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Shaking Up Your Rattlesnakes

Fifty years ago, Washington’s plans for ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ ended in Colorado.

Yesterday, the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the Cold War’s boldest dreams passed into posterity. On May 17, 1973, the Rio Blanco test detonated three nuclear devices deep beneath Colorado. Nothing like it was ever attempted again.

The “shot” was the swan song for a program launched a decade and a half earlier, at the height of America’s post-World War II technocracy. But other than a brief mention on the website of the American Oil & Gas Historical Society, the Institute could find no coverage of Rio Blanco reaching the half-century mark.

That’s a shame.

A wildly optimistic, mid-1960s film produced by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) explained that “the United States is conducting, for the benefit of all nations, a program it calls Plowshare.” And a great deal of the program’s activities took place in the American Southwest.

A senior AEC official recounted that in 1957, physicist (and future Secretary of Defense) Harold Brown organized

a secret meeting … involving the joint participation of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, the Sandia Corporation laboratory, and the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory — all of which were operating under prime contract with the [AEC]. At that meeting a wide variety of the possible applications of nuclear explosives were discussed. Some prominence was given to the possibility of nuclear excavation for such projects as the removal of earth cover to expose ore for open pit mining, the construction of water storage basins, and the digging of canals and harbors. Rather detailed feasibility and cost analyses were included of the construction of sea-level canals across the American Isthmus. Attention was called repeatedly to the necessity for and also the probability of successful development of much cleaner explosives than the tested technology then provided. Such explosives were required in order to achieve certainty that nuclear excavation could be accomplished without the need for excessively large control of areas for a long time after the event while one waited for the radioactivity to decay or disperse. The magnitude of the area and time required for control clearly would have a major impact on feasibility and cost.

Other possibilities which were described include the production of power by repeated explosions in large containers underground — a project which even at that time did not appear very attractive; increasing oil production through fracturing; and crushing ores underground to permit mining or in-situ leaching. Various scientific experiments were suggested to study the earth’s structure, properties of interplanetary space, and to provide neutron sources for study of the nucleus. Discussions were devoted to isotope production and recovery with particular focus on fissionable material production.

Okay, mid-20th-century American triumphalism was off the hook. But nuclear fracking? Yep, it was tried — three times, in two states. But before we get to those tests, let’s focus on Gnome, the first of Project Plowshare’s blasts. Set off in December 1961, southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, the 3.1-kiloton detonation’s primary mission was to “examine the feasibility of trapping the energy released by nuclear explosions and using it to generate power at an aboveground plant.” Historian Scott Kaufman wrote that secondary goals included creating “new isotopes for both civilian and military use” and learning “how an atomic explosion reacted in a medium different from the volcanic tuff in which many tests at the [Nevada Test Site] had taken place.”

The experiment carved a cavity about 75 feet high “and about 150 in diameter, and newsmen likened it to an underground eight-story building as wide as the U.S. Capitol.” (A local rancher’s take: “That shook up your rattlesnakes.”) Initial analysis was encouraging, but Kaufman noted that the explosion was “stronger than expected,” threw radioactivity “into the atmosphere,” and most disappointingly, didn’t produce a “heat reservoir” suitable to generate power.

After Gnome, Project Plowshare shifted almost all of its nuclear tests to what is now the Nevada National Security Site. There, 23 blasts of all sizes — Sedan, in 1962 (pictured above), was the largest, at just over 100 kilotons — occurred over a period of nine years.

In 1967, the AEC returned to New Mexico, to conduct its first attempt to stimulate hydrocarbons with a nuke. Gasbuggy, a partnership with El Paso Natural Gas Company, detonated a 29-kiloton device at a depth of over 4,000 feet. As with Gnome, early assessments were sunny. But as The New York Times reported, when the chamber was opened one month later, “large quantities of radioactivity” were released. In addition, the quality of the gas stimulated was subpar, and (as The Washington Post described) “contaminated with so much radioactive tritium that it is not commercially saleable.”

Undaunted, the AEC pressed ahead, and less than two years later, went north, to Garfield County, Colorado. There, a private landowner granted permission for the nuclear bureaucracy, Austral Oil Company, and CER Geonuclear to set off Rulison. Buried twice as deep as Gasbuggy, the device’s boom “caused few problems for the locals,” produced an enormous amount of natural gas, and the AEC found that tritium levels were “lower than expected and four to five times less than that from Gasbuggy.”

It would be nearly four years until the AEC tried another hydrocarbon stimulation. On May 17, 1973, Rio Blanco became, literally, Project Plowshare’s last blast. Results weren’t stellar — unacceptable radiation, inadequate gas.

The AEC’s Division of Peaceful Nuclear Explosives didn’t formally die on May 17, 1973. (Kaufman makes a case for 1978, when the federal government eliminated “all funding.”) But anyone paying attention knew that times had changed. By the early 1970s the atom, once thought to be “our friend,” began to be perceived as an enemy. Radiation isn’t as dangerous as the budding professional-alarmism industry alleged, of course, but the rosy-scenario outlook of the AEC wasn’t firmly tethered to reality, either. Civil engineering via nuclear devices was proving more complicated, and more unpredictable, than Project Plowshare’s promotional materials. (Edward Teller‘s quip that if “your mountain is not in the right place, just drop us a card” hasn’t aged well.) No political figures of significant clout emerged as champions, and Cold War allies were not enthralled. The arms-control community has never been comfortable with atomic tests of any kind. Vietnam and the Great Society sapped the country’s coffers. Washington wanted the private sector to chip in, substantially, but doing “business” with the AEC proved to be a nightmare. (After Rulison, Austral’s president complained: “Industry can’t work like this. I can’t commit to another $10 million experiment unless I know in what period of time it will be spent, because I have to budget my funds. But our partner — the Government, in this instance — is not doing this.”)

Plans for tests in Arizona, Utah, California, Wyoming, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania withered away, and today, Project Plowshare, if it’s mentioned at all, is ridiculed by media mediocrities who have spent very little time studying it. Remember back when all those Dr. Strangeloves wanted to use nukes to dig canals and harbors? Produce oil and gas? What weirdos!

It’s an unfortunate development. There was a time when Americans wanted nature serve to man, not the other way around. In an era of “panic and grief” over the “climate catastrophe,” the “peaceful potential of nuclear explosives” looks better by the day.

Perhaps in deep space, there’s a planet-killer asteroid with Earth’s name on it. If we’re lucky, a few Project Plowshare graybeards will still be alive, and put their knowledge to use — for the benefit of all nations.

2 replies on “Shaking Up Your Rattlesnakes”

Mr. Muska, thank you for the article about Project Plowshare. It allowed me to recollect things from my childhood that I had totally forgotten. I was born and raised in Los Alamos. I can remember reading about Plowshare in the local newspaper (the now-defunct “Los Alamos Monitor”) and/or in LASL’s public newsletter (then called “the Atom”). I also overheard discussions about Plowshare among adults in the community. My father, who was a research engineer at Los Alamos from 1956 to 2006, was never a leaping optimist about Plowshare — he was not involved in the project — but WAS optimistic about the potential peaceful uses of nuclear energy till he died in 2010. I appreciated your provoking some reminiscing about a time when nuclear energy was not the bogyman it is now….

Thanks! It’s amazing that no one of consequence noted the 50th anniversary. Kind of like October 2021, when New Mexico did NOT celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first commercial hydrocarbon well drilled in the state. Sheesh. We really are losing our history, from laziness (research is HARD) and wokeness (anything that happened in the past that doesn’t conform to elites’ views today is to be demonized or ignored).

One of the reasons I live in New Mexico is access to hands-on Cold War history. Last summer I was up in Los Alamos for the annual book sale (ten bucks for every full grocery bag — quite a bargain) and I snapped up “Engineering with Nuclear Explosives,” Proceedings of the Third Plowshare Symposium (1964). I had always been intrigued by the subject, and had a few articles and PDFs here and there, but holding an original, dusty, 400-page document made it quite real. Spent a good chunk of the past year getting up to speed, and it’s been great fun.

I don’t see the men — and yes, they were OVERWHELMINGLY MEN — of Plowshare as villains. Yes, they were a bit too optimistic about the viability of the concept, but they genuinely wanted to help the country (fight communism, improve infrastructure, boost energy supplies) and all of mankind (the AEC film I linked to mentions aiding farmers/villagers “cut off from civilization”). I probably won’t won’t live to see it, but I’m not at all certain that in a saner time, peaceful nuclear detonations won’t be employed in safe and useful ways. The hysterical anti-nuclear posture of the last 50 years may be starting to crack a bit, with the aging of generations never exposed to Jane Fonda and Ralph Nader and all the other kooks.

Anyway, thanks much for your story. People like you are the reason I wrote the piece!

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