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Blast to Simulate Nuke Explosion

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    Pentagon researchers plan to set off a simulated nuclear blast in the Nevada desert in June as part of their search for a better way to destroy buried enemy bunkers, according to federal documents.
    A Defense Nuclear Threat Reduction Agency spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny the nuclear connection Friday, saying only that conventional mining explosives would be used in for the massive blast.
    But a Pentagon budget request is explicit about its purpose: to "improve the warfighter's confidence in selecting the smallest nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage."
    A team from Los Alamos National Laboratory is involved in the project.
    The test became public Thursday when James Tegnelia, a former senior manager at Sandia National Laboratories who is now head of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, mentioned it to a group of reporters in Washington.
    According to The Associated Press, Tegnelia said the test would be "the first time in Nevada that you'll see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas since we stopped testing nuclear weapons."
    The 700 tons of mining explosives used in the test will have twice the explosive power of the smallest U.S. nuclear weapon, according to Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.
    The blast will be 70 times more powerful than the Massive Ordinance Air Blast weapon— MOAB— identified by the Pentagon as the largest non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal.
    Nearly 60 truckloads of mining explosives will be used to fill a hole 32 feet in diameter and 36 feet deep, according to a federal environmental report on the project.
    It will take four to five days to fill the hole with explosives, the report says.
    A tunnel beneath the explosives pit will be outfitted with instruments to monitor the blast's effects.
    Tegnelia and DTRA officials downplayed the nuclear connection Thursday and Friday, saying only that conventional explosives would be used.
    Federal budget documents posted on the Internet Friday by a California arms control activist, and the environmental review of the project, show its nuclear weapons rationale.
    The budget documents, uncovered by Andy Lichterman of the Western States Legal Foundation in Oakland, include a February 2005 explanation of the project.
    Its purpose is to find ways to minimize damage while using a nuclear weapon to destroy enemy command and control centers, which are increasingly being built deep underground to avoid the reach of conventional weapons.
    Lichterman complained that the test sends a dangerous international signal of U.S. intentions to use nuclear weapons.
    "What you're doing is ongoing planning and research into how to fight with nuclear weapons," he said in a telephone interview. "It's quite a provocative kind of work to be doing."
    Los Alamos National Laboratory will play a role in the June 2 test, according to Nevada Test Site spokesman Darwin Morgan. He said a few Los Alamos scientists would be involved in "diagnostics and collecting data."
    The environmental report, provided in January to the state of Nevada, explains that the test, dubbed "Divine Strake," is the latest in a long series of massive mining explosives tests.
    Beginning in 1977, 10 such tests were conducted at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
   
Journal staff writer John Arnold contributed to this story.