Living with Bomb Testing in the Nevada Desert
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. Divine Strake is the Pentagon's name for a plan to create a massive explosion in the Nevada desert. The test involves some 700 tons of conventional explosives. It was scheduled for next month. Now the government says it's going to postpone this detonation, at least in part because there's concern that the explosion could kick up radioactive dust that's left over from earlier nuclear weapons tests. Writer Scott Carrier visited several towns near the proposed test site where blowing stuff up is just a part of life.
SCOTT CARRIER reporting:
The land in southern Nevada is mostly barren, consisting of dry basins and rugged mountains. Few people live out here, and few care to visit. The area has value, mainly to the U.S. military, which uses it for testing fighter jets and bombers, as well as the weapons they deliver. This is where - in the 1950s and early '60s - they blew up a hundred nuclear bombs above ground, each producing beautiful but dangerous mushroom clouds of radioactive particles. The military stopped open-air testing in 1962, but now it wants to conduct a large-scale conventional explosion - seven hundred tons of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel that'll create a mushroom cloud 10,000 feet high. The cloud - according to the military - will not be dangerous to breathe, as they've tested the dirt in the vicinity and found it does not contain hazardous levels of radioactivity.
I wanted to see what people who live out here think about the proposed explosion. I started in Tonopah, located north of the test site, population 2,600. A hundred years ago, there was a big silver mine in Tonopah. Now the town calls itself Home of the Stealth Bomber.
So can you tell me your name and where we are?
Mr. CHRIS LARUE(ph) (Tonopah Resident): My name is Chris LaRue, and I'm from Tonopah, Nevada. I graduated high school here in 1980. They're trying to make a cave-in from an above ground bomb. That's what I know.
CARRIER: How do you feel about it, what they're going to do?
Mr. LARUE: We don't have any choice. We have no choice whatsoever. It's going to happen anyway. It's like when they pass these laws like you're going to wear a seatbelt or you're going to wear a helmet. They don't ask us. It just passes federally, and the federal government shoves it right down our throat. It's called blackmail.
But I don't understand anything about this test other than that they're screwing with the ecosystem right down there below Yucca Mountain. They're going to blow this thing up, right. And here's Yucca Mountain up here with all this other nuclear waste and everything. And I know a lot about that kind of crap around here. I don't like it. That's my feeling.
CARRIER: Why don't you like it?
Mr. LARUE: Because it's all going down into the same water aquifer. The same water aquifer that starts up here at the (unintelligible), runs all the way through the middle of our state, ends up down in Death Valley. This is the arm it goes through. It's the largest underground aquifer in the world.
CARRIER: What about the Stealth Bombers? I saw a sign that said Home of the Stealth...
Mr. LARUE: Yeah. It is the home of the Stealth Bomber, but they moved it down to New Mexico. Yep.
CARRIER: So, there are not any Stealth Bombers here?
Mr. LARUE: No, there ain't nothing out here. They're testing other stuff out there. I can't talk to you about any of that.
CARRIER: How come?
Mr. LARUE: I can't. I don't know anything about it. There's nothing out there.
CARRIER: There's nothing out there?
Mr. LARUE: I can't say that. I can't talk to you about it, because I could be killed because of it. Anybody around here could. We don't talk about stuff that goes on around here. We don't know. Do you understand that? Okay.
CARRIER: Pahrump, Nevada is south of the test site. It used to be a small town. Now it's a large bedroom and retirement community for Las Vegas, which is only 40 miles to the east. There's one main drag in town, with casinos and shopping centers. Everything's spread out. Easy to park. The sidewalk is empty, except for one man, Ray Malsinski(ph), who's holding an American flag with two pistols strapped to his waist. He's running for sheriff of Nye County.
Mr. RAY MALSINSKI (Pahrump Resident): I've run for sheriff twice before in '98 and 2002. This is my third attempt, and the people are finally realizing what I've been talking about for the last eight years. We have to stand up for freedom.
CARRIER: And you've stood out here every day for eight years, or how often?
Unidentified Man: Three times a day, every day for eight years.
CARRIER: So what - tell me about these guns? What are these?
Unidentified Man: This is a Harrington & Richardson. It's a collector's item. You notice there's a lock in the handle. It's a very rare gun. This one here is a Rossi .38, it's a five-shot. I carry the first two rounds with snake shot because there's still rattlesnakes out here.
CARRIER: But these aren't for rattlesnakes. These are for - to protect yourself against people.
Unidentified Man: This is because when people - when the bad guys see the gun, Scott, it's just this simple: they go away.
CARRIER: Well, what do you think about the proposed test of the bomb up on the testing range?
Unidentified Man: Well, first of all, what they're saying is it's good for the country. That's what everybody is saying, and it's non-nuclear, and that part is good also. My concern is, you know, you're going to stir up something that's been laying there for 40 or 50 years, and who knows what radioactivity.
So my attitude is, if they can assure us that there's not going to be any problem as far as this radioactivity - I don't know if you're aware of it, but John Wayne died of lung cancer. They always attributed it to smoking cigarettes, because he smoked cigarettes. I believe it was something else. It turns out he did a movie called The Conqueror back in the '60s. The Conqueror was done in the Utah desert, and they were kicking up dust the whole time after an atomic bomb explosion and the fallout was there. But that's what kills people, see? And we're in an area that's susceptible to this kind of stuff.
CARRIER: The closest town to the site of the proposed explosion is Indian Springs, Nevada. Creech Air Force Base, home of the Thunderbirds, is located here, and a lot of the people who live in Indian Springs work on the base or out at the test site. They can't talk to me, however, as they're sworn to secrecy.
But I figure maybe somebody at the bar called - The Bar - might be willing speak, like maybe the bartender.
MARY JO(ph): I'm Mary Jo, and we are in Indian Springs, Nevada. You hear a lot working at a bar. Everybody's always - has words about everything. Yeah. They talk about it, but they're not worried about it at all. So I haven't heard anybody say that they were upset about it or worried about it. It's just - they do a lot of testing out here. You and I just never hear about it. So this is just no different except we've heard about this one.
CARRIER: Are you from around here?
Mr. TONY MCDONALD(ph): I live here.
CARRIER: Tony McDonald.
Mr. MCDONALD: I have no problem with this bomb. If the wind's blowing too much they won't set it off. All right?
CARRIER: So you trust the government to make a good decision?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MCDONALD: Wait a minute!
CARRIER: Doesn't it come down to that? Whether you trust the government?
Mr. MCDONALD: You know what? You're asking if I love the United States of America.
CARRIER: No, no, no. I'm not asking you that. I asked you...
Mr. MCDONALD: I love the United States of America. I don't think the president's always right. I don't think they always do right by the people. Do I trust the government to tell us what's right?
CARRIER: Or to be able to make a good decision on this?
Mr. MCDONALD: No. I don't. However, since this is not a nuclear test, this bomb is a piece of cake.
Ms. NORMA ADRIANS(ph): Are you headed from here to Vegas?
CARRIER: Norma Adrians.
Ms. ADRIANS: Take pictures of the smog and the green and the brown you see over that valley. Okay? That's car emissions, that's factory emissions; that's stuff that blows all over. We got it from California. It came into our valley and now we have our own. Pollution is everywhere. Doesn't matter whether it's the bomb or whether it's where we're making it from our own cars. And wouldn't it be scary if we didn't have this technology?
Mr. MCDONALD: Wouldn't it be scary if we couldn't defend ourselves?
Ms. ADRIANS: And we couldn't defend our selves.
CARRIER: If the military goes ahead with the test, the 10,000 foot high mushroom cloud should be visible from many locations in southern Nevada, including perhaps Las Vegas. Maybe not what you'd want for a family vacation, but then again, maybe it is.
CHADWICK: That story from writer Scott Carrier, a member of the Radio Collective hearingvoices.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.