Tuesday, Dec. 10, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
The so-called "zero-yield" or "subcritical" experiments would take place in alcoves off a 926-foot shaft beneath the desert about 70 miles northwest of Las Vegas. They are designed to mimic the first microseconds of an atomic blast.
Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary issued a decision Monday allowing the nuclear experiments, and said U.S. officials are discussing whether to share information from the tests with other countries.
"The first thing we should be clear about is that we are doing experiments, not nuclear tests," O'Leary said in a teleconference from Washington, D.C.
Zero-yield experiments were conducted at the test site during the 1950s through the 1980s, but were not counted among the 1,030 announced U.S. nuclear tests.
Two of the experiments had been planned for this year, but were postponed while the Energy Department completed the test site's impact statement.
The experiments are not designed to produce explosive nuclear chain reactions, but are used to help scientists understand how nuclear materials age in the nation's weapons arsenal.
Anti-nuclear activists said they were not surprised by the decision to hold the tests, but said they would violate the spirit of the test-ban treaty approved in September by the United Nations.
The decision to go ahead with the experiments is not expected to increase the test site's work force, which agency officials have said is targeted for a 400-employee reduction in 1997.
The reduction will drop the work force at Bechtel Nevada, the site's main contractor, from 2,500 to 2,100 people.