Scientists say plans flawed for Vegas-area 'Divine Strake' blast

LAS VEGAS - A professional engineer who specializes in air quality says he found fatal flaws in federal plans for a weapons test that U.S. officials say will generate the first mushroom-shaped dust cloud in decades at the Nevada Test Site.

A draft environmental assessment on the "Divine Strake" test didn't look at the likelihood that the smallest measure of dust and debris, 2.5 microns, could be churned up and sent airborne, Algirdas Leskys said.

"The modeling is inaccurate," said Leskys, 44, a data analyst with the Clark County Department of Air Quality and Environmental Management who stressed that he was not acting in his official capacity.

He provided eight pages of comments Tuesday to officials for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Defense Threat Reduction Agency hosting a public "open house" in Las Vegas about the proposed weapons test. Similar sessions were planned Wednesday in Salt Lake City and today in St. George, Utah.

"Given the right meteorological conditions, it is possible that some portion of the PM 2.5 emissions generated by the proposed detonation could settle in either Utah or Las Vegas," Leskys said in an interview late Tuesday.

Michael Skougard, an NNSA official overseeing compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, acknowledged that test planners and analysts looked at larger, 10 micron, particles in making a crucial determination that a 10,000-foot cloud will dissipate within 13 miles.

That finding has federal officials predicting that any contaminated dirt will fall harmlessly to the ground before reaching the Test Site boundary.

Leskys called the smaller particles "the most likely pollutant that would carry radionuclides."

"They could stay in the atmosphere for weeks, and settle hundreds of miles from here," he added.

Skougard said Leskys' concerns will be included in a final environmental assessment before officials decide whether to authorize the Divine Strake test.

"We are going to look at that," Skougard said, adding that the draft environmental assessment released last month met requirements of existing Nevada state air quality permits for the Test Site.

Leskys was one of 40 people who turned out for the meeting - which resembled a trade show more than a public hearing. Seven people provided written comments and a stenographer took three individual oral comments during the 21Ú2 hour affair at a Las Vegas convention hall.

Public affairs officers from the two federal agencies narrated in front of 12 display boards showing the design, reasons and plans for exploding 700 tons of a fuel oil and fertilizer mixture over a tunnel at the Test Site, some 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Officials say the blast will provide crucial data on the kind of shock needed to destroy deeply buried or hardened targets.

Opponents call it a surrogate for a nuclear test, and a step on the path of developing a new generation of low-yield "bunker-buster" nuclear weapons. They have raised concerns about the blast kicking up radioactive debris from Cold-War era nuclear testing and casting it downwind toward Utah and beyond.

No date has been set for the blast, which was initially scheduled for June 2006.

It has been postponed indefinitely by a lawsuit filed in Las Vegas by Western Shoshone tribe members and "downwinders" in Utah and Nevada.


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