Homeland security director tours Nevada counterterrorism center

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NEVADA TEST SITE, Nev. -- Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said a Wednesday tour of the Nevada Test Site was impressive, but he stopped short of a commitment to make it the nation's counterterrorism training center.

"Just as this site has helped this country to prepare a conventional war ... now it can help us combat this 21st century war," Ridge said. "I don't believe that we should be satisfied today with the level of training to deal with these unconventional terrorist attacks."

Ridge was accompanied on the tour of the 1,350-square-mile Nevada Test Site by federal and state officials, including Gov. Kenny Guinn and Sen. Harry Reid.

Reid, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, has been leading the effort to persuade the director to make the site a national center to train police, firefighters and public health workers to respond to terrorism.

"I think the senator has a pretty good idea here to expand its capacity to help national security," Ridge said after an aerial tour and several demonstrations of the types of training that might take place at the vast federal compound where nearly 1,000 nuclear weapons tests were conducted from 1951 until such tests were banned in 1992.

Ridge, who was impressed with the vastness of the Nevada site, said it would be considered along with other training facilities as his office develops a national strategy for security issues.

The new position of Homeland Security director, however, doesn't have any budgetary authority, and Reid has estimated it will take at least $60 million to fund the project.

"I wanted him (Ridge) to see this," Reid said. "It's a cinch that his having been here will make it a priority."

Accompanying Ridge were National Nuclear Security Administrator John Gordon and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh, who said it was premature to say where the Nevada Test Site fits in the nation's national security plan.

"It's too early to tell, but it looks good on paper," he said at McCarran International Airport before boarding a flight to the test site about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited troops at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas and attended a live-fire training exercise for Air Force fighter pilots.

Demonstrations at the Nevada Test Site included an aerial view of a response to a hazardous material spill on a dry lake bed, followed by an assault by law enforcement officers on a simulated nuclear reprocessing facility taken over by terrorists.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory also demonstrated new technology to stop hijacked trucks.

Guinn said the group came away impressed with the variety of emergency-response training opportunities -- whether natural, chemical or biological -- the site offers.

"What they really found out was that this could be a first-class world counterterrorism facility that would be good for the protection of America," the governor said.

"Certainly Nevada would get some good jobs out of this. But it would be great for America to have this, because we're going to have terrorism for years to come."

Nevada lawmakers have advocated the counterterrorism proposal for years, but the idea has received renewed attention since Sept. 11.

The test site is used several times a year for limited bioterrorism training for emergency responders from around the nation, including those who are at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, said Reid spokesman Nathan Naylor.

Earlier Wednesday, Ridge told Cincinnati police and firefighters that the government plans to increase funding for emergency response teams, but the $3.5 billion that President Bush budgeted this year was all the nation could afford now.

"We are better prepared today than we were on Sept. 11, but we're not as well prepared as we need to be," the former Pennsylvania governor said. "We'll always have to look for ways to improve."

Ridge is traveling across the country this week to promote the president's $38 billion budget proposal for homeland security.

Ridge, who originally was scheduled to visit the test site in early January, planned to tour Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico on Thursday before heading to Texas on Friday.


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