By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006
A huge mushroom cloud of dust is expected to rise over Nevada's desert in June when the Pentagon plans to detonate a gigantic 700-ton explosive -- the biggest open-air chemical blast ever at the Nevada Test Site -- as part of the research into developing weapons that can destroy deeply buried military targets, officials said yesterday.
The test, code-named "Divine Strake," will occur on June 2 about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in a high desert valley bounded by mountains, according to Pentagon and Energy Department officials.
"This is the largest single explosive we could imagine doing," said James A. Tegnelia, director of the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is conducting the test.
The test is aimed at determining how well a massive conventional bomb would perform against fortified underground targets -- such as military headquarters, biological or chemical weapons stockpiles, and long-range missiles -- that the Pentagon says are proliferating among potential adversaries around the world.
Tegnelia said there is a range of technical hurdles to overcome. He suggested that big conventional bombs are unlikely to solve the overall problem of buried threats. "It's a lot easier to dig your tunnel 50 feet deeper" than to develop weapons that can destroy it, he told a meeting of defense reporters.
Such a bomb would be a conventional alternative to a nuclear weapon proposed by the Bush administration, which has run into opposition on Capitol Hill. The Pentagon for several years has sought funding for research into the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) -- also known as the "bunker buster" -- after the administration's 2001 Nuclear Posture Review stated that no weapon in the U.S. arsenal could threaten a growing number of buried targets. Congress, however, has repeatedly refused to grant funding for a study on a nuclear bunker buster, instead directing money toward conventional alternatives.
The June test will detonate 700 tons of heavy ammonium nitrate-fuel oil emulsion -- creating a blast equivalent to 593 tons of TNT -- in a 36-foot-deep hole near a tunnel in the center of the Nevada Test Site, according to official reports. It aims to allow scientists to model the type of ground shock that will be created, and to weigh the effectiveness of such a weapon against its collateral impact.
"To my knowledge, this will be the largest open-air chemical explosion that we've conducted," said Darwin Morgan, spokesman for the Energy Department's test site. Larger blasts have been carried out at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, including the nation's biggest open-air detonation, in 1985, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.
The blast is not likely to be felt or heard outside the 1,375-square-mile test site, and the cloud of dust is expected to dissipate quickly from view, Morgan said. "They don't think people will see it in the base camp on the south end of the test site," he said.
Officials took pains to differentiate between the June conventional experiment and past nuclear testing. "The U.S. has no plans to conduct a nuclear test. President Bush supports a continued moratorium on nuclear testing," said Irene Smith, a spokeswoman for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The Pentagon agency is charged with countering threats to the United States from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.
On a related topic, Tegnelia said the State Department and the Pentagon are developing a proposal for a $100 million effort to help Libya get rid of tons of mustard gas and some precursor chemicals being stored in the Libyan desert. "The Libyans requested some support" from the U.S. government, and a DTRA team has visited Libya to consider various options for eliminating the weapons, he said.