Massively Penetrating in Vegas

Looking for something new to do in Vegas? Something that involves breathing in massive amounts of particulate matter blown in from the desert? Something that involves watching yet another bit of idiotic Bush administration defense planning go up in smoke (literally)? Something a little mushroom cloudy? Well, you're in luck.

Agence France-Presse reports that during the first week of June your tax dollars will be hard at work setting off a 700 ton explosion at the Nuclear Test Site just north of Las Vegas. It was from the Nuclear Test Site that radioactive clouds were sent wafting over Vegas (and eventually Southern California) throughout the '50's and early 60's. And it seems the prospect of a massive non-nuclear explosion there has some folks feel nostalgic.

“I don't want to sound glib here but it is the first time in Nevada that you'll see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas since we stopped testing nuclear weapons,” said James Tegnelia, head of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

So, aside from bringing back the good ol' days of mushroom clouds over Vegas,

why we are blowing stuff up?

Tegnelia said the test was part of a U.S. effort to develop weapons capable of destroying deeply-buried bunkers housing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons…

“We have several very large penetrators we're developing,” he told defense reporters.

“We also have — are you ready for this — a 700-ton explosively formed charge that we're going to be putting in a tunnel in Nevada,” he said.

“And that represents to U.S. the largest single explosive that we could imagine doing conventionally to solve that problem,” he said.

The aim is to measure the effect of the blast on hard granite structures, he said.

Actually, I think this test might be aiming at another goal as well, one hinted at in Tegnelia's statement. “And that represents to U.S. the largest single explosive that we could imagine doing conventionally to solve the problem.” Ever since it came to power, the Bush administration– particularly Donald Rumsfeld– has been imagining something rather more robust than a 700 ton conventional bomb. Rumsfeld and the president have been imagining, and been pushing for, bunker-busting nukes.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Senate subcommittee in April [2005] that 70 countries are pursuing “activities underground.”
“We don't have a capability of dealing with that,” he testified. “We can't go in and get at things in solid rock underground.” Rumsfeld suggested he needs the relatively small bunker-buster to avoid using “a large, dirty nuclear weapon.”
Yet at the time of his testimony, Rumsfeld probably saw a study from the National Academy of Sciences estimating that the small bunker-buster, if used in an urban area, could cause more than a million deaths.
Pursuit of the bunker-buster and Rumsfeld's testimony confirm the administration's shift away from nuclear deterrence toward possible use of nuclear weapons in war. Under Bush's doctrine of pre-emption, the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) has added missions to its war plans. STRATCOM's global strike plan foresees the use of nuclear weapons to pre-empt an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction or to destroy an adversary's WMD stockpiles.
The Pentagon's draft “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations” describes these new missions. The draft was discovered on the Pentagon Web site in September by Hans Kristensen, now with the Federation of American Scientists. When Kristensen shared his find with the media, the draft disappeared from the Web site. But STRATCOM's war plans remain in force.

Like the rest of the Bush administration's military actions, it's extremely unlikely that nuclear bunker-busters– technically known as Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators (RNEPs)– could ever function the way the sales brochure promises, and will instead cause horrifying “collateral damage”. The Union of Concerned Scientists explained all this back in Fall 2005:

The RNEP is intended to generate a strong seismic shock wave capable of crushing hardened underground bunkers within about 1,000 feet of the explosion, but much deeper bunkers can be constructed using modern tunneling equipment. Very deep bunkers (or underground facilities spread out over a wide area) would be immune from such an attack.

Furthermore, because the RNEP would only penetrate a few meters of rock or concrete—nowhere near the hundreds of meters in depth necessary to contain the explosion—the weapon would produce tremendous nuclear fallout, potentially drifting more than 1,000 miles downwind. When Congress asked Linton Brooks, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, to confirm earlier suggestions that the fallout would be contained, he said, “I don't believe the laws of physics will ever let that be true. . . . This is a nuclear weapon that is going to be hugely destructive.”

Simulation software developed for the Pentagon shows that an RNEP dropped on Iran's Esfahan nuclear facility would cause three million radiation-related deaths within two weeks of the explosion. Another 35 million people in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan would be exposed to increased levels of cancer-causing radiation.

In a surprising show of good sense, the Republican controlled Congress, normally such a reliable rubber stamp for Bush administration schemes, isn't willing to OK nuclear bunker-busters. So, just to keep things moving, in 2004, the Pentagon awarded a contract to Boeing to develop a conventional bunker-buster, known as a Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP). The sales brochure on the MOP promises a bomb capable of destroying “multistory buildings with hardened bunkers and tunnel facilities.” But according to James Tegnelia, the aim of Divine Strake (the test's official designation. If you don't know what a “strake” is, click here. How “Divine” got in there, I'd rather not think about.), is “to measure the effect of the blast on hard granite structures”. Interesting, since even the one Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator already in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the B61-11, is useless against solid rock. If one didn't trust the Bush administration, one might suspect that they were hoping for a less than stellar performance by the largest imaginable conventional bunker-buster at the same time they are loudly proclaiming that Iran's nuclear program (largely located in underground facilities) to be the greatest danger facing the country, in order to get Congress to fund their nuclear bunker-busting dreams. And if one suspected that, one might even recall what Donald Rumsfeld told Congressman David Hobson– the conservative Ohio Republican, who has been primarily responsible for stopping the RNEP program– last April, “You may win this year, but we'll be back.”

Hobson's no dove. The reason he opposed bunker-busting nukes is purely practical: he's worried “some idiot might try to use it.” And the only place you're going to find a bigger concentration of idiots willing to risk it all on a bad bet than Las Vegas, is in the Bush administration.

(photo via the Las Vegas Review-Journal)

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