The last time a U.S. government official was quoted prominently on the subject of mushroom clouds, it was Condoleezza Rice talking about the risk of discovering too late that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapon.
On Thursday it was a Pentagon official musing about the
spectacle of detonating a 700-ton explosive in the Nevada desert -
a test blast dubbed "Divine Strake" that the official said might
remind some of the days of open-air nuclear testing, before the
blasts were moved underground to avoid the danger of radioactive
"I don't want to sound glib here, but it is the first time in
Nevada that you'll see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas since we
stopped testing nuclear weapons," said James Tegnelia, head of the
Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Pentagon unit that is working on
technical aspects of how to destroy deeply buried enemy weapons.
The United States stopped conducting aboveground nuclear tests
Tegnelia's use of the term "mushroom cloud" seemed to unsettle
some in Washington. In an entirely different context, Rice spoke
prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraqi in 2003 of the risk of waiting
too long to confirm with complete confidence that Iraq had a
nuclear weapon. The first confirmation, she said, could be a
mushroom cloud over the United States. It turned out that Iraq had
no active nuclear weapons program.
Several hours after Tegnelia made the mushroom cloud remark to a
group of reporters, his office put out a written statement
stressing that Divine Strake was not a nuclear blast, that it poses
minimal health and safety risks to the public, and that there are
no radioactively contaminated soils in the vicinity of the planned
And the mushroom cloud?
"All explosives, given the right thermal characteristics, will
create a cloud that may resemble a mushroom cloud," the statement
said, adding that the "dust cloud" from Divine Strake - scheduled
for June 2 - may reach an altitude of 10,000 feet but "is not
expected to be visible from Las Vegas," about 90 miles away.
Tegnelia said the Russian government has been notified to avoid
misunderstanding about the nature of the blast.