Hidden History: Operation Plowshare and Peaceful Nuking

Sat, 2017/09/30
Ethan Castro

Although this institution has an intrinsic nature and extrinsic reputation as a center for the sciences and technological innovations, it is the opinion of this TechNews writer that a base level of appreciation (or at least understanding) for the social sciences will serve one well in any career and walk of life. Chief among these social sciences is the study of human history. However, developing an understanding of human history needs not be boring; there exist many an anecdote of humanity’s hidden blunders, silenced successes, and hushed tragedies. Thus, in this new weekly section, it is my goal to bring to light some of the more obscure episodes of world history that your high school classes almost certainly did not teach you. Along the way, we may even gain a few lessons we can apply to our own lives and communities.

            In this first installment of Hidden History, we will be taking a look at the long-lost program led by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) known as Operation Plowshare. This project was a series of technical and economic studies conducted during the Cold War to explore the usage of nuclear explosives for peaceful applications, including major excavation projects, fossil fuel mining, creation of artificial waterways, and even chemical manufacturing. To put it another way, from 1958 to 1975, AEC was seriously considering allowing nuclear weapons to be used for the construction of U.S. highways, the widening of the Panama Canal, and even the creation of underground water aquifers in the state of Arizona.

            For the duration of the decade after World War II (WWII), numerous U.S. scientists and other government bureaucrats lent serious consideration to the application of this new nuclear technology towards civil projects. The nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egypt in 1956 and the ongoing escalation of the Cold War furthered the pressure to develop nuclear capacity and its application. Thus, Operation Plowshare was officially approved by the AEC on June 27, 1957. 25 different nuclear projects would be proposed as part of this program, as well as a number of proof-of-concept nuclear tests, including the 1962 Storax Sedan explosion conducted in Area 10, Nevada.

Notable aspects of this nuclear test include that it led to the largest man-made crater in the United States at 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet wide (see picture), that it displaced over 12 million tons of soil, and that within just 7 months of the explosion, the bottom of the crater could be safely walked through without protective gear. However, most unfortunately, the blast also released over 880,000 curies of the radioactive element iodine-131, a known cause of thyroid disease, into the atmosphere, contaminating more U.S. residents than any other nuclear test in history. Despite the blast taking place in Nevada, fallout exposure would later be recorded as far away as West Virginia. As it turns out, detonating nuclear weapons has negative external effects on the immediate and distant environments. Now, consider Project Carryall, one of the 25 proposed projects, which called for the detonation of 22 nuclear explosive across the Bristol Mountains in southern California in order to make room for Interstate 40. Luckily, conventional excavation started by the California Division of Highways would end this project before it began.

Surprisingly, it was the economics of this project that generated the most internal issues and not the fact that it called for the detonation of nuclear weapons on U.S. soil. Proponents of Operation Plowshare were confident that its projects could be completed in a safe manner, but where they lacked confidence was in the generation of public and congressional support. Citizen voices grew in concern about the project, citing the possibilities of earthquakes, contamination of underground water supplies, radiation, and the logistical issues of detonating a nuclear bomb within the vicinity of the U.S. cities. These voices would ultimately win out, as Operation Plowshare would eventually be terminated in 1977.

As entertaining (and also frightening) as this project is to read about, perhaps we can still take away the age-old adage of spending too long wondering whether one could, that no consideration was ever given as to whether or not one should. Technological prowess can do great things, but it must also be checked against its external environmental effects.