What are Nukes For, If We Can’t Use Them?
Scott Montgomery explores “nuclear engineering” or, put another way, the strange history of attempts to use nuclear weapons for good ends.
On first hearing it, I lost my breath. I’m quite sure there were many others who did too, worldwide. But like other concepts that begin in the wilds of WTF, it begs for its opposite. Namely, reflection on how such an idea could possibly have emerged, not least from the most powerful man on planet Earth.
I‘m referring, of course, to Donald Trump’s suggestion, when briefed about the threat of Hurricane Dorian, that America use nuclear weapons to stop such storms before they traverse the Atlantic and attack our shores. This was leaked by an anonymous official present at the creation who clearly was unable to keep this searing ember of inspiration inside themselves. Such has happened repeatedly with this president, as with his complaint about “shithole countries” sending their tired, poor, yearning to be free to American ports.
But in this case, unknowingly or not, Trump touches on a different tradition of unleashed imagination. Aside from the minor point of producing a radioactive storm with a diameter of a thousand miles, the concept might be said to connect with the concept of employing nuclear explosions for utilitarian purposes. Such is far from a new idea or one resurrected only by Mr. Trump. In recent days, Elon Musk, another gentleman whose verbal machinery could do with a little less lubrication, offered the possibility of warming up Mars by dropping H-bombs on the poles, where carbon dioxide ice exists.
Back on Earth, or close to it, far more “practical” ideas have existed. As it happens, both the U.S. and Soviet Union had full-scale programs to use “peaceful nuclear explosions” for industrial applications. This may sound oxymoronic (or just moronic), but both countries spent many millions of dollars and decades of work pursuing specific projects backed by scientists, engineers, and top officials.
America’s program was titled, without irony at the time, Project Plowshare. That is, at the same moment a few tests were being planned for peaceful uses, many thousands of weapons were being generated (over 25,000 by 1965). “He shall judge between the nations…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks…” (Isaiah 2:4). To my knowledge, the only real example of this was the U.S. Megatons to Megawatts program between 1993 and 2013, which downblended over 20,000 Soviet warheads’ worth of bomb material into low-enriched fuel for U.S. nuclear power stations.
The Plowshare Program, according to documents, was inaugurated in 1957 by the Atomic Energy Commission. It carried out some 31 nuclear explosions intended to mainly explore the feasibility for construction excavations, mining operations, and underground fracturing of impermeable natural gas reservoirs—call it, dinosaur fracking. A conference held at Lawrence Livermore Labs (Livermore, CA) yielded an array of specific ideas and emphasized the need for data on underground tests. Nearly all testing had been above ground to that point.
Most of the resulting test explosions were of the thermonuclear kind (fusion, or “hydrogen” bombs), specially designed to greatly reduce the overall amount of highly radioactive products. Most testing also happened at the Nevada weapons test site, though two dino-fracs were performed in actual gas fields. For various reasons, only some of which are stated (cost, environmental concerns), the U.S. program was canceled in 1975.
The dino-fracs are interesting. Six were planned, three were carried out on site. One was in NW New Mexico (San Luis Basin), the other two in NW Colorado (Piceance Basin), both areas where low-permeability gas reservoirs exist and where multistage, water-based fracking is now caried out (without nuclear detonations). In each case, explosive yields were in the range of 30-43 kt (at depths of 4000-8500 ft), which compares with about 15 kt for the Hiroshima bomb and 20 kt for Nagasaki. Gas production increased in each case, but up to eight months had to pass before the wells could be tested. In at least one of the Colorado examples, called “Gasbuggy,” there was also tritium in the gas. What stands out, though, is that each test generated very different results in terms of how the local rock responded. Predictions about effects and gas flow proved fairly far off.
But these were small ideas compared to other projects that verge on the Trumpian. One was a plan for using nuclear blasts to change a coastline in Alaska by excavating an entire harbor-canal system at Cape Thompson. Even more impressive was the concept to either widen the Panama Canal, a project since achieved without nuclear drama, or to replace it altogether. The canal expansion plan attracted proposals using dozens to hundreds of detonations, with explosive yields of up to 1.6 megatons. Again, fusion-based explosions would have been used, these being dubbed as “clean nuclear devices.”
For those who might be interested, the Atomic Energy Commission in the early 1960s produced a series of films promoting the Plowshare Program. What strikes the eye and ear in these visual brochures, is the complete focus on nuclear explosions as wholly similar to chemical detonations—as “tools” for producing force to move earth and rock.
Soviet plans and tests, meantime, aimed in similar directions and, surprising, had some serious accidents. The Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy program was mainly employed for increasing the efficiency of mining and enhancing oil and gas production, with plans for the excavation of canal systems and other large-scale projects. The program was first announced in front of the U.N. in 1949, right after the Soviet Union detonated their first nuclear weapons test. To clarify the reasons for conducting such a test, USSR representative Andrei Vishinsky assured all listeners: “The Soviet Union does not use atomic energy for… accumulating stockpiles of atomic bombs.” Such energy would instead be used for the “domestic economy: blowing up mountains, changing the course of rivers, irrigating deserts, charting new paths of life in regions untrodden by human foot.”
One important difference from the Plowshare program was that the Soviets did much of their industrial nuke testing at the actual proposed sites. In some cases, this led to release of radioactivity in the atmosphere and nearby ground water, and, in a few situations, in nearby towns or cities. Details are not always provided on these projects, but levels as high as 50-200 Roentgen/hr were apparently recorded soon after the explosions. Levels decreased rapidly within weeks, but it would not have been advisable to visit the site for a little while longer.
The Soviet program lasted from 1964 to 1989 and involved more than 150 nuclear explosions, five times the U.S. number. In the 1960s, perhaps in competition with U.S. plans for the Panama Canal, a project was devised to excavate a 65-km canal for carrying water from the Pechora River, flowing into the Arctic, to the Volga-Kama River system. The reason? Continuous decline in the level of the Caspian Sea, due to reduced flow in the Volga caused by diversion to cities and collective farms. The many hundreds of nuclear blasts did not happen, however. It’s probably best that they didn’t, now that four other countries (Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan) share the sea with Russia.
However, one explosion was carried out for the project. This had three devices, each with yields of about 15 kt, at a depth of around 130 m. Because the material in which the nukes were placed was not rock but alluvial sediments, the excavated area (700 m by 340 m) was huge but highly unstable, with a great deal of surface damage that wasn’t foreseen.
Some efforts, though, had reported success. The Kama Project used two 10-kt nuclear explosions at about 2000 m depth to create a fractured chimney and cavern in a dense dolomite that was then utilized for underground disposal of toxic industrial waste from a soda production plant. In short, nukes to create an underground waste repository. Reports from MinAtom (Russia’s federal agency on atomic energy) suggest the project worked, with no radioactive leakage, and at least a decade (1983-1993) of monitored use. Given Soviet track records for environmental contamination, this would mark a double success. It holds, of course, only to the degree that the information provided about the project is accurate. One mystery is why other projects of this kind were never done.
To be fair, the U.S. and Soviets were far from the only ones interested in “peaceful nuclear explosions.” India, Mexico, Thailand, the UK, Sweden, and France were also among those attracted to the possibilities. Perhaps most ambitious of all was the idea of blasting a 110-km canal through the Kra Peninsula (Thailand), allowing ship traffic to go from the Indian Ocean into the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea, without having to head south through the Straits of Malacca. This might not have been welcomed with beerhall enthusiasm by Singapore, yet the project didn’t proceed very far. One reason was that the need for hundreds of thermonuclear devices in this case would require displacement of 200,000 people from nearby villages, towns, and cities for a year or more.
Reading through the technical material of these projects against the backdrop of Trump’s idea brings a few things together. Could it be said that something similar was shared by those who had happy faith in normalizing nuclear explosions for earth moving?
Even from a geological point of view, there were always going to be problems on the utilitarian side. There seems to have been a certain unwillingness, even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to accept that nuclear explosions are profoundly different from chemical explosions. They are, of course. They aren’t just bigger bangs that can do more work, as early discussions suggested.
First, nuclear blasts are hundreds to thousands of times larger. This fact alone makes their effects underground hugely more uncertain. Second, chemical explosions generate heat of up to 40000C for a few milliseconds; the heat of a nuclear detonation is in the tens of millions of 0C and may last for up to 10 seconds. It defines a wholly different kind of physical event, in other words. Third, however reduced, a nuclear blast always generates ionizing radiation at dangerous levels. This includes a massive flux of neutrons, which creates compositional changes in surrounding rock that mean additional radioactive isotopes in formerly non-radioactive material.
Together, these changes render serious geologic effects highly lightly, uncertain and localized in nature, and potentially dangerous. Rock layers even at depth contain saline waters, for instance, which would be vaporized by a nuclear blast and able to generate very high pressures in addition to those of the blast itself. Unexpected release of highly radioactive steam characterized a number of tests in the case of American and Soviet projects. Moreover, decades of drilling and study have shown that the upper few miles of the Earth’s crust is extraordinarily complex, far more than previously believed. It is often highly faulted, for example, in ways that are challenging to detect or resolve. As zones of weakness, such faults are often prone to movement and the generation of earthquakes if there are changes in the subsurface stress regime, e.g. by injecting wastewater into rock layers at depth. Multi-kiloton nuclear explosions might be expected to have their own, unanticipated effects over time, to put it lightly.
But there is also a larger realm to consider. One striking aspect to the U.S. and Soviet PNE projects is that they went on for so long. Scientists and engineers, as well as some politicians, were eagerly looking for ways to use the new knowledge and power to do good things and were caught up in the possibilities, unwilling to fully comprehend the drawbacks to this new potential field of “nuclear engineering.” A particularly strong proponent was none other than Edward Teller, one of the parents of the H-bomb itself, who wrote a 300-page book promoting the idea, The Constructive Uses of Nuclear Explosives (1968). Perhaps it should be less than shocking that this particular participant of the Manhattan Project favored the idea of making nuclear detonations routine.
Yet, being thus made acceptable, utilitarian, they would also find application in other countries, becoming potentially global in their use. The pressures this would place on the non-proliferation of weapons can barely be imagined. A world in which nuclear explosions were happening on a regular, weekly basis? Such is a prospect does shake hands gladly with the “vision” of nuking nature in its extreme storms. Also, I have my suspicions that the U.S. Plowshare program ended in 1975 partly because of the Smiling Buddha event the year before. This was India’s first nuclear weapons test, officially designated as “peaceful,” and was detonated on May 18, the birth date of Gautama Buddha.
The early era of nuclear weaponry is full of such disturbing ironies. Thankfully, as the world enters a new period of nuclear arms racing, we are no longer prone to such dangerous absurdities. After all, is President Trump’s impulse to nuke a storm really so much more unhinged than the U.S., with all of its urgent social problems, spending $2 trillion on a new nuclear arsenal in order to “ensure a safe and secure future”? The two ideas perhaps have more in common than the man who could make them happen.
For my money, the truest fidelity to the words of Isaiah is to burn all of the world’s bomb fuel in an expanded fleet of reactors built to generate life-supporting electricity. Besides eliminating immense volumes of carbon emissions, this would also keep such weapons out of the hands of children of any age who might want to use them for geo-social engineering experiments.
Scott L. Montgomery is a GP columnist, geoscientist, and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle. He has 25 years' experience in the energy industry, where he worked on projects in many parts of the world. His many technical publications include papers, monographs, articles, and textbooks, mainly focused on cutting edge hydrocarbon plays, technologies, related impacts and issues.
Image credit: illorca via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)