US Test to Model Low-Yield Nuclear Bomb Effects

April 6th, 2006 - by admin

David Ruppe / Global Security Newswire – 2006-04-06 23:21:33

WASHINGTON (April 4, 2006) — A massive detonation of conventional explosives planned for the Nevada Test Site in June will model a low-yield nuclear weapon strike against a hardened tunnel, a Defense Department official told Global Security Newswire yesterday.

The Energy Department test, dubbed “Divine Strake,” involves detonating 700 tons of ammonium nitrate fuel oil, the equivalent of 593 tons of TNT, just below ground level and above a tunnel dug into limestone.

Conducted on behalf of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency for its “Tunnel Target Defeat Advanced Concept and Technology Demonstration,” the test is intended to provide data on how the shock from a low-yield nuclear weapon would damage hardened, underground facilities. Test results are intended for supporting US Strategic Command war planning against underground facilities, according to a fiscal 2007 DTRA budget document.

“Yes … the event that is described [in the budget document] is Divine Strake,” DTRA spokeswoman Irene Smith said after checking with agency officials.

“There are no nuclear tests planned or desired,” Smith said.

Initial news accounts last week said the test was intended to assess the impact of using a massive conventional bomb against fortified underground targets. Analysts quickly began to question that explanation.

Divine Strake appeared to be the “full-scale” Tunnel Target Defeat nuclear simulation, wrote Western States Legal Foundation Program Director Andrew Lichterman in a blog.

“There is no conventional weapon with that kind of kick,” Albuquerque Journal science writer John Fleck wrote in a blog on Friday. “According to the DOE’s Nevada site office, that‚s the equivalent of half a kiloton [of] TNT … a small nuke blast, far larger … far larger than any conventional weapon.”

“It is much more than was reported,” wrote Federation of American Scientists analyst Hans Kristensen, in an analysis of the test on his Web site yesterday.

“Divine Strake is neither a bomb nor conventional. Instead, the test is a detonation of a pile of chemical explosives to simulate a Œlow-yield nuclear weapon ground shock‚ effect,” he wrote, quoting from a DTRA budget document that describes the test.

“Everybody is interested in whether this is going to create a mushroom cloud. … They‚re completely missing the important part of this, which is, we don‚t have to test nuclear weapons anymore. We can calibrate this and develop these [nuclear weapons] capabilities without it,” he said.Implications

Critics have charged that US work on low-yield nuclear weapons capabilities could increase the potential such weapons are used, because low-yield weapons could produce fewer unintended casualties and because they could be used for a variety of battlefield missions beyond deterrence against a nuclear attack.

Bush administration officials have said there is a need to develop improved capabilities for striking potential adversaries‚ hardened, underground facilities and in a 2004 report to Congress argued that low-yield weapons could bolster US deterrence by suggesting a lower threshold for using nuclear weapons.

Congress in 1993 banned research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons, those with yields less than five kilotons. After taking office, the Bush administration pressed to have the ban repealed. Congress in 2003 instead amended the law to allow only early research and development without explicit congressional approval.

The Tunnel Target Defeat program is not intended to produce a new nuclear weapon, but rather to determine what yield might be ideal for destroying hardened facilities while minimizing casualties, according to the budget document.

The test is intended to “improve the warfighter‚s confidence in selecting the smallest proper nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage,” it said.

“Better predictive tools will reduce the uncertainties involved in defeating very hard targets and therefore reduce the need for higher-yield weapons to overcome those uncertainties,” spokeswoman Smith said.

The test is intended to help military planners “fine-tune the capabilities we already have,” Kristensen said.

“The explosive power of Divine Strake will be approximately 593 tons of TNT equivalent, or roughly 0.6 [kilotons]. This is about half as powerful as the lowest yield option on the nonstrategic B61 nuclear gravity bomb, and suggests that Divine Strake may be intended to fine-tune use of the B61 bomb,” he wrote on his Web site.

“These are tactical nuclear weapons that have that low yield,” he said.

The Energy Department in a draft environmental impact statement dated last November, says the test was designed with a number of potential enemy facilities in mind.

“As a number of potential adversarial military targets are based in similar limestones, [Divine Strake] needed to be sited in a similar geological setting to actual military targets,” it says.

The test Tunnel Target Defeat program is part of a larger effort by the Bush administration to develop a capability to hold “all potential adversarial targets at risk, as an integral part of the nation‚s policy of deterrence,” the statement says

In particular, it implements a directive by President George W. Bush in summer 2004 ordering the US Strategic Command to extend its rapid “Global Strike” capabilities to include both tactical and strategic adversarial targets,” the statement says.

Planning for the exploring such a capability began before the Bush administration took office, Lichterman wrote, citing a 2000 Defense Department document his organization obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The program though should be of particular concern in light of Bush administration policies, he wrote.

What “the US is continuing to develop is [an] ability to plan and fight wars with nuclear weapons — a part of the broad US nuclear weapons research effort that receives little attention or debate,” Lichterman wrote.

“Large scale physical simulations to study the effects of low-yield nuclear weapons would appear particularly provocative, the more so in the context of a policy and practice of ‘pre-emptive‚ really, preventive ‘ warfare,” he wrote, citing the Bush administration’s policy allowing for military attacks against countries suspected of posing a future threat.

For more information about this test, see Andrew Lichterman’s posting at: