Test site gains contaminated land

The following article was published in the "Las Vegas Review-Journal", December 16, 1999. It was brought to our attention by Norio Hayakawa.

The Energy Department made it official Wednesday: The Nevada Test Site has grown by nearly 200 square miles thanks to some surface contamination from a 1968 nuclear test and President Clinton's signature on a law this year.

While department officials took two months to announce the effect from Clinton's signing on Oct. 23 of the Military Lands Withdrawal Act of 1999, the paperwork maneuver changed ownership of the contaminated land, now part of the test site's northwestern fringe, from the Air Force to the Energy Department.

The law also allows the Air Force to continue using the 3 million-acre Nellis Air Force Range for the next 20 years.

The change, according to local Energy Department spokesman Derek Scammell, was spurred by the 30-kiloton Schooner nuclear test on Dec. 8, 1968 -- an experiment under the nonmilitary Plowshare program to demonstrate the engineering applications of nuclear devices such as their use in excavating canals and harbors.

Surface contamination from that test for the past 31 years has been on land controlled by Nellis Air Force Range. The new law puts a jagged edge on the test site's Pahute Mesa area and keeps the contamination off the Air Force range.

The Nevada Test Site is now 1,573 square miles, or 195 square miles more than its previous size of 1,378 square miles. The change is a 14 percent increase.

The test site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been the nation's continental nuclear weapons proving ground since 1951.

Full-scale nuclear tests were put on hold indefinitely in 1992, but government scientists continue to conduct subcritical nuclear experiments in a below-ground complex. In the experiments, small amounts of plutonium are detonated but don't erupt into criticalities, or self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions like what occurs in full-scale nuclear tests.

The new law, according to an Energy Department statement, also serves to "correct several land use and jurisdiction misalignments throughout the complex." That means the Air Force takes control over the Energy Department's rectangle around Groom Lake, along the northeastern corner of the test site, which had been used by the Air Force under an agreement that dates back to 1958, when the land was withdrawn from public use by the Atomic Energy Commission, a forerunner of the Energy Department.

The location, also known as Area 51 -- the site of at least one classified airstrip -- has been shown on government maps as a 38,400-acre rectangle primarily in Lincoln County that belonged to the Energy Department but was controlled by the Air Force and had not been shown by the Energy Department as part of the test site.

The "misalignments," according to the Energy Department's statement, "had become outdated and inefficient because of evolving mission needs among the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense."

In public comments fielded last year in Las Vegas on whether the Air Force should renew its pact with the Bureau of Land Management to withdraw Nellis Air Force Range from public use to accommodate combat training missions, several citizens urged the Air Force to drop its ambiguous references to activities along the dry Groom Lake bed and name the location in clear terms.

The speakers, Norio Hayakawa, Anthony Hilder and Aaron Johnson, said the Air Force needs to tell the public what really goes on at the mysterious bases near Groom Lake because former workers there have have claimed health hazards lurk from materials that have been burned in open trenches such as coatings for radar-evading stealth aircraft.

By Keith Rogers
From "Las Vegas Review-Journal", December 16, 1999

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