Nuclear energy is playing a vital role in the life of every man, woman, and child in the United States today. In the years ahead it will affect increasingly all the peoples of the Earth. It is essential that all Americans gain an understanding of this vital force if they are to discharge thoughtfully their responsibilities as citizens and if they are to realize fully the myriad benefits that nuclear energy offers them.
- Foreword to the 'Plowshare' booklet1, Edward J Brunenkant, Director, Division of Technical Information, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)
After World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War, the powers of nuclear chain reactions were almost exclusively put to use in nuclear weapons. There was no civilian application apart from a few nuclear power plants that were still under evaluation. Project Plowshare was conceived in 1957 (and publicly announced on 6 June, 1958) in order to use the devastating power of nuclear explosions for peaceful applications. The name was taken from the Bible:
And they will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.
- Isaiah 2:4
Between 1957 and 1973, 27 experiments were carried out, using a total of 35 nuclear charges (see table below).
The Nevada Test Site
On 18 December, 1950, US president Harry S Truman signed the decision which installed the Nevada Test Site (NTS) as the nation's continental site for nuclear weapon tests. This decision was taken because of fears that the war in Korea could spread out into the Pacific Ocean and negatively influence the test programmes that were ongoing at the Bikini, Enewetak and Johnston atolls. The NTS begins 105km northwest of Las Vegas and covers 3500 square kilometres of desert and waste land.
The NTS was installed in an area that had been taken away from the Western Shoshone Nation via the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863. In exchange for an annual payment of the equivalent of US$5000 over the course of 20 years, the natives essentially granted the USA all rights associated with the land and agreed to be moved into a reservation 'whenever the President of the United States shall deem it expedient'.
Between 1962 and 1971, 23 Plowshare tests involving 29 nuclear detonations were conducted at the NTS. Six further detonations took place outside the NTS. In total, the NTS saw 804 underground and 100 atmospheric tests and further 24 were conducted as joint US/United Kingdom tests. The grand total of nuclear bombs spent for testing was higher than that because a 'test' may consist of more than one explosion.
For as long as they can remember, the Shoshone have referred to the land as 'Newe Sogobia' - the land of the 'People of Mother Earth'.
The project's goal was to demonstrate that nuclear explosions could be used for:
Cutting mountain passes for roads and railways
Cracking rock in order to aid the production of natural gas
Building dams by collapsing canyon walls into valleys
Generating electric power by pumping water through an underground cavity storing the heat of an explosion
Refilling underground water layers (aquifers) by routing surface water through impermeable layers of soil
Breaking ore deposits to make mining easier
Creating huge underground cavities for the storage of natural gas or drinking water.
Or, in the words of Dr Edward Teller, the 'father' of the hydrogen bomb:
The nuclear explosions can be used to blast harbours in otherwise inaccessible coasts, to engage in the great art of what I want to call geographical engineering - to reshape the land to your pleasure and indeed to break up the rocks and make them yield up their riches.
One of the main goals of Plowshare was to create huge craters. A series of craters, placed in a row, would result in a canal. To achieve this goal it was necessary to find out the optimum depth for setting off the bomb. If it was exploded on or above ground level then much of the energy would be blown into the air, without moving significant amounts of rock or earth. Placing the bomb very deep in the ground would create a hollow underground cavity. Somewhere in between, there would be one point where the blast would penetrate the surface but wouldn't throw debris out of the hole, and another point where a crater of maximum size was obtained.
The Sedan explosion in 1962 displaced some 12 million tons of earth and produced the biggest crater ever made by man (390m diameter and 97m deep) - along with tremendous amounts of fallout. Buggy was a precursor test for a canal project: five charges were placed in a row and set off simultaneously. Schooner produced a crater which was 260m across and 63m deep. These craters can be visited by tourists.
During the 1956 war in the Middle East, the idea of using nuclear explosions for digging a second canal as an alternative to the Suez Canal cropped up but never reached the planning stage.
In the 1960s, a sea-level canal between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans was studied. Over 25 routes were examined, with five of them in closer detail:
- Tehuantapec (Mexico) - 125miles
- From Greytown to Salinas Bay (along the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica) - 140miles
- San Blas (Panama) - 37miles
- From Atrato to Truando (Colombia, close to the Panama border) - 102miles
- Sasardi Morti (Panama) - 46miles
The shortest of these routes would have required more than 100 nuclear explosions. Others would have needed 250 and more bombs with a total yield of around 120Megatons.
Oil and Natural Gas Production
Engineers had found out early that some huge resources of natural gas are trapped under layers of hard rock. Drilling a shaft down there isn't overly effective, as it takes some time for the gas to penetrate the rock. Setting off underground explosions leads to cracks in the rock layers and significantly fosters the extraction of the gas. This has been done using conventional explosives, and the AEC together with some civilian companies looked into the possibilities of using nuclear charges for the same purpose.
Gasbuggy was the first explosion of this type. It was carried out outside the NTS and was intended for commercial gain. Gasbuggy proved to be a double failure: it didn't produce as much gas as expected, and customers declined to buy gas which was contaminated with traces of radioactivity. Luckily enough, the detonation itself happened as desired although water broke into the shaft and the bomb was left in boiling hot water for several weeks. Whether or not the explosion released radioactivity into the air and caused cancer in some of the workers is still an open question.
Rio Blanco was an attempt to create a very deep chimney by stacking three nuclear charges on top of each other and thus get more gas out. But the three cavities didn't join and the project essentially was a failure.
Enthusiasm, Euphemisms and Failures
More than 12 years years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, officials 'should2' have known better about the implications of nuclear explosions.
The 'Plowshare' booklet begins by listing many of the beneficial applications of conventional explosives, as in explosive forming of metals, oil production, fracturing rock in quarries and it even draws a connection to holiday fireworks and combustion engines. The impression conveyed is that nuclear explosions can be used in similar fashion, but on a much larger scale.
True, a comparison of the costs must have stirred some enthusiasm: setting free a certain amount of energy would cost US$250 using TNT, US$4.50 using ammonium nitrate (another conventional explosive), and US$0.075 using a thermonuclear device. The total cost for digging a sea-level canal through Panama was estimated as low as US$650 million for one of the projected routes. But the examples given were lacking details such as long-term damage due to radioactive fallout, and of course the precise cost of manufacturing a nuclear weapon was, and still is, a well-kept secret.
The enthusiasm of the project's proponents can't be better described than in the words of Dr Edward Teller:
[The AEC could] dig a harbor in the shape of a polar bear, if required3.
If your mountain is not in the right place, just drop us a card4.
A booklet 'Atomic Tests in Nevada'5 was distributed among downwind residents in 1957:
You people who live near Nevada Test Site are in a very real sense active participants in the Nation's atomic test programme. You have been close observers of tests which have contributed greatly to building the defenses of our country and of the free world [...] Every test detonation in Nevada is carefully evaluated as to your safety before it is included in a schedule. Every phase of the operation is likewise studied from the safety viewpoint.
Radioactivity is mentioned in passing on page seven of the 1966 Plowshare booklet, and later on referred to as 'energy emission', a side effect which can be reduced by suitable means. Further on, the paper keeps stating that safety considerations were an essential part of the project, citing estimates and measurement results of radiation exposure levels which were far below their estimated values. There is no mention of the experiments which had released radioactivity into areas outside the NTS. Threshold values must have been set very low at the time: five months after the explosion, a tunnel was dug into the Gnome cavity, and people entered it, with only a helmet as their protection equipment.
Chariot was a plan to dig a harbour in northern Alaska. The natives living in the area were the last to be informed - and then they were told that:
... the fish in and around the Pacific Proving Grounds were not made radioactive by nuclear weapons tests and ... [there would not be] any danger to anyone if the fish were utilized; that the effects of nuclear weapons testing never injured any people, anywhere; that once the severely exposed Japanese people recovered from radiation sickness... there were no side effects.
Chariot was cancelled after much protest, when villages already had been relocated. However, Chariot did cause environmental pollution, as radioactive material from the NTS was carried over and released in the area in order to track its movements.
Failures and Mishaps
About half of the Plowshare experiments resulted in nuclear fallout being detected outside the NTS. People working at the Groom Lake Air Force testing facility (called Area 51, located North of the NTS) had to be evacuated several times because of fallout raining down on their homes.
The Pascal-A/B tests were performed in 1957 and were not related with the Plowshare Project. But the first-hand accounts of these events give a lively picture of how the tests were managed behind the curtains of public relations. Both tests were meant as safety tests ie, checks that a warhead, if damaged in an accident, would not detonate with a nuclear yield, even if some or all of the high explosive components burns or detonates. Both of them were overachievers: Pascal-A yielded 55tons-TNT instead of around 1kg-TNT and produced the 'biggest damn Roman candle you ever saw' (physicist and test director Robert Campbell). Pascal-B yielded 300tons-TNT and shot a metal shaft seal of several dozen kg high into the air. Official records list the yield of the Pascal-A and B events as 'slight'.
The Gnome explosion was the first nuclear test under Project Plowshare and was meant to create an underground cavity in a salt layer. It was intended to pump water through the heated salt layer and generate electric power. The cavity was created, but Gnome released radioactive steam and smoke into the atmosphere. Gnome was conducted not on the NTS but near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Schooner was the last cratering test and, despite all the experience gathered with previous detonations, radioactivity was released off site.
The following table lists all the nuclear tests which were performed under Project Plowshare. The number given behind the name is the index of the respective test, as reference into the Department of Energy's (DOE, successor of the AEC) complete list of US nuclear tests. From 1957 to 1961, tests with conventional explosives were performed as precursors and in order to develop scaling laws ie, to obtain rules as to how much yield is necessary for a crater or cavity of a given size.
|Date||Name (No.)||Yield (in kilotons-TNT)||Location|
|12/10/1961||Gnome (201)||3.1||Carlsbad, New Mexico|
|12/10/1967||Gasbuggy (524)||29||Farmington/Bloomfield, New Mexico|
|03/12/1968||Buggy-A/B/C/D/E (536)||5 x 1.08||NTS|
|09/10/1969||Rulison (608)||40||Grand Valley, Colorado|
|05/17/1973||Rio Blanco-1/2/3 (726)||3 x 0.033||Rifle, Colorado|
In the 'Plowshare' booklet, Danny Boy (216) is listed as a Plowshare test. However, the DOE counts it as a military one, as it was the test of an Atomic Demolition Munition (a nuclear mine) which dug a crater some 81m wide and 26m deep.
The following 26 nuclear tests and projects were planned as part of Plowshare, but were cancelled for various reasons6:
Chariot, Oxcart, Oilsands, Oil Shale, Ditchdigger, Coach, Phaeton, Carryall, Dogsled, Tennessee/Tombigee Waterway, Interoceanic sea-level canal (Panama area), Flivver, Dragon Trail, Ketch, Bronco, Sloop, Thunderbird, Galley, Aquarius, Wagon Wheel, Waps, Utah, Sturtevant, Australian Harbor Project, Yawl, Geothermal Power Plant.
Of these, only four were planned to take place on the NTS. Five projects were cancelled before a site had been determined, 14 were planned for places throughout the USA (including Alaska), and the remaining three were to be conducted in Australia, Canada and the Panama region.
Other 'Peaceful Atom' Projects
The complete records of the (then) Soviet equivalent7 to Plowshare haven't been published yet, but their programme lasted from 1965 to 1988 and comprised 115 (128?) explosions throughout the country. Some of these explosions were targeted at seismic sounding ie, measuring the round trip delay time of the underground shock wave in order to find ore deposits and to determine boundaries between underground structures and layers. Rumour has it that their project also included melting glaciers and redirecting rivers into dry areas. Several explosions were used for extinguishing burning oil and gas wells - with mixed success.
The French nuclear programme does not differenciate between military and 'peaceful' purposes of a bomb test. Some of the explosions which took place in the Algerian desert during the 1960s were presumed to be connected with plans for peaceful applications. In 1970, France announced the existence of a 'Plowshare' programme. However, this Researcher was unable to find more details about that.
The People's Republic of China conducted several nuclear tests on the Lop Nor site. It is unknown whether they had a programme similar to Plowshare, but there have been press reports about projects to redirect the Brahmaputra river into the Gobi desert and to build a large hydroelectric plant which was to be supplied water from the Himalaya through a tunnel. The tunnel was to be created by nuclear explosions8.
The 'Plowshare' booklet closes with the words:
The imagination and effort devoted to the Plowshare programme must be great and relentless. For at stake is a source of tremendous energy, capable of doing great good for mankind. Surely as man discovered means to free nuclear energy, he is capable of finding ways to use it for his benefit.
However, the public didn't believe that. Strong opposition from local residents and the media led to cancellation of almost all projects which were to take place outside the NTS. The report on the proceedings around Project Ketch (a plan to create an underground cavity for gas storage in central Pennsylvania) is a good summary of how both sides tried to put their arguments forward. In the end, Ketch was cancelled when the site preparations were already in progress.
Eventually, public opposition and the (unsurprising) revelation that no one would knowingly buy contaminated natural gas or settle in the downwind area of a nuclear-dug canal led to the cancellation of the whole project. The last detonation related to Plowshare occurred on 17 May, 1973.
Project Plowshare was officially terminated on 30 June, 1975. 'We just got started and then we stopped9', said Edward Teller.
Given the fact that a total of 35 out of more than 1000 explosions conducted under the whole nuclear testing programme were devoted to peaceful applications, there is reason to assume that the programme was only little more than a propaganda effort. The 'Ketch' paper mentioned above quotes AEC Commissioner Lewis Strauss as having said that Plowshare was meant to:
Highlight the peaceful applications of nuclear explosive devices and thereby create a climate of world opinion that is more favorable to weapons development and tests.
Nuclear tests on the NTS continued until 1992, when the USA entered a moratorium which is still in place. The lesson (hopefully) learned is this:
It's in our backyard... it's in our front yard. This nuclear contamination is shorting all life. We are going to have to unite as a people and say 'No more!' We, the people, are going to have to put our thoughts together to save our planet here. We only have One Water... One Air... One Mother Earth.
- Corbin Harney - Newe (Western Shoshone) Spiritual leader, Founder and Executive Director of Shundahai Network
Movie footage of the project and individual detonations is available from:
- OSTI - The DOE's Office of Scientific and Technical Information
- The Las Vegas Review Journal
For further reading on the topic, read the following excellent source, Plowshare Programme.