Project Plowshare: Atoms for Peace

For today’s post, we will turn our attention to Earth—not an unprecedented topic for this blog, despite the overall focus on space. In particular I would like to discuss one of the wackier technological ideas of the Cold War, where the United States researched ways to turn its nuclear arsenal into a tool for economic development. This program, titled Project Plowshare, ran under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission between 1957 and 1977.

Atoms for Peace, on a postage stamp!

Plowshare grew from a climate of fear and fascination regarding nuclear weapons. Conscientious scientists wanted to harness the awesome potential of the atom for something hopeful, to build cities up rather than level them, and it was in this spirit that President Eisenhower announced the 1953 “Atoms for Peace” initiative, urging the world to invest in nuclear power as a source of prosperity for all mankind. Initially this only entailed the development of fission reactors, but the Suez Crisis1 of 1956 got people thinking about excavating new canals with nuclear explosions. In June 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission greenlit Project Plowshare, putting the weight of the government behind what had previously been far-fetched speculation. Mass excavation, natural gas extraction, electricity generation—the possibilities2 seemed endless.

One of Plowshare’s landmark tests, the Storax Sedan detonation in July 1962. It hollowed out the largest man-made crater in history, displacing about eleven million tons of rock, and spread more radioactive fallout than any other test in the United States.

The program got off to a slow start. Between 1957 and 1961 there were no tests, due to a moratorium agreement with the Soviet Union (which the Soviets broke first). After the moratorium, however, Plowshare researchers drastically picked up the pace, detonating thirty-one devices in a variety of situations, and collecting reams of data on each one. This continued until the Rio Blanco test in May 1973. Note that these were not large bombs; the largest warhead was 105 kilotons, and the smallest just 0.37 kilotons.

What, exactly, were all these blasts investigating? One could be forgiven for thinking that scientists were just blowing holes in the desert for fun, but the Plowshare tests were supposed to pave the way for a variety of crazy, ambitious, and hopefully profitable schemes:

  • Canal excavation was a top priority. A nuclear-enabled construction project promised to make canals bigger, faster, and cheaper than conventional digging ever could. Researchers discussed either widening the Panama Canal, or alternately building new ones in Nicaragua and Israel. On land, the same techniques would be used to cut highways through mountainous areas, such as the route of I-40 through the Bristol Mountains3.
  • Another plan was to make an artificial harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska, allowing for easier transport of oil from the Alaskan interior. While this came fairly close to realization, the government eventually canceled it, citing economic unfeasibility and concern for Native Alaskan communities living in the area.
  • There were many possibilities surrounding the excavation of subterranean cavities. These had the benefit of being sealed—what happens underground stays underground, hopefully. Such reservoirs could store oil and water for bulk use. There was also a plan to use underground explosions to generate electricity—a bomb would go off, heating the surrounding rock, and water would be pumped into cavity, whereupon it would turn to steam and drive a turbine.
  • Towards the 1970s, as the aforementioned concepts proved unworkable, the main focus of Project Plowshare shifted to natural gas stimulation. Subterranean detonations would have propelled natural gas out of reservoirs and up to the surface, where it would be collected in great quantities. It was like fracking but even worse for the environment. (Un)fortunately, the Plowshare method was far too complex and expensive to be viable, and the extracted gas turned out to be unusably radioactive anyway.
A diagram of the Cape Thompson project.
And the geothermal power scheme. Why hunt for a geological hotspot, when you can just make one yourself?

One of Project Plowshare’s most serious problems was public opposition. The 1970s was the heyday of the anti-nuclear movement, and numerous citizens’ groups opposed Plowshare on environmental grounds, citing radioactive contamination as a primary concern. The Sedan test in particular created a lot of fallout from pulverized earth. I’m generally pro-nuclear myself, but even I can see where they were coming from; scientists were talking about hundreds of uncontained blasts. To be fair, though, some of the underground-only proposals would have been far safer.

There was also limited support within the government itself. Congress was never fond of the idea. The canal projects were clearly unworkable, given their inherent environmental problems, and natural gas stimulation was never going to turn a profit. Worse, both sides were cutting their nuclear arsenals as part of détente. Missile production shrank massively during the 1970s, and it was no longer economical to mass-produce hundreds of warheads for civilian use. Congress finally pulled the plug on a moribund program in 19774. Atomic bombs would remain weapons, and weapons only.

While Plowshare was a misfire, and I doubt anyone will ever again consider such a program in our environmentally conscious age, I’ve got to say that I admire the engineers behind it. They had vision. They weren’t afraid to dream big, and use their talents to design a prosperous future without constantly second-guessing themselves. I hope modern engineering can carry forward that valiant spirit.

Thank you for joining me this week! I ought to have the next post up by Sunday, returning to my normal posting schedule.

Further reading:

  1. Funny I should mention this in early 2021. For anyone reading in some far-flung future year—when you’ll probably have bigger crises to worry about—this amusing but expensive episode is what I’m referring to.
  2. And I didn’t even mention Project Orion, the plan to propel gigantic spacecraft using atomic warheads, which wasn’t closely related but grew from the same milieu. It shall get its own post, one day!
  3. I-40 was later built, without the aid of nukes.
  4. Though my Stanford sources claim 1975 for the cessation of funding.

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