Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Thomas Enyeard with the National Nuclear Security Administration speaks at a Divine Strake session.

Toward the end of the second hour of a public information session Wednesday night on the planned Divine Strake explosion, a man shouted that anyone who was against the test should say aye.

"Aye" roared from the several hundred Utahns gathered in a ballroom of the Grand America Hotel, 55 S. State.

As officers were hustling the man out of the room, shouts came that this was a public meeting. That was followed by a response, apparently from an officer, "It's not a public forum."

And that description of the meeting is one of the many concerns of those who attended the Salt Lake gathering sponsored by the government agencies that plan to detonate 700 tons of explosive material that opponents fear will stir up radioactive dust from the same area when nuclear bombs were tested decades earlier. Another gathering is scheduled for tonight in St. George.

"They are so afraid of the public," said Mary Dickson, a member of Downwinders United and an anti-nuclear activist.

The man who was escorted out of the hotel refused to give his name but said he would be present at a public hearing next week sponsored by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. A plainclothes officer who had escorted the man told the Deseret Morning News he was Sgt. Andrew Oblad of the Salt Lake City Police.

"Yes, I asked him to leave," he said. Oblad added, "I'm done talking to you. Have a nice night."

Instead of a public hearing format, the government set up information stations around the ballroom where 23 public affairs officers and others from the test's sponsors were ready to answer questions about the blast. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency and National Nuclear Security Administration plan to detonate 700 tons of fuel oil and ammonium nitrate at the Nevada Test Site.

NNSA posters lining a side of the large ballroom showed tunnels with aircraft and machinery, with the slogan, "Foreign underground facilities are a growing threat." DTRA officials with posters about the experiment itself were on the other side of the room.

A stenographer was ready to take verbatim statements from the public, a new wrinkle after heavy criticism that the meeting would not be a public hearing. Asked how many people had spoken to her, she said she was instructed to say nothing.

Asked why the agencies had not said earlier that oral comments would be taken as well as written statements, Kevin Rohrer of NNSA at the Nevada Test Site said, "You can't get every detail in every press release," but any comments would be considered part of the record.

The agencies have also been criticized for changing the location of the meeting the day before it was to take place.

Asked his opinion about the safety of the test, Rohrer said, "My personal feeling is that I would have no reservations to stand downwind from this experiment, on the border of this site, with my children and watch the explosion go off."

Dickson said, "When we came in tonight we were told that this is not a public forum, they repeated that several times. ... They don't want any other viewpoints here."

Danielle Endres, assistant professor, department of communications at the University of Utah, who studies the public meeting process, said the process generally is flawed.

"It's a stacked deck, exactly, stacked against public participation. And in general it's a stacked deck for a decision that's already been decided," she said.

"My primary concern is for the well-being of life on this planet," said Tom King, Salt Lake City. Besides damage from radioactive isotopes at the test site, he said, he is worried about the government's intentions.

"They want to see what a little nuke will do to underground facilities," King said.

"I came to this public forum hoping that I would hear a clear and concise, comprehensive presentation," said Julie Mack, Salt Lake City. "And what I found were stations set up where there's 10 people waiting at each station. I can't hear, I can't make sense of the progress of explanation, I am walking away feeling disappointed and frustrated."

Jim Brentz, Draper, had a view that was different from the majority attitude: "I don't think Divine Strake is anything to be concerned about," he said. He was "exposed and saturated with nuclear fallout" while a soldier at the test site during 1955 explosions, he said.

He said he was pleased by the public information session.

However, spokeswomen for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, expressed disappointment about the forum.