So what would you think about using nuclear weapons to blast a new canal across Central America? Or to dredge a new harbor? How about lighting off a nuke deep underground to fracture rock and increase natural gas production – and we thought that fracking was controversial! Nutty? Well…today they sure seem that way, but in the 1950s and 1970s there was a big push to find a way to use nuclear explosives peacefully, just as we can use high explosives in road construction, mining, and even some aspects of industry. Were people just nuts a half-century ago? Have our perceptions (or level of knowledge) changed? Is there something to these plans? A combination of the above? Basically – what gives?
A little bit of history might be a good place to start.
The nuclear attacks against Japan were effective militarily and the possibility of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was terrifying. But at the same time President Eisenhower realized that harnessing the energy from so tremendous an explosion might be useful. In 1953 Eisenhower gave his famous “Atoms for Peace” talk to the United Nations General Assembly, suggesting that even the most powerful of weapons might be able to be put to use on behalf of humanity – five years later this idea was turned into the Plowshares Program.
Although Plowshares had high aims it was delayed right out of the box by a moratorium on nuclear explosions. When nuclear testing resumed peaceful nuclear explosions were taken seriously enough by both the US and the Soviet Union that the two nations signed agreements over the maximum yield per device (150 kT) and the maximum yield from a series of explosions in a single project (1500 kT). And when testing resumed in 1961 both nations started their peaceful testing. Over the course of the next decade or so the US set off 27 explosions in Alaska, Nevada, and New Mexico; these were more than matched by the 239 detonations on the Soviet side.
Looking at these tests today it’s tempting to ask what they were thinking. Today we think of nuclear annihilation, blasted cities, and radioactive fallout – and that’s not even getting into the myths and misconceptions that so many have. So thinking about using nuclear explosives to dredge a harbor seems not only dangerous but downright silly. So was Eisenhower and the scientists he tasked with Project Plowshares all a bunch if idiots?
It’s easy to look at these tests today as just another wacky idea from a more idealistic and naïve era – among the reasons for giving up on the Plowshares program was the environmental impact of the explosions, not to mention the radioactive contamination of natural gas liberated by the Gasbuggy test. But we should also remember that these tests began in an era that was far less environmentally conscious than today and at a time when we knew far less about the effects of nuclear weapons than we do today – closer to the start of the nuclear age it was perhaps more tempting to try to find a silver lining. With the world still recovering from a tremendously destructive war, caught in the Cold War, and worried about nuclear war it must have been tremendously tempting to try to find something to do with nuclear explosives other than blowing each other up. We might joke today about the foolishness of some of the Plowshares projects, but I would hope we can also respect the optimistic audacity of Eisenhower’s vision; a former warrior in a simpler era trying to find a way to use these incredibly powerful weapons for the benefit of humanity.