During World War II, few working on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb had a good understanding of the effect of nuclear radiation. Before 1963, it was common to conduct nuclear tests above ground—so much so that bomb tests were essentially a tourist attraction in Las Vegas. More than five hundred such tests of nuclear weapons were conducted.
While the devastating power of an atomic weapon was known—not just from tests but from the actual use of the weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—in the 1950s the United States began a program called Peaceful Nuclear Explosions. It might seem crazy in hindsight, but one part of the program was Project Plowshare, which was named from a verse in the Bible about how “they will beat their swords into plowshares.”
Project Plowshare was an Atomic Energy Commission program that begin in June 1957 to explore the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including those for civil and industrial projects. That included the creation of harbors and canals, as well as the stimulation of natural gas reservoirs.
Among the suggested uses for Project Plowshare was to denote atomic bombs to blast a new canal across Central America. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson even ordered a study to determine a site for the construction of a new sea-level canal. The so-called Pan-Atomic Canal was planned to be created by using a series of “controlled blasts” to literally carve a hole through hundreds of kilometers of rock. It was to use 250 devices in twenty-seven separate detonations ranging from one to eleven megatons each! At the low end, each detonation would be more than sixty times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It was also determined that the project could be done quickly and cheaply, taking less time and costing less than was spent to build the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
The study was the most exhaustive one on nuclear excavation to date, and it seemed the only reason the project might not have moved forward was that it was determined the Panama Canal wouldn’t exceed capacity until 1995.
There were slightly less ambitious plans though. Project Chariot called for carving a new harbor out of the rugged Alaskan coastline at Cape Thompson with a few dozen hydrogen bombs, while Project Carryall was to involve a string of twenty-two atomic bombs to carve a road through the Bristol Mountains in the Mojave Desert of California.
The United States was the only nation that actively considered how nuclear weapons could be used in construction projects. But the Soviet Union's “Nuclear Explosions for National Economy” program considered ways that atomic weapons could be used to dig giant holes. In total, 151 experiments were carried out. These experiments were conducted from 1957 to 1975 in the United State and from 1965 to 1989 in the Soviet Union.
Environmental concerns and opposition to nuclear energy or nuclear devices led to the demise of Project Plowshare, which was finally terminated in 1977.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
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