Shock and awe is coming home. The Bush administration is planning to conduct future preemptive wars with “mini-nukes” and, to that end, wants to set off a nuclear-sized explosion at the government’s Nevada Test Site, sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas. So far, the Department of Defense’s latest testing plan — code named “Divine Strake” — has been thwarted by the organized citizens of Utah and Nevada, but the clock is running out. The DOD announced the plan in April and scheduled the blast for early June. After an initial public outcry in the region, it was postponed for two weeks, then postponed again until “September or later.” Those unfamiliar with the nightmarish ambitions and skewed reasoning of the nation’s wannabe nuclear-warriors may find Divine Strake unfathomable. Sadly, the inhabitants of America’s original Ground Zero — where our nuclear and chemical weapons were honed during the Cold War — know that thinking all too well. It’s a dirty shame…
Dirt Bomb: Imagine a fertilizer bomb 280 times more powerful than the one Tim McVeigh used to blow apart the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City — enough to take down an entire city. Imagine that bomb as fifty times more powerful than our largest conventional weapon — the Massive Ordinance Air Blast Bomb, or MOAB, that has to be shoved by hand out of the belly doors of a specially fitted cargo plane and carries the nickname, “the Mother of All Bombs.” But the bomb we are imagining is way too large to be delivered by any known conventional method. It would take two cargo planes to deliver the explosive fuel that will be packed into a pit thirty-six feet deep by thirty-two feet in circumference. Imagine, then, that this massive pile of explosives is to be set off on an arid, windswept desert floor made of a fine, dry soil that has been contaminated by decades of exposure to nuclear radiation. Although the explosive fuel itself will not be radioactive — thus avoiding an obvious violation of international treaties that ban aboveground nuclear tests — the dirt and debris that drifts downwind may very well be radioactive, a possibility that the Pentagon is not keen to know more about.
Now, picture what happens after the load is fired off. If you see a gigantic, thick, and rolling mushroom cloud of toxic dirt that climbs 10,000 feet into the atmosphere, then you agree with the Department of Defense’s own expectations. That toxic cloud will drift and fall eastward over Utah, Colorado, the Midwest, or wherever the wind carries it.
If your mental image of that mushroom cloud is vivid, then you are of a certain age. Maybe you also live in this neck of the West and so are familiar with the phenomenon from the hundred-plus aboveground atomic explosions set off at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s or the more than 800 “underground” explosions that continued until 1992. Most of those underground tests turned out to be “leakers,” often producing smaller mushroom clouds that escaped through cracks fissured into the ground as the explosions displaced millions of tons of earth instantly and the surface of the desert collapsed into immense craters. The radiation that was vented then drifted far and wide.
Divine Strake, the latest experiment in irradiating Americans, was postponed briefly when a public outcry ensued; then postponed indefinitely when the protests continued to mount and Utah’s powerful Senator Orin Hatch joined Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and various Nevada politicians calling for more risk assessment first. Although an exact date to conduct Divine Strake has not been set, the Department of Defense is still intent on conducting their experiment as early as this autumn, according to the latest DoD announcement.
The citizens of Las Vegas, the nation’s sex-alcohol-and-gambling mecca, and the puritanical Mormon citizens of Utah might seem unlikely political allies — except for the fact that they share a legacy of cancer and chronic illness, a consequence of the last time our military rolled the nuclear dice on the Nevada desert floor. Recent research reveals that most of the nation also suffers from that legacy of illness, they just aren’t as aware of it as the “downwinders” of Nevada and Utah who actually saw the clouds of fallout heading their way. Once again, the citizens of those two states find themselves on the front lines of a struggle with profound international repercussions. For us, Divine Strake is a weapon of mass déjà vu
Dirty Lies: As in earlier decades, planning documents obscure what is happening; official reassurances are misleading; and the tests are facilitated by federal agencies whose hallmarks are being distant, secretive, inaccessible, and arrogant. Last time the Nevada Test Site was active, the citizens of Utah and Nevada living directly downwind were described in a classified military report as “a low use segment of the population.” In other words, expendable. Today, sanitized language cloaks the same old disregard for the consequences of military testing, again masking a willingness to sacrifice the health of citizens on the altar of nuclear hegemony.
Listen to Irene Smith, a spokesperson for the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency that will help facilitate the explosion. According to her, the test would not be a nuclear simulation at all, but would merely “assess computer programs to reduce uncertainties in target characterization, target function, layout, operational status, and geotechnical features.” Oh, okay. Another Pentagon spokesperson, David Rigby, put it a tad more directly. The purpose of Divine Strake, he stated, was “to develop better predictive tools for defeating hardened underground targets.” Then he added, “It is not a precursor to a nuclear test.”
Unsaid: whether or not it’s a precursor to such a test, it is certainly a precursor to nuclear use. What, after all, are they predicting? They want to know what size nuclear warhead will take out a hardened underground target in a geologic formation much like the one where we suspect Iran is developing nuclear weapons. A tunnel has already been drilled through the jointed limestone directly below the site where Divine Strake would be exploded. North Korea is thought to have similar tunnels to hide its nuclear weapons-making facilities. Other nations have built such underground retreats for their national leaders, much as we did in hillsides around Washington D.C. Then there are underground facilities for shielding the aircraft of potentially hostile powers of the future — like a hardened “airbase” at Feidong, China. The descriptions the Department of Defense has offered of Divine Strake paint the military as cautious and responsible in trying to determine the size of the smallest nuclear warhead that could destroy such buried targets. Forget the fact that every target on their hit list is surrounded by innocent civilians who will certainly be killed, just as every target is upwind from everyone else on the planet.
Dirty Joke: Then there’s that name — Divine Strake. Strake, not strike, which might seem logical under the circumstances. “Strake” is either an obscure nautical term meaning a line of horizontal planking running the length of a ship’s hull or the aerodynamic surface mounted on the fuselage of an aircraft to control airflow. Why it has been used in this faux-nuclear context is not clear. Apparently, war planners regard the test as a platform, support, or control for something else — but what? Or maybe, consciously or not, strake is an amalgam of “strike” and “mistake.” Anyway, whatever one makes of “strake,” “divine” conveys a breathtakingly unabashed and self-righteous hubris. It’s also a clear case of linguistic bait n’ switch since there is nothing divine about slaughtering innocents or destroying whole landscapes, unless of course it is death we are worshipping and our own power to play God and decide the fates of untold numbers of people.
If we wonder how the rest of the world, especially Islamic cultures, hear these words, we have only to think how we would hear them if they were used by Iranians to describe a weapons program they were developing with the obvious purpose of targeting us. Proof of fanaticism, we would insist. Maybe we are in a holy war, after all, at least in the minds of those fashioning the weapons to fight it. While Islamacists set off car bombs and call it “jihad”, we prepare a simulated nuclear explosion and label it “divine.” The people of Utah and Nevada may be forgiven if they feel like hostages caught in the crossfire of warring zealots.
Dirty Trick: If Divine Strake happens, its mushroom cloud will rise like an extended middle finger to Congress, which killed funding for the “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator,” a nuclear weapon the Bush administration has been eager to develop to penetrate the earth to hardened bunkers below, and has otherwise refused to fund the development of a new set of mini-nukes it also desperately wants, or to fund the rapid re-activation of the Nevada Test Site so it can resume testing for such “mini-nukes.” Testing has always been a key component of developing new weapons of mass destruction — war planners cannot use such a weapon if they are not sure what it does on the ground. Since large-scale testing stopped in 1992, the Nevada Test Site has been operating with a skeleton crew.
Deprived of the means to develop a new class of bunker-buster nuclear weapons that can drill deep into the earth, the Bush administration’s war gamers are now planning to simply blow-up nuclear warheads above such targets. If they can’t dig the bastards out, they want to know just what size nuke will cave-in their hideouts from above. Whatever the Pentagon says, Divine Strake will closely resemble the destructive yield of a B-61 nuclear warhead, one of the smallest in the arsenal. Eventually, war planners will argue that they need to build a new class of even smaller nukes so as to avoid the casualties and damage that the bigger ones in the American nuclear arsenal would cause — such is the mad humanitarian logic of nuclear warriors.
The underlying willingness to launch a “preventive” nuclear war to prevent a nuclear war, as expressed in such planning, has already become embarrassing and so must now be hidden. As late as 2005, budget documents describing the Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration Series (of which the Divine Strake is a key component) still made it clear that their overall purpose was to “improve war fighters confidence in selecting the smallest proper nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities.” Similarly, the Divine Strake piece of the puzzle was clearly identified as a nuclear simulation. But 2006 budget documents covering the same plans erased all references to nuclear simulation and nuclear weapons. As has so often been the case in the Bush era, satisfied that they could alter reality simply via a new description of reality, Pentagon spokespeople now insist that the project that looked, walked, and quacked like a nuclear duck was just a conventional war chicken that, gosh, only resembles a duck. Or, as spokesperson Rigby proclaimed, “The planned detonation has been redefined.”
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.
Salt of the Earth: During the first era in which the Nevada Test Site practiced for the Apocalypse, the people immediately downwind were naive, trusting, and mostly silent. No more. By now the stories about misshapen calves, miscarried babies, and children with leukemia who died in the wake of atomic testing have become common lore. Everyone here can name a victim. Cancer continues to stalk downwinders decades after the last exposure. Birth defects and chronic illness are showing up in their children and grandchildren. Because health is complex, dynamic, synergistic, variable, and its patterns emerge slowly — and because no effort has been made to track those exposed and collect data — legal proof of the harm that came with the atomic winds is hard to come by and accountability is nowhere to be found. Congress did agree to compensate those who were most obviously exposed to fallout, but applicants had to document their exposure and the illnesses that followed and, in the process, jump through a bewildering set of bureaucratic hoops. Most will die before they see a check.
Polls show that the citizens of Utah and Nevada are as overwhelmingly opposed to new atomic weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site as they are to having the waste from the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants dumped in their deserts. The same grassroots groups that have led the campaigns against proposed nuclear-waste repositories at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and Skull Valley, Utah, responded quickly to the Divine Strake plan and mobilized media campaigns, Congressional lobbying, and sign-carrying demonstrations.
In the face of immediate and widespread opposition, the DoD agreed to hold town-hall meetings in Las Vegas and in St. George, Utah. Preston Truman, director of Downwinders, a local organization that represents the victims of Cold War era nuclear testing, predicts that those public hearings will only lead “to escalating demands for hearings from Las Vegas to Boise. Instead of quieting the ticked-off natives, the delay will give us time to organize and pressure elected representatives to draw a line and say ?no’ we will not allow another generation of us to be created.”
Local politicians understand that they will be judged by whether they can halt the explosion and that they will win important bragging rights if they succeed. They also know that postponements are not the same as a cancellation and that there is no guarantee the Pentagon will not eventually have its way. We know from experience that military planners are tenacious in pursuit of pet projects and will do everything in their power to ignore or thwart a public that disagrees with them. Vanessa Pierce, an organizer for HEAL Utah, a grassroots group that has led the opposition to shipping and storing nuclear waste to Utah, warns that “weapons designers will do whatever it takes to get their fix.”
The Real Dirt: It is not hard to imagine that some future enemy might threaten our nuclear hegemony by constructing the radioactive equivalent of a car bomb — what Mike Davis has termed “the poor man’s air force” — in some cave or bunker. It is harder to imagine why war planners think that the development of a new class of bunker-busting bombs would be a “deterrent,” or that we can meet the threats we face by blowing up nuclear warheads above bunkers and tunnels. Do war planners seriously think we could use our nuclear weapons “preventively” on underground targets without horrific consequences to regional populations that would unleash such hatred and condemnation as well as the desire for revenge and violence as to render such a strike as impractical as it is immoral?
This much is clear to those of us who live immediately downwind from the Nevada Test Site and other hellish places like Utah’s Dugway Proving Grounds where the military did open-air tests with nerve agents that sickened hundreds of workers and unknown numbers of nearby residents, or Hanford, Washington, where the weapons were loaded with their nuclear fuel, also contaminating groundwater, soil, and the bloodstreams of hundreds of workers in the process. Once again in a new age of nuclear testing, American citizens will be the first victims of our own weapons of mass destruction. We will not be shredded or incinerated as an enemy would be. Domestic civilian casualties will sicken and die slowly.
If there is a next time, we will not go unnoticed again, but neither will we be able to prove that our suffering resulted from military testing according to the narrow legal standards that apply. There will yet again be little or no accountability; and, like unwilling guinea pigs in some ghastly experiment, we will live with uncertainty and doubt while waiting for the results of our own military folly to unfold in our tissues, our blood, our chromosomes, and our bones. As an elderly woman walking a picket line in St. George to protest Divine Strake said, “This is supposed to be about national security. I don’t feel more secure. Do you?”
Chip Ward is a political activist, writer, and a library administrator. He is the author of Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West (Verso) and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land (Shearwater/Island Press).
Copyright 2006 Chip Ward
This article appeared first, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.