How Operation Plowshare Worked

In the wake of World War II, scientists tested nuclear weapons in the hopes of using them for more peaceful, civilian purposes.
In the wake of World War II, scientists tested nuclear weapons in the hopes of using them for more peaceful, civilian purposes.
Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

Around 9 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets was flying a plane named after his mom high above the Japanese island of Honshu. A few seconds past 9:15, the Enola Gay released its payload, and Tibbets put his plane into a tight 159-degree turn to escape the shockwaves he knew would be coming [source: Terkel].

Far down below him, a man named Tsutomu Yamaguchi was just arriving in downtown Hiroshima on his way to a meeting. An engineer for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Yamaguchi was in town on a business trip. As he stepped off the tram, a white light filled his vision. Two miles (3 kilometers) away, an atomic bomb known as "Little Boy" had just detonated, instantly killing 80,000 people [source: McCurry]. Temporarily blinded, left eardrum destroyed, the top half of his body horribly burned, Yamaguchi made his way down the street. As he walked he passed the real "walking dead" — people burned so badly, flesh was hanging off them. Eventually, he found an air raid shelter where he spent the night [source: McNeil].

The next morning Yamaguchi was determined to get out of the city and managed to board a train back to his hometown. His hometown happened to be a city called Nagasaki. Two days later, Yamaguchi was at his workplace telling his boss about his harrowing near-death experience in Hiroshima when a familiar white light flooded the room. Once again he was 2 miles (3 kilometers) from Ground Zero where a second atom bomb called "Fat Man" had found its target. 70,000 people died that day. Somehow, Yamaguchi wasn't one of them [source: McNeil].

After years of recovery, Yamaguchi returned to work as an engineer, dying in 2010 at the age of 93. Despite his remarkable longevity, the world's only officially recognized double nuclear bomb survivor was plagued by painful health problems all his life. His children also say they believe the illnesses they suffer are related to their father's double-radiation exposure [source: McNeil].

People have called Yamaguchi "lucky," but that's definitely a "glass-half-full" assessment. Was he incredibly lucky to survive two nuclear blasts? Or incredibly unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — twice? One way or another, Yamaguchi witnessed two of the most nightmarish events in human history.

The people responsible for dropping those bombs, from the pilot of the Enola Gay to President Truman who gave the order, always maintained they had no regrets [source: Terkel]. But there's a reason nuclear bombs have never been used since Nagasaki. Actually, there are lots of reasons. But one of the most powerful is the sheer inhuman magnitude of the devastation they can wreak. Since 1945 no nation has been able to bring itself to unleash that degree of destruction on the world.

But humanity has also never had so much power at its disposal, and in the wake of World War II, some wondered whether nuclear weapons could be used for peaceful, civilian purposes. It was with that thought in mind that some of the scientists who helped develop the bomb began suggesting to government officials that there might be ways to deploy nukes without blowing anybody up. It seemed at the time that atomic weapons could provide enormous explosive power for relatively little cost. In other words, you could literally get a lot of bang for your buck. But enthusiasm isn't enough by itself. It took one of the biggest international crises of the 20th century to bring Operation Plowshare into being in 1958 [source: OSTI].

The Trigger

A huge crowd greeted Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in August 1956 upon his arrival in Cairo from Alexandria, where he'd announced he had taken over the Suez Canal Company.
A huge crowd greeted Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in August 1956 upon his arrival in Cairo from Alexandria, where he'd announced he had taken over the Suez Canal Company.
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

In 1956 the British and American governments were feeling unfriendly toward the Egyptian President, Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, because he was wheeling and dealing with the communist bloc. Because of that relationship, the Brits and Americans backed out of an agreement to help finance the construction of Nasser's ambitious Aswan Dam project in Egypt. Nasser retaliated by seizing control of the Suez Canal and nationalizing it.

The canal was once known as the "lifeline of the empire." A vital supply route, it had been run by the Suez Canal Company, a French outfit that happened to have the British government as its largest shareholder.

Nationalizing the Suez, it turned out, was technically legal, but it nearly provoked a war. The problem was twofold. Whoever controlled the Suez Canal controlled the oil supply from the Middle East, so Europe suddenly felt vulnerable. But Nasser ran the canal as a business, and the supply continued to flow smoothly, assuaging initial fears.

The real problem had more to do with national pride. The French and British empires were in their twilight years, and Nasser's move had bruised their egos. In actual fact, the Suez Crisis, as it would come to be known, proved to be the beginning of the end of Europe's imperial era.

The British and the French convinced Israel to invade Egypt so they could then send in their own troops to supposedly play peacemaker between the two warring forces. The whole plan, an effort to reassert control of the canal, went south quickly when the U.S. refused to back it and the U.N. condemned it [source: State Department].

After much diplomatic finagling, the British and the French withdrew, humiliated. The Egyptians kept the Suez Canal, and boats kept chugging through it much as they had before. But the crisis had many consequences, one of which was the birth of a U.S. program called Operation Plowshare.

The idea of using nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes had been around since the early development phases of the atom bomb. But the concept didn't gain much traction until the Suez Crisis [source: Powell]. When it did, the reasoning went something like this: Who cares if the Egyptians decide to choke off the oil supply to Europe? We'll just excavate another canal at warp speed with some well-placed nuclear bombs!

Even though the crisis was resolved and this questionable solution of nuking out a new canal was never implemented, the notion was planted, and it quickly took root.

Detonation and Fizzle

Dr. Herbert York brought nuclear scientists together behind the idea of using nukes for civilian purposes.
Dr. Herbert York brought nuclear scientists together behind the idea of using nukes for civilian purposes.

"And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." — Isaiah 2:3-4

In November 1956, shortly after Israeli forces invaded Egypt at the behest of Britain and France, the director of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory – Livermore (LRL-L), Herbert York, convened a meeting of nuclear scientists to discuss the peaceful use of nuclear weapons. They wanted to call it Operation Plowshare because of the stuff Isaiah said about turning weapons into tools (i.e., beating swords into plowshares). The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) approved the meeting and generally approved the idea.

LRL-L scientists duly established the Plowshare Program within the Division of Military Application (DMA) in the summer of 1957. By September, they had already conducted a test in Nevada codenamed Rainier, the first U.S. nuclear detonation completely contained underground. The test provided important data on the possibilities of using nuclear bombs for underground engineering projects. Rainier went well. So well, the AEC decided to publicly acknowledge that the Plowshare project existed.

Operation Plowshare was underway — but then it hit a major snafu. For years the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain had all been muttering about placing a ban on nuclear testing. Of course, they'd been doing a lot of testing in the meantime, much of it high in the atmosphere. But members of the public were getting nervous about nuclear fallout, and there was growing noise about adverse health effects.

Then, in March 1958, the Soviets declared that they weren't testing any more nukes. This unilateral action put all kinds of diplomatic pressure on Washington. President Eisenhower actually wanted very much to stop testing, and now he had the bargaining chip he needed to convince the skeptics in his administration. A comprehensive testing moratorium went into effect a short time later [source: National Security Archive]. The result: No more Rainiers. At least not for a while.

The timing couldn't have been worse for Operation Plowshare, but the intrepid scientists behind the project made do as best they could. In anticipation of an end to the moratorium, Dr. Edward Teller, director of the Livermore Laboratory, proposed that Plowshare scientists undertake studies of a series of ambitious potential projects. These included blowing a channel through the Kapingamarangi reef in the Marshall Islands, excavating a couple of new harbors in Alaska, hammering out a canal there while they were at it, extracting oil from some tar sands and shale, building some aquifers and doing a little mining [source: OSTI].

Then, in September 1961, Plowshare's luck turned. Ever since the Soviets had shot down an American U-2 spy plane in 1960, the two superpowers had become increasingly frosty toward each other. Then they started squabbling about the status of West Berlin. The Soviet military wanted to start testing again, and, under pressure, Khrushchev finally agreed [source: National Security Archive]. The moratorium was over, and Plowshare was back in business [source: OSTI]. If it was ironic that a supposedly peaceful project required a feverish cold war to continue, nobody remarked on it at the time, at least not publicly.

Bombs Away!

In 1962, a 100-kiloton thermonuclear detonation at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada test site created the Sedan crater, an enormous hole more than three football fields wide and one deep.
In 1962, a 100-kiloton thermonuclear detonation at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada test site created the Sedan crater, an enormous hole more than three football fields wide and one deep.

It all started up again on Dec. 10, 1961, when Plowshare scientists detonated a bomb deep underground on a subterranean salt deposit in the vicinity of Carlsbad, New Mexico. The operation was code-named Gnome, making one wonder, who exactly is responsible for coming up with these code-names anyway? But that's a subject for a different article. A 3-kiloton blast, Gnome had multiple goals. The Operation Plowshare scientists hoped to learn more about the possibilities of producing and collecting isotopes while measuring heat production and seismic activity from the blast, in addition to collecting data pertaining to neutron physics.

That was all very well, but harking back to the Suez crisis, Plowshare scientists were particularly excited about using nukes to dig really big holes. Accordingly, on July 6, 1962, they used the next experiment, called Sedan, to blow a giant hole in the Nevada desert. Not messing around this time, they deployed a 104-kiloton bomb to do the job. The result was a crater 437 yards (400 meters) in diameter and 109 yards (100 meters) deep. To make a hole that big the bomb had to move some dirt — 12 million tons (10.9 million metric tons) of it, in fact [source: Colleen].

That worked pretty well, so Operation Plowshare continued with the excavation experiments. To see whether they really could excavate a canal-sized ditch, they eventually worked up to the Buggy project, which involved five 1-kiloton bombs laid in a row and detonated simultaneously — a nuclear row-charge, in short, and the only one ever conducted by the U.S. [source: Colleen].

At the same time, the program was looking into another promising area of development — gas stimulation. This involved putting bombs deep down near recalcitrant "low-permeability" natural gas deposits and blowing them up. The idea was to loosen things up down there and let the gas flow more easily. We know this process now as "fracking." Of course, gas companies don't frack with nuclear bombs these days, and there's a reason for that, which we'll get to shortly.

Although less glamorous than nuclear excavation, gas stimulation turned out to be the most promising of the avenues explored by Operation Plowshare. It was also the only branch of the project that involved private corporations. These included the El Paso Natural Gas Company, the Austral Oil Company and CER Geonuclear Corporation [source: OSTI].

Testing went on for 12 years, and during that time Plowshare undertook 27 experiments featuring 35 individual bombs. And then, the explosions stopped in 1973 [source: OSTI].

The Whimper

Demonstrators protested against the nuclear arms race in front of the USSR embassy in New York City, circa 1960.
Demonstrators protested against the nuclear arms race in front of the USSR embassy in New York City, circa 1960.
Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

In the early, heady days of Operation Plowshare there had been so many projects the scientists wanted to undertake, so much stuff they wanted to blow up. There were highways to cut through mountains; dams, canals, harbors and quarries to excavate; underground storage reservoirs to create ... the possibilities seemed endless.

Indeed, the list of planned projects was impressive. There was a proposal to nuke such a deep channel across Central America that there wouldn't be any need for those pesky locks found on the Panama Canal. This was known as a sea-level waterway.

More canals and channels were proposed for the Middle East (Gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean; Dead Sea to the Mediterranean).

Then there was Carryall, which was going to move Interstate 40 and a major rail line to a route through the mountains of southern California. With just 22 nukes, the plan suggested, it would be possible to shift 68 million cubic yards (520 million cubic meters) of earth to cut a valley 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) long and 109 yards (100 meters) deep.

But the really ambitious project was called Chariot. The idea with Chariot was to make a whole new harbor high above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. And while there was supposedly some military advantage to the project, the main goal seems to have been simply to prove it could be done. The first iteration of the plan involved exploding 2.4 megatons of nukes, but this was subsequently dialed down to a total of just 400 kilotons.

Chariot nearly happened. The Department of the Interior designated a Delaware-sized chunk of land for the project, and the Atomic Energy Commission carried out 40 environmental studies, but there were a couple of problems. Local residents were downright hostile toward the project. Also, it was unnecessary. Apart from demonstrating how cool nukes could be if used for civil engineering, there didn't seem to be much of a point to the whole thing. The plan was shelved as early as 1962 [source: Department of Energy].

Plowshare carried on, but by the early 1970s the writing was on the wall. Citizen groups were becoming increasingly vocal about their concerns that Plowshare projects might trigger earthquakes, cause radioactive gas flaring, damage health and lead to general environmental catastrophe. While none of these things had actually happened yet, the possibility that they could was enough to heighten public anxiety. Much of that anxiety stemmed from fears surrounding the results of above-ground nuclear weapons tests. Some members of the burgeoning environmental movement alleged that people living and working downwind of some of those tests were developing cancer at an alarmingly high rate because of radioactive fallout [source: Hesse]. What, they wondered, would happen if underground radioactive material contaminated the ground water?

Also, it turned out that conventional alternatives were a lot cheaper than nuclear weapons. Even gas stimulation was a bust. Nuclear blasts had a tendency to contaminate natural gas with tritium, which rendered it unusable. Worse still, the process was just too elaborate and expensive to justify. By 1974, Operation Plowshare had poured $82 million into the gas stimulation program alone. The government calculated that it would require 25 years of subsequent gas production from the sources stimulated to make back just 40 percent, at best, of that investment [source: OSTI].

Environmentally unacceptable, commercially unviable, Operation Plowshare was shut down officially and for good in 1975. The only evident lesson learned from the whole undertaking seems to have been that using nuclear weapons for civilian engineering projects is highly impractical no matter how you slice it.

Author's Note: How Operation Plowshare Worked

Operation Plowshare shouldn't be confused with the Plowshares Movement. On the contrary! The Plowshares Movement is an anti-nuke organization, made famous by the "Plowshares Eight" who broke into a nuclear facility in Pennsylvania where they hammered on warheads and poured blood on files and documents. They're still at it. In 2012 three Plowshares activists managed to break into a nuclear weapons facility in Tennessee where they spray painted slogans, hung a banner and poured some more blood around the place. Even if you don't agree with their politics, you have to worry about the ease with which an unarmed nun and some friends breached a "high-security" site full of uranium.

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More Great Links


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