NNSA Walking a Fine Line on Divine Strake

Update (February 22, 2007): DTRA announces that Divine Strake has been canceled.

In a surprising move, the National Nuclear Security Administration last week withdrew (!) its Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for Divine Strake, a document issued in April that declared that a planned detonation of 700 tons of chemical explosives at the Nevada Test Site “would not result in the suspension or dispersion of radioactive materials or human exposure to radioactive materials.”

The question therefore is: Does this mean that Divine Strake could result in the suspension or dispersion of radioactive materials or human exposure to radioactive materials? And do other assurances about the test need to be reassessed?

The decision to withdraw the FONSI, NNSA says in a press release, which is not available on their web site, was made “to clarify and provide further information regarding background levels of radiation from global fallout in the vicinity of the Divine Strake Experiment.” That seems to be beaucratish for “sorry, we were wrong.”

The revised Environmental Assessment for Divine Strake, which has not been withdrawn but could potentially be revised, concluded earlier this month: “Results confirm there is no radiological contamination within the impact area of DIVINE STRAKE; therefore, no contamination could be resuspended into the environment.” The claim echoes the statement made last month by the Environmental Protection Specialist for Divine Strake, Linda Cohn: “There is literally no way this experiment can pick up radioactive contamination because it does not exist here.”

Yet since “here” is the Nevada Test Site, the home of well over 1,000 nuclear explosions in the past, many of which scattered radioactive nuclear fallout over adjacent states, many were surprised by NNSA’s radiation-does-not-exist-here-assurance. The FONSI withdrawal follows a lawsuit that claims the government failed to complete required environmental studies for Divine Strake. NNSA’s withdrawal of the FONSI acknowledges that atmospheric testing in the 1950s and 1960s “resulted in the dispersion of radioactive fallout throughout the northern hemisphere,” presumably also at the Nevada test Site. Time will tell whether NNSA ignored public health to get approval for Divine Strake.

Time will also test another of the government’s claims: That Divine Strake is not related to nuclear weapons missions at all. This claim is particularly problematic because the government in consecutive budget requests informed Congress that the experiment is intended to provide information that will permit warfighters to set the yield accurately when attacking underground facilities with nuclear weapons.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), NNSA’s contractor for Divine Strake, confirmed in writing to FAS on April 3, 2006, that “Yes, the event described [in the budget documents] is Divine Strake,” and even elaborated that “Better predictive tools will reduce the uncertainties involved with defeating very hard targets, and therefore reduce the need for higher yield weapons to overcome those uncertainties.”

When that confirmation became public, DTRA suddenly change its story, saying it had made a mistake and that Divine Strake was is not related to nuclear weapons missions at all. The nuclear reference “got left in” improperly, DTRA told Washington Post, and there is “no relationship between this test and any new nuclear weapons.” Moreover, DTRA later explained to me, even though the 700 tons of explosive exceeds [by far] the capability of any conventional weapon – but fits nicely with the low yield of the B61 nuclear bomb – the “explosive amount represents no specific weapon, nuclear or conventional. Warfighters can use the models for their planning. Their planning is for conventional, advance conventional and high energetics weapons.” But not for nuclear weapons?

Contrast that explanation with the statement made by DTRA’s director of the counter-WMD program, Douglas J. Bruder, on CNN in late April: “Particularly a charge of this size would be more related to a nuclear weapon.”

It is true that the Pentagon is developing non-nuclear weapons to destroy underground targets, but the claim about “no relationship” to nuclear weapons is suspect also because Los Alamos National Laboratory as recently as in 2004 conducted a high-speed computer simulation of a 10-kiloton nuclear earth-penetration weapon against the same tunnel that is used for Divine Strake. The 10 kiloton is considerably less than the 400-kiloton single-yield of the existing B61-11 earth-penetrating nuclear bomb currently in the stockpile, but it might be a yield that was envisioned for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP).

Yet Congress has repeatedly rejected the Administration’s request to fund work on the RNEP, partially due to concern that more useable nuclear weapons with lower yields for these kinds of earth-penetrating missions will make nuclear weapons more acceptable to use.

“Officials who say they are using this Divine Strake test in planning for new nuclear weapons seem to be ignoring Congressional intent about no nuclear weapons,” Congressman Jim Matheson said after a tour at the test site and a DTRA briefing in late April.

The political explosiveness of Divine Strake far exceeds its military power and the government appears to be walking a fine line to avoid a clash with Congress – so fine that it can’t seem to get its story straight.

Divine Strake Background

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