This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
WASHINGTON - Divine Strake was promised to blow a hole in the earth and create a mushroom cloud over the Nevada desert.
Instead, it blew open old wounds for Utahns who had been promised Cold War atomic tests would be safe, and the hurt, betrayal and rage that poured out left the Pentagon with little choice but to announce Thursday it was scrapping the test.
Michelle Thomas spent the day in tears.
"I've cried all day long. I just can't yet grasp it," said Thomas, a St. George Downwinder who opposed Divine Strake. She has had cancer and suffers an immune deficiency she blames on exposure to radiation.
"I just felt such an overwhelming relief," she said. "You just think, 'Oh my gosh. We matter.' "
The memories of Utahns helped fuel an unprecedented flood of resistance to the test, the ignition of 700 tons of explosives planned for the Nevada Test Site from which radiation spread from atomic tests into Utah and other states downwind.
"This wasn't run-of-the-mill public opposition. This was a heartfelt and broad-based public expression, so much so that it would have been impossible for anyone to neglect," said Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. "I can't remember the last time we had an issue that had this kind of unified public response. . . . Memories are very much alive and well."
More than 500 people turned out to public meetings by federal agencies in Salt Lake City and St. George. More than 10,000 submitted comments regarding the test, the overwhelming majority in opposition. Hundreds more attended public hearings sponsored by the governor, and the Utah Legislature and members of the state's congressional delegation joined the opposition.
"I was amazed at the emotional reaction," said Robert Hager, a Reno lawyer who sued to stop the test on behalf of Nevada Indian tribes and Downwinders. "It brought back the suffering that they experienced in the '50s and '60s like it was happening today and it was incredible to me that these agencies were totally insensitive."
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which was to conduct the blast, assured in repeated studies that the test was safe. If wind did carry radioactive material off the test site, it would be in such small doses that it would not pose a risk to the public.
For Utahns, it was a familiar refrain, and one not to be trusted.
"How do you convince people who have been through the hell of the radiation exposure cases that they can rely on the government? I'm not sure you could," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who wrote legislation years ago to compensate Downwinders for their illnesses.
To date, the government has paid 10,696 Downwinder claims.
Expert witnesses in Hager's lawsuit said, if the test went as planned, it could create a new generation of Downwinders. The blast, they said, would spread radioactive debris over hundreds, possibly thousands of miles, causing birth defects and cancer cases in the downwind population.
Had it not been for an off-hand comment in a briefing of reporters, the test may very well have gone ahead without fanfare last June.
"I don't want to sound glib here but it is the first time in Nevada that you'll see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas since we stopped testing nuclear weapons," Defense Threat Reduction Agency Director James Tegnelia said last March.
When he made the comment, the environmental studies had been done, approval for the test had been given and plans were going ahead to prepare the site for the test. But the "mushroom cloud" image resonated enough to make it into brief stories about the meeting, and the opposition started to build.
Early planning documents also said the test was intended to help "improve the warfighter's confidence in selecting the smallest proper nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage." The Pentagon later said the reference to nuclear yield was in error, and it would help with conventional weaponry as well.
"From the time last spring when I first learned about the so-called 'Divine Strake' experiment, I have opposed it based on both its purpose and its potential ill effects," said Rep. Jim Matheson, whose own father, former Gov. Scott Matheson, died from cancer as a result of the atomic testing. "The prospect of even a non-nuclear 'mushroom cloud' over the Nevada Test Site brings back bitter memories of how the government lied when it said that there was no danger."
Today, a massive hole, about 32-feet in diameter and 36-feet deep sits on Area 16, where it was waiting to be filled with 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. It's the same explosive combination that blew apart the Oklahoma City federal building, only Divine Strake would have been 280 times larger.
''We really do live in a democracy, where people get to say, to our government, 'No,' '' said Thomas. ''In this case, on this day, the system the way we learned it in school, worked.''
* December 2005: National Nuclear Security Administration finds Divine Strake could be done safely.
* January 2006: NNSA approves test.
* March 2006: Defense Threat Reduction Agency Director James Tegnelia says Divine Strake would create a mushroom cloud over the test site for the first time since the U.S. ceased nuclear tests.
* April 2006: Rep. Jim Matheson and Sen. Orrin Hatch express concerns about the safety of the test and the Winnemucca Indian Colony and a group of Downwinders sue to stop the test.
* June 9, 2006: NNSA withdraws its authorization, pending further environmental studies.
* Dec. 22, 2006: NNSA's revised environmental analysis finds that tiny amounts of radiation could be carried off the site, but didn't pose a health risk.
* Jan. 9-11: Public meetings held to provide information.
* Feb. 7: Public comment period on test ends.
* Thursday: DTRA announces cancellation of Divine Strake.