Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Letter to the NNSA from Utah Democratic Chair, Wayne Holland Jr.

January 9, 2007

Divine Strake EA Comments
PO Box 98518
Las Vegas, NV 89193-8518

To Whom It May Concern:

The Utah State Democratic Committee (hereafter referred to as the USDC or Utah Democratic Party) appreciates this opportunity to comment on the Draft 2006 Revised Environmental Assessment for the Large-Scale, Open-Air Explosive Detonation Divine Strake at the Nevada Test Site (hereafter Divine Strake Draft EA). We ask our comments be incorporated into the public record and that the USDC be added to your mailing list to receive all additional documents released for public comment or review regarding Divine Strake.

The USDC has several concerns with regard to the proposed action as outlined within the Divine Strake Draft EA and the unwillingness of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to fully include the public, particularly those living downwind from the Nevada Test Site (NTS) in the process. We echo the concerns of Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson and Utah Governor Jon Huntsman with regard to the failure of the NNSA to take public comment at any of the three open houses scheduled on this subject.

The USDC urges the NNSA to reconsider its decision to hold open house style meetings and hold public hearings that will enable the people of Utah and Nevada to share their concerns with your agency. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires government agencies to “involve environmental agencies, applicants, and the public, to the extent practicable, in preparing assessments required by § 1508.9(a)(1).” (40 CFR §1501.4). Given the NNSA is planning to hold open houses in three locations in Utah and Nevada anyway, it cannot reasonably be argued it is impractical for the NNSA to allow public comment at that time.

During the era of both above ground and underground nuclear testing, it was the policy of the federal government that prevailing winds should always be blowing toward Utah prior to any test. Based on the information provided within the Draft EA’s description of the proposed operating plan for Divine Strake, nothing has changed. The Draft EA states “required meteorological conditions for detonation” include “winds less than 25 miles per hour blowing from the southwest (240 degrees) through southeast (120 degrees).” (Draft EA, page 2-11). This takes fall out from the explosion over south, southeast or east central Nevada and on into southwestern or west central Utah.

Utahns and citizens throughout the Western states have long rejected federal government intrusion without first providing an opportunity for public involvement in the decisions impacting their communities. In 1996 the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was designated without the benefit of public involvement prior to the decision. That said, at least the actual and potential environmental consequences of that decision were benign. In this case, the Bush administration is taking for granted continued strong support for the Republican Party regardless of potential consequences to the health and well being of Utahns through a reckless interpretation of public comment requirements within NEPA and a shoddy environmental analysis. The current administration’s lack of regard for the concerns of Utahns and other westerners living downwind should be seen as a red flag to all Utah voters and westerners in general.

While both the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designation, Divine Strake, and recent consideration of renewed nuclear testing in Nevada all provide obvious examples of why a political environment in Utah that does not allow one party to write off the state and another to take it for granted is not in our state’s interest, the apparent unwillingness on the NNSA’s part to provide a reasonable opportunity for Utahns to express their concerns through a sincere public hearing process is an especially cynical and transparent attempt to take advantage of Utah’s current loyalty to one party.

The NNSA further demonstrates its contempt for the public in this case by proposing only two alternatives, the “No Action Alternative” required by NEPA and the proposed action. The Divine Strake Draft EA completely dismisses a range of intermediate options from review, including the use of fewer explosives. The use of “technological variations and experiment parameters” is dismissed without even mentioning the possible use of computer modeling which has been increasingly relied upon by the NNSA since the underground nuclear testing moratorium put in place by President H.W. Bush in 1992.

The NEPA requires all federal agencies to “Study, develop, and describe appropriate alternatives to recommended courses of action in any proposal which involves unresolved conflicts concerning alternative uses of available resources as provided by section 102(2)(E) of the Act.” (40 CFR, § 1501.2(c)) The regulation’s use of the word “alternatives” as opposed to “alternative” clearly signals Congress’ intent all viable alternatives be duly analyzed and the choice of actions not be limited simply to what an agency wants to do vs. doing nothing. In this case the NNSA analyzed only one action alternative and failed completely to mention computer modeling or why it would be an insufficient substitute for the proposed action in dismissing “technological variations” which may have provided the data sought by the agency.

The NEPA and associated implementing regulations require an agency to describe the “purpose and need” for any proposed action subject to NEPA review. While the Divine Strake Draft EA does describe the purpose and need for the action, the proposed action (Divine Strake open-air detonation) does not meet the stated purpose and need. The intent of the Divine Strake proposal, as described within the Draft EA, is to assist with the development of weapons that can effectively damage or destroy hardened deeply buried targets or HDBTs, “including both tactical and strategic adversarial targets.” (Page 1-7, Divine Strake Draft EA).

Unfortunately, the inability of conventional weapons to reach such targets is well documented. In an article published in the November 2003 issue of Physic Today , Robert W. Nelson reports the Department of Defense already has at its disposal “tens of thousands of conventional earth-penetrating weapons capable of destroying hardened targets like an underground bunker buried within 10 meters of the surface.” Unfortunately, when you get much deeper than that the laws of physics begin to interfere with the ability of any non-nuclear device to destroy the target.

According to Nelson’s article, “taking into account realistic materials strengths, 10-20 m is a rough ceiling on how deeply into dry rock a warhead can penetrate and still maintain its integrity.” In short, there is no “need” to detonate 700 some odd tons of explosives beneath radioactive earth at the NTS to determine whether a truly hardened and deeply buried target can be destroyed by either conventional or nuclear means. It cannot, at least not without significant radioactive fallout and collateral damage. The NNSA need not waste taxpayer money on such an experiment, especially given potential consequences for those Americans living downwind, to determine the absence of feasibility in this case.

Finally, the Divine Strake Draft EA makes clear significant levels of radioactive contamination do in fact exist within the near vicinity of the proposed Divine Strake detonation site. Soil sample number DSA07 revealed Plutonium 239 was detectable at a level of 11.1 picocuries per gram and sample number DSA20 was estimated at 4.5 picocuries of Plutonium 239 per gram. At least three additional samples came in at above 2.38 picocuries per gram of soil. (Draft EA, Site Characterization Report, table 3.1.2) According to at least one report published to describe radioactive contamination and cleanup at the Brookhaven National Laboratory “the most protective estimates for exposure, has established that plutonium levels in the environment above 2.44 picocuries per gram could require further analysis.” (

Given these high levels of a man-made radioactive isotopes, well above the EPA standard in at least two samples, the USDC has little confidence airborne radioactive particles will not be spread at levels significantly above those considered safe to either the workers at the NTS or people living downwind.

The USDC calls upon the NNSA to adopt the no action alternative in this case due to the failure to provide the public with all “practicable” means of providing input, the failure to meet the stated “purpose and need” as described within the Divine Strake Draft EA, and the failure to adequately explore all reasonable alternatives to the proposed action. In addition, we believe the presence of at least two soil samples within the project area with elevated levels of plutonium above what the EPA considers safe render conclusions regarding the safety of both workers and downwind residents questionable at best.

The USDC looks forward to your response to our concerns regarding the Draft Divine Strake EA. Thank you again for this opportunity to comment.


Wayne Holland
Chair, Utah State Democratic Committee
455 South 300 East, Ste 301
Salt Lake City, UT 84111


Anonymous said...

welcome back, Rob. You were missed but I hope you got your rest. Glad to have you back on the reading list.

Anonymous said...

Can't we just leave this to the private sector?