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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.