It was the 1950s, and the United States Atomic Energy Commission
had an image problem. Created in the wake of World War II
and the Manhattan Project
, the nominally civilian agency was tasked with the duty of putting the atom to work for the good of society. Under this mandate, much pioneering work was conducted in the fields of nuclear medicine
and nuclear power
, but more familiar was their work studying nuclear weapons
– planning and preparing to bomb the shit out of people, and, a bit friendlier, figuring out what would happen if someone decided to bomb the shit out of them
. Now, while this was fairly important in a geopolitical context in which power was often measured in terms of just how much shit
you could bomb out of the other guy, building bombs and irradiating living things (often humans) to see what happened did not make you the most popular agency on the block. Against this backdrop, the AEC decided to implement a program to demonstrate the peaceful potential of nuclear power, and in so doing improve morale and, of course, secure their Congressional funding.
Thus was born Operation Plowshare. Taking its name from the famous "beating swords into plowshares" imagery of Isaiah 2:4, the AEC would put the atomic sword to work as a plowshare, serving the country with monumental feats of civil engineering. Of course, this would all be accomplished the one way they knew best.
By bombing the shit out of things.
"What will Operation Plowshare do? Here are some of the exciting possibilities... ...we can develop atomic dynamite, atomic dynamite, for example, which will move whole mountains, something that could never be dreamed of before, that will develop resources that we have never perhaps ever had the chance to develop before, because the cost was too great. We can develop the possibilities of building great new harbors and canals. For example, I have seen figures with regard to the digging of a second canal in Panama - as you know, there are some plans for that - and this second canal could be built with the new nuclear devices, which can be tested underground at half the cost that it cost originally to build the Panama Canal."
US Vice President Richard M. Nixon, November 6, 1960
Yes, the AEC would use nuclear explosions as a tool. And why not? There was a reason that so many powerful explosives started out as excavation equipment - the amazing speed, cost-efficiency, and earth-shifting capability of TNT
and its contemporaries enabled miners
, canal diggers, and the like to complete projects and extract resources which would never have been feasible, or at least profitable, by hand. Exponentially increase the power of your tools again, and wouldn't you see another jump in output?
The roots of Operation Plowshare can be traced to US President Eisenhower's "Atoms For Peace" program of the mid-'50s, which foresaw the use of nuclear energy for power supply and vehicular propulsion, among other applications. Most of the foundation for Plowshare was drawn up by the end of the decade, but the boom-boom work had to wait until 1961, when resumed Soviet nuclear testing gave the United States a basis to declare the existing test-ban treaty void.
Early tests focused on the production of craters, and the optimal placement of same to create channels and canals. Following Egyptian President Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, some elements within the U.S. Government had proposed just bombing out a new one, and yes, Ol' Dick was right, conceptual plans were drawn up for a new, sea level Atlantic-Pacific canal in South America, replacing the old Panama Canal. Several sites (not all in Panama itself) were subject of feasibility studies, and some cost estimates ran as low as the $600 million range. Perhaps most famous of the Plowshare endeavors was Project Chariot, an unimplemented plan to bomb a harbor into the (usually icebound) northern coast of Alaska.
Looking further up from ground level, the tops of mountains could be blown off to allow access to the mineral riches hiding within. Looking in the opposite direction (more important following the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and its prohibition against atmospheric nuclear testing), one of the more promising ideas to come out of Plowshare was that of "nuclear stimulation", the use of underground detonations to disrupt sandstone strata, releasing otherwise inaccessible natural gas deposits. Underground caverns were also pitched for the storage of gas and water reserves, tapping the water table, and hydrothermal power generation. Honestly, I'd be surprised if there weren't at least paper-napkin sketches in some archives for the creation of an entire geofront somewhere.
So, how did these spectacular plans pan out? From 1961 to 1973, 27 (acknowledged) nuclear tests were performed under the aegis of Plowshare, the vast majority of studies at the Nevada Test Site. The only plans to see any implementation were the nuclear stimulation proposals – results were generally mixed, with some natural gas released, though generally not as much as hoped, and when the results were put to market, consumers generally did not take well to the idea of purchasing gas with residual radioactivity.
In the end, nuclear explosives were a little too spectacular for their own good - no one really wanted to extract, sell, or buy recently nuked resources; overly large populations and/or safety concerns ruled out many sites where the employment of nuclear explosions might otherwise be productive; and as time went on, fears of radiation, both at the blast site itself, in downwind areas, and in cases like Chariot, among the nearby native populations, (a splendid lack of concern for which had been a de facto centerpiece of US domestic policy for several centuries) became a cause of growing opposition. In the face of these obstacles and with the lack of a truly compelling motivation to continue, Operation Plowshare shut down, and the United States is not known to have seriously considered any further peacetime application of nuclear explosions.
Of course, any such decision is reversible, and the US is not alone in the world. Russia maintained a similar program until the 1980s, reputedly experimenting with the use of nuclear explosions to melt glaciers, extinguish well fires, and conduct landscaping on a grand scale. Even now, China is reportedly mulling over plans to blast a tunnel through the Himalayas to divert water and establish a hydroelectric project to rival even the upcoming Three Gorges Dam. Once discovered, humans are generally not ones to set a tool aside for long, and be it one of the great powers giving the concept a second look, some emergent force bootstrapping its way up as best it can, or the terraforming of some other planet entirely, I wouldn't be surprised to live to see the nuclear plow return to man's box of tools.