Nukes for Peace: Operation Plowshares

Photograph of Sedan, a shallow underground test conducted during Project Plowshares.

Photograph of Sedan, a shallow underground test conducted during Project Plowshares.

By the 1950s, the world was painfully aware of how destructive nuclear weapons could be. While bigger and bigger nuclear bombs were being tested, scientists with the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) and the DOE (Department of Energy) began to explore ways in which the boundless power of the atom might be used for peaceful purposes. the project, began in 1958 and lasting until May of 1973, was dubbed Operation Plowshares, after the Biblical injunction against war.

Operations Plowshares looked to use nukes to perform industrial work. The project fell into two categories: harnessing the explosive power of nuclear weapons for excavation, including such tasks as excavating harbors, canals, lakes, cuts through mountains, and open pit quarries. The second category was using nuclear weapons to blow open large cavities in underground rock formations, to be used for storage and to detect new radioactive isotopes. In addition, the underground explosions could be used to stimulate the production of oil and gas. To test these possible uses, the US detonated 35 devices of various sizes over the fifteen year period of the project.

 

Development of Operation Plowshares

The dream of a potential peaceful use of the vast destructive power of nuclear bombs was discussed well before their horror was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In November, 1956, Herbert York, director of Lawrence Radiation Laboratory-Livermore, made a proposal to scientists at Los Alamos and Sandia Laboratories to discuss the concept of using nukes for industrial and scientific purposes. With AEC approval, the scientists gathered for a conference at Livermore in February 1957. While they hashed out the details for using doomsday weapons peacefully, the issue of secrecy arose. While the industrial devices would be “clean”–thermonuclear weapons that used the smallest fission “kickstart” possible–they would be very similar to devices used in weapons. While the devices would hypothetically be used by civilian industries, the decision was made to keep certain parts of the devices classified.

Project Chariot plans.

Project Chariot plans.

With these problems ironed out, the AEC approved Operation Plowshares in the Division of Military Application in June of 1957. By July, the project formally began at the Lawrence Livermore Labs. Two months later, the first nuclear detonations were triggered. Project Rainier marked the first time the US detonated a nuke underground. the test was contained, meaning no radioactive gasses leaked out of the resulting cavity, and it gave initial data about how nuclear weapons may be used to excavate underground cavities.

The successful test allowed scientists wit the project to push for a bigger budget and broader scope. The AEC was eager to give into the scientist’s demands. In June of 1958, the AEC formally announced Operation Plowshares to the public.

Meanwhile, politics would intervene in the scientific work. The Soviet Union and the US entered into a moratorium on nuclear tests in 1958 that would last for three years. Plowshares scientists kept busy by laying the groundwork for future testing. These included Project Chariot, which was eventually slated to use 200 kiloton device to excavate a harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska, with four 20 kiloton devices being used to dig a channel to connect the harbor to the ocean. Another was Project GNOME, which would consist of a 10kt device detonated in a salt dome, in order to study isotopes and energy production. The third was Project DITCHDIGGER, which would consist of testing the feasibility of using clean devices for building sea level canals. These preparations included surveying for potential environmental impacts and conducting high explosive tests to understand variables involved in working with different types of soil.

 

Moratorium ends, and nuclear testing begins again

The moratorium on nuclear testing ended on September 1, 1961. In December, the first of 27 nuclear tests planned during the moratorium was executed. Project GNOME was reduced to a 3 kt blast, which was detonated in an underground salt bed near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The bulk of the nuclear tests conducted over the life of the project–23 total–were conducted at the Nevada Test Site. two gas stimulation tests were conducted outside Nevada. They were GASBUGGY, at Farmington New Mexico in December 1967, and RULISON in September 1969 at Grand Valley, Colorado. The final nuclear test was conducted in 1973. Dubbed RIO BLANCO, it consisted of the detonation of three 33kt devices near Rifle, Colorado, to stimulate the production of natural gas.

 

End of an era

Cavity excavated by Project GNOME. Arrow points to a man standing in the cavity.

Cavity excavated by Project GNOME. Arrow points to a man standing in the cavity.

Worries about environmental and health hazards associated with Operation Plowshares dogged the project throughout its long life. some of the more ambitious projects, such as the harbor excavation in Alaska, were scrapped due to worries over fallout and environmental degradation. While scientists working on the project were confident that the detonations could be conducted safely, the public and Congress were not so sure.

Budget concerns were also a chronic issue. Few outside the project were convinced that using nukes to perform work that had been previous done with high explosives. Explosives were cheaper, could be used without danger of leaking sensitive secrets, and did not spit radioactive fallout into the environment. The public was concerned that underground tests could trigger earthquakes, foul groundwater, or that radioactive gasses could escape from excavated cavities. Public pressure over these concerns would eventually force the project to close.

About the only real success from the program came from the use of nukes in natural gas stimulation. while initial testing proved it was at least feasible, there were problems. one of the biggest concerns was the potential for radioactive tritium to contaminate the natural gas as it entered the cavity resulting from a nuclear blast.

In addition, it turned out that using nukes to stimulate gas was costly and cumbersome. By the time RIO BLANCO was detonated, $82 million had been pumped into nuclear gas stimulation research. Estimates put that after 25 years of gas production, between 15-40% of the investment could be recovered. More conventional methods, like the now controversial hydraulic fracking–were more cost effective and less likely to contaminate the final product.

The era of nuking for peace came to an end due to all of these concerns. While the Soviet version of the program would continue for several years, the last nuclear detonation under the auspices of Operation Plowshares occurred in 1973. The project officially ended in 1975.

 

Sources:

“Executive Summary: Plowshare Program.” US Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information.  https://www.osti.gov/opennet/reports/plowshar.pdf

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