The year 1953 was a busy one. A world still emerging from the destruction of World War II experienced success—Jonas Salk’s pill vaccine, Edmund Hillary and Tenzeng Norgay, summiting of Mount Everest. But it also experienced stalemate such as the armistice in Korea and the Soviet H-bomb. On December 9, 1953, at the end of his first year in office, Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech to the United Nations that defined his presidency. The speech became known as the “Atoms For Peace” speech.
The future of humanity, the president noted, depended upon checking the nuclear arms race. Peaceful uses of nuclear energy could transform human life. The United States, already leading in weapons research, would share with the world its work on nuclear power and would back an international authority to supervise civilian nuclear research. Thus, two key elements of the current nuclear environment—civilian nuclear power stations and the International Atomic Energy Agency—were announced at once.
Eisenhower had brought his desire for a way out of the arms race with him into the White House. As early as April 1953 the internal discussions of “Operation Candor” poured over ideas for publicizing American atomic research. Close allies Great Britain, Canada and France had been briefed on the concept.
Three years after Eisenhower’s speech, after the deployment of the hydrogen bomb by the United States and USSR, Egypt shut down the Suez Canal and nearly started a war. A physicist at UC Berkeley’s Radiation Laboratory (later Lawrence Livermore National Lab) pondered the use of nuclear bombs to rapidly excavate a new canal. A year later the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission announced Project Plowshare—an effort to develop civilian uses for nuclear explosives. Its name may have been coined by legendary physicist I.I. Rabi, who replied when briefed on the project, “So, you want to beat your old atomic bombs into plowshares.”
Seven decades later the fruits of “Atoms for Peace” are few but potent. Twenty percent of America’s electricity is generated by civilian nuclear power plants. Nuclear medicine saves thousands of lives a year. But the soaring visions of the early Atomic Age—nuclear-powered merchant vessels, giant spaceships to the planets, a new Central American canal—all remain technical curiosities, and mostly for good reasons.
Plowshare’s most direct applications of the bomb involved its use as a super-duper earthmoving explosive. Harbors would be dug, mountains cut through, reservoirs created, all with humongous explosions. Weaponeers already knew just how good nuclear bombs were at shoveling—they were vaporizing islands in Pacific atolls. If the pesky problem of radiation were dealt with, a whole new world of possibilities awaited.
Project Chariot would have instantly created a new deepwater harbor on the remote rocky coast of Alaska on the Bering Strait. Several hydrogen bombs would be detonated to create a comma-shaped hole in the shore almost two-thousand-feet long and thirty-feet deep. The harbor was to serve a vast new oil and coal development some miles inland. From its inception Chariot proved controversial, both for its cavalier impact assessments and its staunchest advocate: Edward Teller, the “Father of the H-Bomb.” Local opposition by Inuit communities eventually killed the project along with the lack of interest in the mineral deposits. Inuit suspicions were confirmed decades later when a researcher found radioactive soil in the planned project area—debris from a secret effects test.
Project Gnome, the first actual Plowshare test, involved another form of resource extraction. A nuclear device detonated in an underground salt formation traps enormous amounts of heat in the molten salt. Underground water turned into high-pressure steam could generate electricity in surface generators. Nuclear explosions also release enormous numbers of neutrons, which can transform common elements into rare isotopes in large quantities. Such isotopes could get trapped in the salt and get extracted easily.
The three-kiloton Gnome test on December 10, 1961, created a 90-foot-tall 170-foot-wide chamber 1300 feet below the New Mexico desert near Carlsbad. Six months later a crew entered the chamber and found little radioactivity, colored stalagmites of irradiated salt, and a temperature of 140 degrees. No usable steam pockets were found and little in the way of nuclear alchemy.
“Nuclear fracking” took the bomb out of Nevada and New Mexico. The 1967 Project Gasbuggy shot proved that bombs could force production of economic amounts of natural gas (although the product proved unsaleable due to radiation). In 1969 and 1973 additional fracking tests were made near Rifle, Colorado. The second, Project Rio Blanco, used three thirty-three-kiloton bombs in a single well.
Although nuclear tracking proved marginally successful the “nuclear shovel” remained the desideratum of Plowshare, with the great goal of a new Panama Canal as the prize. The Canal would involve a major campaign's worth of nukes, with one estimate coming in at over seven hundred bombs. These bombs would have to be exceptionally clean, as the 1962 Sedan test at the Nevada Test Site made clear. The one hundred thousand nuclear-cratering exercise produced the most fallout ever released from the Test Site—not a good look when trying to convince the public of the wisdom of such activities.
One of the last, most startling and yet most plausible studies of nuclear digging brought the Atomic Energy Commission, the Southern Pacific Railroad and the California Department of Transportation. Detailed work proved that some twenty-three bombs totaling 1.8 megatons could efficiently rip a slash through a two-mile wide range of hills in the California desert, to lay a new railroad line to Los Angeles. Project Carryall went the way of the Malibu nuclear power plant, but not before leaving its mark.
In the end, like so many other things, time and history have yielded comparable or better technologies without the Bomb's many downsides.
Steve Weintz, a frequent contributor to many publications such as WarIsBoring, is a writer, filmmaker, artist, animator.
Image: Wikimedia Commons