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Smiling Buddha

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Tribune Media Services

"Everyone in Utah can tell you a story - or take you to a cemetery and show you where loved ones are buried . . ."

Alyson Heyrend, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, was talking about the experience of being a "downwinder," and she could have been speaking for residents of Nevada, Idaho, Montana and other places as well, where large segments of the population were exposed to fallout from U.S. nuclear testing over the years; suffered dire health consequences and the premture deaths of loved ones despite glib assurances from the government that they were in no danger; who have finally cried, loudly enough to disrupt, at least temporily, the government's oblivious, WMD-smitten agenda, "No more!"

"We have stood down the experiment site and the workforce that was preparing the site for the experiment," read the dry, tersely worded statement issued by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency last week, referring to the "subnuclear" blast known as Divine Strake, initially slated to go off in early June at the Nevada Test Site and twice-postponed because of local uproar and environmental challenges.

Divine Strake would have ignited 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, sending up a 10,000-foot mushroom cloud, possibly stirring up radioactive dust at the Test Site and spewing an array of pollutants into the atmosphere: "two tons of cyanide compounds, 25 tons of particulates, a ton of hexachloroethane, a ton each of tetrachloroethylene and tetrachloromethane, a ton and a half of phosgene, nearly a ton of sulfur dioxide, more than 31 tons of carbon monoxide, seven tons of nitrogen oxides, nearly two tons of chloroform, and many other noxious compounds," according to environmental writer Valerie Brown, in an article published recently in the St. George (Utah) Spectrum.

Now, though the test isn't exactly dead, the federal agencies hoping to conduct it have gone back to the drawing board. "The details of this plan, the sequence of actions, and schedule are to be determined," the government announcement informed us. "Public information sessions will be part of this plan."

While the announcement added that the test could be revived as early 2007, the Las Vegas Review-Journal has reported that the DTRA may have given up on the Nevada Test Site as the place to do it. Other sites being considered, the paper reports, are White Sands, N.M., and a limestone quarry near - hold onto your hats, Hoosiers - Bedford, Ind., a mere 70 miles from both Indianapolis and Louisville.

Nuts, right? I'd like to see them try. A scheme to bomb the Midwest - to conduct a blast big enough to simulate a small nuclear explosion - might be just the thing to galvanize nationwide outrage about the U.S. WMD program (remember, we already have 10,000 nuclear weapons on hand) and create a movement big enough to stand up to this global threat.

The point of Divine Strake, according to Department of Defense budget documents quoted in the St. George Spectrum, is to "develop a planning tool that will improve the warfighter's confidence in selecting the smallest proper nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage."

In other words, we're trying to develop usable nuclear weapons. Who's running the show here, Kim Jong Il? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? What the U.S. is up to is, in my opinion, far scarier.

The very insidiousness of our weapons development and testing - the perverse secrecy of it, the extraordinary budget it commands that makes it a far greater national priority than health care or education, the momentum that spawns new generations of unimaginably destructive war machinery free from public scrutiny and "civilian" values - magnifies the significance of the effort that derailed Divine Strake.

Maybe, 61 years into the nuclear age, there's a new player in the game: those whose designated role was to be collateral damage.

The downwinders of the Test Site area raised so many angry questions about Divine Strake, and put so much pressure on their elected representatives - Matheson, for instance, is sponsor of HR 1194, a wide-ranging bill that would put nuclear testing under close public scrutiny - that the unelected minions of the military-industrial complex were forced to pay attention.

By "divine" coincidence, you might say, the derailing of Divine Strake occurred just a few days before the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, enveloping events in a global context.

"Sixty-one years later, the number of nations enamored of evil and enslaved by nuclear weapons is increasing," Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba said on Aug. 6, Hiroshima Day, according to Agence France Presse. "I call on the Japanese government to . . . forcefully insist that the nuclear-weapon states negotiate in good faith for nuclear disarmament."

I recognize the anger and futility in the mayor's words. The wreaths, the white cranes, the prayers, the reading of the names of the dead - what crocodile tears such symbolism produces in the realm of geopolitics.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at
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