Q&A with Scott Kirsch: Digging with bombs
When the nuclear bomb was still young, weapons scientists dreamed that the doomsday devices could peacefully reshape the world. So began one of the most fantastic schemes ever devisedusing hydrogen bombs as tools for civil engineering projects. Geographer and historian Scott Kirsch talked with U.S. News about his new book, Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving.
When did America propose using the H-bomb for construction projects?
In the 1950s and 1960s, there was pressure on the nuclear weapons labs to find peaceful uses for their explosives. The result was Project Plowshare. One of the main ideas was that buried bombs could be used, very precisely, to move dirt and rock in what came to be called geographic engineering.
Like moving a mountain or blasting a canal, for instance?
In 1956, when the Suez Canal was nationalized, Edward Teller proposed cutting a [second] canal with nuclear explosives.
Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, also wanted to shoot one of his super weapons into the moon to "see what our satellite is made of." Did anyone take his excavation scheme seriously?
In 1964, Congress asked the Army Corps of Engineers to look into the possibility of creating a new canal through Central America. Preliminary estimates showed the massive excavation could be accomplished by detonating a series of 300 buried nuclear weapons in a 46-mile line across southern Panama. Another plan envisioned 764 bombs buried in a line across Columbia. Before they blasted the new canal, though, the government decided to have a test explosion.
After years of vaporizing Pacific atolls and large swaths of the Nevada desert, why was more testing needed?
They needed to know exactly how the nuclear weapons would act when they were buried. The plan was to do a smalland I do hesitate to use that wordexperiment with a nuclear explosion to create a small harbor in northern Alaska. They had chosen a sparsely populated area, but there were people that lived nearby. Before the government went ahead though, they had to convince the public that this experiment was safe.
Was it safe?
Now the scientists were very good at closely calculating the physical dimensions of the explosionsthe dimensions of blast craters, for example. What they were not good at was reducing fallout and the tremendous health risks associated with nuclear explosions. Even though most of these experiments were conducted underground, when the bombs were detonated, they created big, dirty dust clouds that then drifted. They were never able to contain this fallout to the satisfaction of their critics.
Were the scientists trying to evade the 1963 nuclear test ban, or did they actually believe that H-bombs could be a force for good?
There was a real sense among the scientists that they could turn the bomb into something good. The scientists had to make their own peace with their role in making nuclear weaponseither by contributing to peace through deterrence or by turning the nuclear bomb into something else.
Are there advantages to excavating with nukes?
It enables earth moving on an unimaginable scale. Economically, and from an engineering perspective, it would only be profitable at the very large scales. You can move an extraordinary amount of dirt and rock and, if it were a large enough amount, it would be cheaper than conventional chemical explosives. Of course, this was only a hypothetical. If you factor in the cleanup costs and the long-term health risks, there would have been virtually no savings.
The quickie-canal scheme and Alaska harbor projects remained hypothetical, but a bomb was detonated.
There was so much pressure about the Alaska harbor plan from Eskimo groups, environmentalists, and scientists that the Lawrence Livermore Labs decided to gather data from a test explosion in the Nevada desert. In 1962, a 104-kiloton, dirty nuclear bomb was shot off as a way to gather scaling information. It is called the Sedan crater. It was used to train the astronauts for work on the moon and to woo potential clients for the earthmoving venture. They could bring them to the site and show them the power of the nuclear bomb. [The Sedan test] was both an experiment and a tool of public relationssomething you could say that about the entire program.
So the dream of nuclear earthmoving is over?
The government thought that Plowshare would reflect well on the nuclear community because they were looking for peaceful uses. In fact, because of the dangers of radioactive fallout and environmental destruction, the whole thing became a liability. -