we have to know it, we have to be able to say what's there, what's going on, on a regular basis," Morgan said. "There are no man-made radioactive constituents there."
Anspaugh said he does not think the Divine Strake test will be "a big deal."
The tests Miller is referring to happened 50 years ago, Anspaugh said, and since then there have been roughly 900 additional tests at the Nevada Test Site.
"If there's going to be any significant amount of material re-suspended it's going to be due to the ground shockwave and we've already done that type of thing 900 times in the interim," Anspaugh said. "I just can't get very excited about it."
However, Anspaugh, who was on a National Academies of Science panel that studied the effects of a nuclear bunker buster, said he is perplexed about what could be learned from the test, since there is already extensive data on large-scale blasts and ground shock.