How many uses for a nuclear weapon can YOU think of?

Ah, nuclear weapons!  Having grown up while the Cold War was still going strong, I can almost think about nuclear bombs with a sentimental eye — though the threat of nuclear terrorism is still a possibility, we’re much further away from complete annihilation than we were back in my childhood.  I still remember being frightened as a child at the possibility that someone, somewhere, for reasons I would never understand, might start the “big one” without warning.

Now, of course, we’ve got huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons lying around.  You might think that the only option is to dismantle the majority of them and hide the radioactive material somewhere safe and out of the way.  If you thought that, you clearly don’t have enough imagination!  Over the years, there have been quite a few suggestions as to how nuclear weapons might be used in a “productive” way.  I’ve stumbled across a few of these over the past few weeks, and thought it would be interesting to compile a list of some of the ideas suggested — and even tried — as “peaceful” uses for nuclear explosions.  I believe all of these fit the old statement, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Operation Chariot (1958).  In 1958, the Atomic Energy Commission proposed the notion of creating an artificial harbor at Cape Thompson in Alaska by firing off a chain of nuclear explosions.  The full-scale plan (outer outline) would have required 2.4 megatons of explosives, while the smaller version would have used a modest 460 kilotons.

Diagram of proposed Project Chariot detonations. (via Wikipedia)

Operation Chariot was championed by none other than the father of the hydrogen bomb himself, physicist Edward Teller.  Teller’s rather hawkish desire to produce bigger and better weapons and to use them in any way possible made him a rather controversial figure.  At one time, he was even burned in effigy by a crowd of anti-nuclear activists!  (I kinda wonder if Teller was the inspiration for Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in the 1978 “Superman” movie.)

Natural gas stimulation (1973).  Operation Chariot was part of a larger program known as Project Plowshare, whose goal was to find “peaceful” uses for nuclear weapons.  Many of the ideas were similar to Chariot: digging tunnels, creating lakes, making big holes to dump nasty stuff into.  One of the more unusual ideas proposed was the use of nuclear explosions deep underground to stimulate the flow of natural gas and make it easier to extract. In 1973, 3 bombs were exploded underground in an area north of Grand Junction, Colorado, but the result seems to have failed to meet expectations.  Furthermore, the gas that was extracted was found to possess unacceptable amounts of radioactivity, which would not sit well with residential consumers.

Project Oilsands (1959).  Long before the 1973 test, the Canadian government was inspired by Project Plowshare to try their own peaceful uses of nukes for energy extraction.  The strategy, however, was different: Canada hoped to use the high heat of the nuclear blast to melt the hard bitumen deposits of the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, making them soft enough to be extracted by ordinary oilfield techniques.

Image of people working along the river in the Oil Sands region, c. 1900. (via Wikipedia)

The project was actually approved in 1959, and a site selected, but by the beginning of the 1960s the Canadian government adopted a strict “no nuclear tests” policy, which led to the project’s cancellation.  (More information)

Project Taiga (1973). The Soviet Union, of course, was not idle during this period.  They developed their own “peaceful nuclear weapons” program, “Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy“.  The Soviets had many of the same ideas as the U.S. for using nuclear “tools”, but they implemented more of them, with over 200 detonations in two separate programs.  One of these projects — Project Taiga — was intended to dig a canal between the Pechora River and the Kama, a tributary of the Volga.  A triple blast of weapons dug a channel some 600 meters long; however, analysis suggested that hundreds of detonations would be needed to complete excavation, and the project was ended.

Deep Seismic Sounding (1970s).  Starting in 1971, the Soviets also used nuclear explosions to generate seismic waves that could penetrate deep into the Earth and be used to probe for natural resources.  The Soviets did a lot of seismic measurements this way, with an astonishing number of underground detonation sites, as the figure below demonstrates.  As a happy side-effect, however, the measurements also allowed very good measurements of the deep structure of the Earth, providing information of the crust and mantle of the Earth down to 200 km.

Image showing locations of PNEs (“peaceful nuclear explosions”) used for seismic sounding. (From Schiemer and Borg, Science 226 (1984), 787.)

Project Orion (1958).  Want to go really fast in space?  Just detonate some nuclear weapons behind your spacecraft and ride the blast!  This was the crux of Project Orion, introduced in 1958, though the idea possibly goes further back to the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam in 1946.

Sketch of the key components of a Project Orion spacecraft (source: Wikipedia).

Actually, Project Orion is not a completely crazy idea, and such a “nuclear pulse drive” would apparently be much more effective than traditional chemical propellant rockets.  However, concerns about fallout (and presumably radiation to the passengers), combined with the partial nuclear test ban treaty of 1963, led to its end.

Nuking a hurricane?  I don’t know that this technique has actually been seriously considered by any government, but enough people must have asked about it to justify the Hurricane Research Division of the NOAA putting an answer on its FAQ!  Short answer: the amount of energy released in a nuclear explosion is negligible compared to the energy of a hurricane.  The nuclear blast would have no effect other than making the storm radioactive.

Image from orbit of Hurricane Isabel in 2003. You don’t want something this big and angry radioactive, too. (Source: Wikipedia)

Reading this, I was reminded of an old quote from a “Call of Cthulhu” game reference, Cthulhu Now, in which one fights the forces of supernatural evil in modern times.  One FAQ in the game book was: “What happens when you nuke Cthulhu?”  The answer was, in effect: “His body reforms in 15 minutes — but now he’s radioactive!”

Nuking an oil well (1960-1980s).  When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, resulting in a catastrophic oil spill, many people came forth with ideas to plug the spewing well — including the nuclear option.  Apparently this idea was not unprecedented: the Soviet Union closed or attempted to close five leaking wells between 1966 and 1981 with nuclear blasts, apparently all but the last of them successful.  The idea was dismissed in the case of the Deepwater Horizon, however, as it was unclear that it would be successful: and it would just as likely make the problem worse.

Nuking a volcano?  This is another idea that doesn’t seem to have been seriously considered by any government, but has been asked about by enough people that articles have been written about it.  The short answer is similar to that for hurricanes: the forces involved in a volcanic eruption are so tremendous that the nuke would likely not affect it.

*******

There’s one unifying principle behind all of the ideas for “peaceful nuclear weapons” here: the ideas are at best stunningly risky, and at worst would have extremely bad consequences!  However, the remarkable range of imagined uses (and there are others I didn’t cover) is a testimony to the imagination, and perhaps optimism, of humankind.

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29 Responses to How many uses for a nuclear weapon can YOU think of?

  1. lockwooddewitt says:

    A surprising lot of Pu from Soviet bloc nukes has been purchased by US and fed into US power plants- incentive to get hard currency into Russia after Soviet collapse. Likewise, much of negotiated drawn-down in US stockpile, to assure Russians we wouldn’t take advantage of their “relative weakness.”

    There actually was a letter to the editor in The Oregonian, late 80/early 81, from a reader who was furious the Fed gov’t wasn’t moving to nuke St. Helens. Obviously believed volcano was edifice, not vent. Removing mountain would remove pressure on magma, *increasing* risk of eruption- not to mention fallout.

    Fun post!

  2. Igor Carron says:

    @lockwooddewitt it did not happen quite like that.

    The United States, under President Clinton, first decided to remove 50 metric ton of Weapons Plutonium from the stockpile by declaring it surplus. It took a small little while for the Russians to engage in a similar surplus statement (I believe it was 100MT, they had more in the first place). Then came the technical discussions on how the two countries would actually dispose of their surplus materials. Some in the US proposed to bury the thing but the Russians were never quite fond of that solution on several grounds: One of which is one can un-bury it and reuse it quite rapidly back into the stockpile. It just so happens that quite uniquely in the history of mankind, the disposition of this material had to be done is a symmetrical fashion in order to enforce trust.

    Eventually, both US and Russian Weapons plutonium is being disposed in power plants. While the Russians **might** make money on some aspect of the deal, The fact that it occurred at all is a good thing (TM) for us all. Both parties and everyone else won on this one.

    The problematic as discussed in 1994 can be read here: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309051452

    I am proud to have been part of that process.

    Igor.

  3. This is a terrifying part of science history. The thought of radioactive hurricaines, never would have crossed my mind even. Thank you for sharing this and all the research that went into the great post.

  4. asnys says:

    Other uses considered included:

    Generating electrical power (PACER project and part of the PLOWSHARE project).
    Breeding radioactive isotopes and transuranics using the neutron flux, either for industrial purposes or to make previously unknown elements (actually attempted by the US and probably the USSR).
    Creating artificial belts of ions in the upper atmosphere to reflect radio waves for long-distance communications (suggested, never seriously considered).
    Nuking the moon to throw up regolith to give us a better understanding of its structure (suggested by Edward Teller, probably as a publicity stunt).
    Excavating highway passes (seriously considered).
    Excavating a sea-level replacement for the Panama Canal (seriously considered).
    Numerous other canal and excavation projects.
    Breaking up metal ores for extraction by in-situ leaching (seriously considered).
    Breaking up stone for mining or quarrying (actually done by the Russians at least once).
    Excavating underground cavities to store industrial chemicals or dispose of waste (actually done by the Russians several times).
    Production of industrial chemicals requiring intense heat and pressure (suggested).
    Aircraft propulsion (part of Project HELIOS, a bit like Orion but used an internal combustion chamber to heat a reactant, air in the case of the airplane. HELIOS was primarily about space propulsion, but airplane ideas were thrown around too, although as far as I know they weren’t taken very seriously).
    Generating artificial bands of charged particles in the upper atmosphere to fry the electronics of incoming ICBMs (tested by the US).

    By the way, for natural gas stimulation, if I recall correctly the Russians also tried that, and had somewhat more success than we did. Possibly because of laxer radiation safety standards, admittedly.

    • Thanks for the list! There were far, far too many hypothetical uses for nukes to fit in a single blog post! Others that people pointed out to me:

      1) Asteroid busting. My Dad reminded me of the classic sci-fi strategy of killing a killer asteroid.

      2) General relativity tests. @BlakeStacey recalled, and I seem to have verified it online, that Teller suggested blowing up a nuclear weapon on the other side of the Sun as a way to test predictions of general relativity. Teller was an odd, odd man…

      3) Asteroid detection. @StephenFleming noted that Arthur C. Clarke suggested detonating a sequence of nukes throughout the solar system, weeks apart — the light from the blasts would illuminate possible killer asteroids in orbit, allowing us to track them and intercept, as necessary. “God’s own strobe light.”

      • asnys says:

        Regarding Teller, he made most of these suggestions – CHARIOT, nuke the moon, test relativity – around the same time the test moratorium was going into effect. Although I’m sure he thought they were good ideas in and of themselves, I very strongly suspect – and I’m not alone in suspecting it – that this was also a PR effort to improve the image of the hydrogen bomb. Not just with the public, but inside the government, as well – for example, he used prospects of “peaceful nuclear explosives” to try to persuade Eisenhower to not join the voluntary test moratorium, and Project PLOWSHARE was later used by the weapons labs as an argument against the various test ban treaties.

  5. Ronald Pottol says:

    Aircraft propulsion? Project Pluto, a ram jet cruse missile, powered by a reactor, which had three test runs, 513MW for 5 minutes at the longest. Absolutely crazy. I always wondered how you kept things cool enough to function for a sustained supersonic flight, the SR-71 used it’s fuel as a heat sink

    • asnys says:

      PLUTO wasn’t the only project. It was a spinoff of a now mostly forgotten program to build a nuclear-powered bomber, the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program (ANP), which ran for 15 years (1946 – 1961) and cost a cool billion dollars back when that was real money. They got as far as static-testing a couple of atomic-powered turbojets before Kennedy and McNamara pulled the plug. They also flew a low-power atomic reactor around in the bomb bay of a B-36 to test radiation modeling, trailed the whole way by a plane full of paratroopers whose job was, if the thing crashed, to secure the crash site to keep people from being exposed. Different times…

      • Brooks Bell says:

        In order to fly, the reactor in PLUTO had to be unshielded. It irradiated everything it passed over. The idea was it would fly low over the Soviet Union as a moving dirty bomb, dropping warheads on cities. Nice. I believe they also tested the Van Allen belt with an actual upper atmosphere explosion… just to see what would happen.

  6. Ron L says:

    Freeman Dyson wrote a great article in the October 1968 article of Physics Today titled “Interstellar Transport” that details Project Orion. At the end, he briefly discusses the relationship between the nation’s GNP and the cost to construct such a ship, predicting that by the 22nd century we will have sufficiently outpaced the point where it seems foolish build one.

  7. David Evans says:

    Orion would have no problem with radiation to the passengers – they would be far from the explosions with massive structure between. I think we should keep studying Orion. It might be the best way to deflect an incoming asteroid – just nose up to it and keep pushing.

  8. Roger Strong says:

    One idea suggested by science fiction writers: Pop a nuke on the far side of the moon, sending out an electromagnetic pulse in all directions (except towards Earth, shielded by the moon.) Use the reflections from the EMP to map every asteroid in the solar system. Pop a second nuke to get their speed and bearing.

  9. Bill Stewart says:

    Another example of the principle that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem to solve looks like a thumb. Atoms for Peace!

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  11. justafriend10101@yahoo.com says:

    Too many people overestimate the power and influence of Man. Even our most powerful atomic weapons are woefully insignificant compared to the power of a hurricane, earthquake or the Sun. We are tiny insignificant things in a vast Universe….

  12. Edward Teller was a proponent of these uses for nuclear weapons. In today’s enviro-wacko climate no one will ever create another great engineering project that these wonderful ‘tools’ could provide.

  13. David OHara says:

    One effect of atmospheric nuke explosions was “atmospheric heave” in which a column of higher density air was thrown up hundreds of km into space increasing the density of residual air by several orders of magnitude. The effect lasted for hours before equilibrating.
    So, one of the great dangers to satellites now is from tiny bits of man made debris moving at really high speed and there is no way to either detect or get rid of it. This is sub-cm sized pieces. However, this stuff has a huge ratio of surface area to mass so is much more affected by residual atmospheric drag than satellites.
    So, we detonate high altitude nukes to produce heave which then removes such debris from specific orbits.
    Next, in deflecting an asteroid, I would think that a nearby burst rather than an impact would work best. Roughly 75% of a nukes yield is in the form of soft x-rays and when these x-rays hit a surface like an asteroid, it heats the first few microns to high temps for a few nanoseconds giving it a huge impulse. The good thing is that this would work very well for a rubble pile asteroid because ti would heat and impulse all the rubble facing the nuke evenly instead of driving it apart.
    Next, one could detonate a nuke near the moon or near an asteroid in order to expose ti to a huge x-ray flux in order to cause elements in it to x-ray fluoresce which could be seen via an x-ray telescope such as Chandra in order to make a surface map of elemental concentrations.

  14. David OHara says:

    Project Pluto could be revived to produce a nuclear powered ramjet flying in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet like Saturn to obtain scientific data. It’d go for years.

  15. David OHara says:

    Of course, one could do purposefully what was done by accident on one nuke test, launch something massive into orbit. Except, we do it from a deep hole on the moon to launch a lot of water, or refined material into space for constructing some sort of base. Of course, no passengers but it would be very feasible to launch thousands of tons this way from the moon.

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  17. Yoron says:

    Or we could use nano technology, and let those bombs get their rest, hopefully for ever.

  18. David OHara says:

    In the mid 80s, I had a job involving effects of nuke weapons in space. Once I was allowed to find out certain things that can be done to alter certain properties of nukes, I was very enthusiastic because my background is in industrial applications of physics. Unfortunately, I was told to not even think about such applications.
    Today I do not know if one can discuss such things yet but there are some things in the open literature. for example, one can direct the output preferentially in a certain direction although how much is not openly known. The output of a nominal 1 MT nuke is said to be 75% 1 KeV blackbody radiation. Various authors discuss ways to increase the neutron output or enhance other forms of radiation from such devices. So, one should consider these as sources of radiation that might be tuned to produce some useful radiation of ultra-high flux.
    There is no other source of such radiation of such high flux and the useful effects of such sources should be strongly considered.
    I would like to know if Tellers old nuke pumped x-ray laser had any feasibility. I believe although without any proof that not only were they trying to produce lasing in the low density doped rods but to direct those x-rays via a lens of fully ionized plasma.

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