MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The Pentagon has dug a huge pit on a mountain in Nevada. That pit will be filled with explosives and blown up. The military says the massive explosion is part of an effort to create weapons to destroy deeply buried enemy targets, but there are those who argue the Pentagon has been burying the main reason for the June test: a nuclear simulation. NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN reporting:
It's called Divine Strake, and it will include a chemical explosion that will send a veil of dust and debris 10,000 feet into the desert sky and rumble the landscape for miles.
Mr. JOHN PIKE (Defense Analyst): I mean, to put it in perspective, ammonium nitrate fuel oil is the same blasting substance that Timothy McVey used against the Oklahoma City courthouse. That explosion was estimated to be about two and a half tons, versus the 700 tons that's going to be detonated here.
BOWMAN: That's John Pike, a defense analyst who sees the test as a way to develop new and smaller nuclear weapons that can burrow deep into enemy tunnels and bunkers. A cone-shaped hole has been carved into the top of a mountain on the test range. The target is a tunnel hidden about a 140 feet into the mountain's limestone core. Similar tunnels are now believed to conceal North Korean, Russian and Chinese nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. Doug Bruder is the top scientist for the Divine Strake test.
Mr. DOUG BRUDER (Director, Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction Technologies): It is an increasing concern and an increasing threat that we have to deal with.
BOWMAN: Bruder stresses the test is not designed for any new weapon system, but he acknowledged that the test will provide key information for improving convention and existing nuclear weapons.
Mr. BRUDER: It isn't solely conventional, it isn't solely nuclear. It provides a weapon effects environment that will support future conventional and existing nuclear weapons. And the point I constantly like to add to that is that, again, it doesn't contribute to any new nuclear weapon design.
BOWMAN: That's a different story from what the Pentagon has told reporters and the public before today. Pentagon budget documents say the test will simulate a low-yield nuclear test. Officials have repeatedly said the test was only to develop conventional weapons. Again, Doug Bruder:
Mr. BRUDER: I think it is possible that we, we perhaps in, perhaps one release we may have overemphasized the conventional nature.
BOWMAN: Congressman Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat, said the inconsistencies make sense when considering the politically charged issue.
Representative JIM MATHESON (Democrat, Utah): We're asking the rest of the world not to engage in nuclear proliferation. If the United States is moving ahead in that regard, that creates an obvious mixed message.
BOWMAN: Earlier this month, Matheson wrote to James Tegnelia, whose office is in charge of the project, asking about the intent of the test. Congressman Matheson has not received a response. The only current way to destroy these underground sites, according to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is with "very large, very dirty, big nuclear weapons." Instead, Rumsfeld said the Pentagon must develop either conventional weapons, or smaller nuclear ones. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have cut money to create a new nuclear bunker buster. Lawmakers like Matheson have pressed the Pentagon to develop conventional weapons to target such enemy sites.
Representative MATHESON: There is no question that the need to develop the capability to go after these deeply embedded bunkers or tunnels needs to be explored beyond where we are today and I have advocated, as has Congress, to provide funding to develop conventional weapons that have the capability to go after these deeply embedded bunkers.
BOWMAN: As the debate continues on whether new nuclear weapons are needed, one thing is certain, on June 2, a massive blast will echo through the Nevada test site, sending a giant plume of dust into the sky. And 45 miles away, the nearest town to the site, Indian Springs, will hear the distant rumble of man-made thunder. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.