- A 50s US campaign called “Atoms for Peace” sought to bolster the reputation of nuclear weapons.
- It lasted for decades and encompassed schemes to use nukes to excavate highways and frack for gas.
- One expert called the campaign “propaganda” to cover up US nuclear proliferation.
In 1963, nuclear experts had an idea for the US Department of Energy: to use 520 nuclear bombs to blast a second Suez canal through Israel’s Negev desert.
The US decided not to do that. But the plan, which seems outlandish now, was one of main considered in a concerted push to rehabilitate nuclear weapons by exploring their civilian uses.
So-called peaceful nuclear blasts were the focus of intense political will, championed by the White House and given ample funding – and nuclear fuel – in the hope of making atomic blasts a part of everyday life.
Despite its idealistic talk of harnessing destructive technology for good, in the years since these efforts have come to be seen as a ploy to provide cover for US nuclear research as its weapons stockpile ballooned.
“The idea was to offer some new vision for the world to make the US seem like a peace-loving country when it was planning to do this major upscaling of its military arsenal,” historian Jacob Hamblin told Insider.
(Hamblin is the author of the book “The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology.”)
Plans reviewed by Insider show the ideas circulating in the 1950s and 1960s to widen the use of nuclear materials.
Most focused on the potential for nuclear explosions to quickly excavate areas for construction projects at lower costs than conventional explosives.
Some sought to harness radiation too, including purposefully mutating food crops with radiation in the hope of improving their quality.
Relatively little attention was paid to the downsides, particularly the radioactive material such blasts would leave behind.
In December 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave an address at the UN which became known as the “Atoms for Peace” speech, in which he foresaw a world of peaceful nuclear devices.
The problem was that, in 1953, all he really had was bombs.
“At that point, ninety-something percent of all atomic energy was military-related, said Alex Wellerstein, historian and author of “Restricted Data: the History of Nuclear Secrecy in the US.”
“There was a little bit of stuff with medical isotopes. These are just so tiny and insignificant compared to the bomb research.”
In an isotopic garden
The answer was the US Atomic Energy Commission, a federal agency created to find peaceful uses for nukes.
“I don’t think of it as ‘big hammer, small nails.’ I think of it as: ‘I’m a hammer, I’m looking for nails,'” said Hamblin.
One idea, atomic gardening, aimed to solve the world’s food crisis.
The principle is simple, if optimistic: different crops were arranged in a circle around a source of radioactive material, in the hope that the radiation would encourage random mutations that would improve the plants.
Many of these gardens didn’t yield the superhero crops that were hoped for. But the technology did create some interesting breeds.
The Star Ruby grapefruit, a widely-farmed variety that is recognizable because of its dark pink flesh and strong flavor, is said to have been bred from atomic gardening.
Fly the radioactive skies
US officials also hoped nuclear energy could be used for transportation. Newly-developed nuclear reactors worked a charm in submarines.
But scientists had also developed plans for a nuclear-powered plane – which was touted to be able to fly one or more times around the world without having to land, per The Atlantic. They dreamed, too, of nuclear-powered rockets flying into space.
Neither of these materialized and it’s probably for the best, said Hamblin.
“All you really need is one crash and you’ve got a nuclear reactor that has fallen out of the sky,” he said.
In space, nobody can hear you detonate a bomb
Another close call was Project A119. A perfect example of the Atoms for Peace mindset, it suggested nuking the surface of the moon for the benign purpose of learning more about how craters are formed.
Decades later, Dr Leonard Reiffel, a government physicist who fronted the project, said that its true purpose was to intimidate the Soviet Union, which had recently embarrassed the US by launching its Sputnik V satellite.
“The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth,” he said in 2000.
Big bombs made cheap
As the US made more bombs, each one become cheaper – heralding the possibility that nuclear explosives could supplant conventional ones like TNT in excavation work.
This table, from an AEC document, gives prices for excavation by different methods, making the case that the best choice economically were very large nukes:
“By the 50s, the US is no longer in a place of nuclear scarcity, but it’s in a world of nuclear plenty. They have more nukes than they need militarily. They can produce them much cheaper than they used to,” said Wellerstein.
The AEC’s Project Chariot aimed to use four buried 100-kiloton nuclear bombs to create an artificial fishing harbor in Alaska’s Cape Thompson.
Its opponents did worry that fallout from the explosions could harm the environment, but AEC director Edward Teller was adamant that such risks were “greatly exaggerated,” as he told Popular Mechanics magazine in 1960.
The project was vehemently opposed by locals, including the Inupiaq people, who eventually stopped the project from going ahead, per The New York Times.
By road or by river
Another bold infrastructure plan was Project Carryall.
The scheme called for 22 nuclear blasts, of between 20 and 200 kilotons, to blast a path through inconveniently-placed mountains in California’s Mojave desert, through which a new highway and railroad could be built.
As well as blasting a canal through Israel, the US also considered using nuclear explosives to create an alternative to the Panama canal.
Nicknamed the “pan-atomic canal,” nuclear explosions would have carved a sea-level waterway through Nicaragua, Panama, or Colombia, per Forbes.
US scientists boasted that any such canal would make the Panama route obsolete, as nuclear technology could blast a far deeper channel and connect the Atlantic and Pacific directly, rather than using the series of locks seen in the existing route.
Blasting for gas
A series of nuclear tests were also carried out to assess whether subterranean atomic blasts could help free natural gas from under the ground – essentially using bombs for a type of fracking.
Five detonations took place to test the principle:
- Gasbuggy: a 29 kiloton explosion near Farmington, New Mexico in 1967.
- Rulison: one 40 kiloton detonation near Rulison, Colorado in 1969.
- Rio Blanco: three 30 kilotons explosions near Rifle, Colorado in 1973.
The plan did work, but the gas that was collected was contaminated with radiation, which prevented its use.
All of these projects were gradually suspended and scrapped, to Teller’s frustration.
He went to his grave convinced that the ideas would have worked but for the “unjustified fear of radiation,” he said shortly before dying in 2003.
Nuclear electric power is probably the most successful application, which was envied around the world.
“Everybody wanted that electricity generation because it was kind of a symbol of modernity,” said Hamblin.
Nuclear power helped the US gain political traction around the world.
For instance, in 1967, the US supplied Iran – then a US ally with a secular leader – with a 5-megawatt nuclear research reactor and highly enriched uranium to fuel it.
“Basically the US was saying: Hey, guess what? We are going to help you with a nuclear program. We will give you nuclear reactors, we’re going to help you staff it,” said Wellerstein.
The idea is “if you have a dinky reactor program for peace, you probably don’t have a proper reactor for war [and] I’m going to know exactly what you have exactly what you’re capable of,” he said.
For Hamblin, the concept of “peaceful nuclear explosions” fell out of favor in the mid-70s. By then, the Cuba missile crisis and the Vietnam war had soured the country’s relationship with atomic bombs.
During the Atoms for Peace era, the US carried out 27 peaceful nuclear explosions on US soil – four in Colorado and New Mexico, the rest in Nevada – and several aboard, including 67 tests carried out in the Marshall Islands.
Its legacy has been hotly disputed, said Wellerstein.
“Some of what came out of that project I think is pretty good. I think nuclear medicine is unambiguously good, right? Nuclear power I think is, on balance, good,” he said.
But it is clear that there had been little consideration for the long-term consequences, he said.
“Literally, the plan was: yeah, yeah, we’ll figure that out at some point in the future,” Wellerstein said.
What is sure is that the tests left behind victims.
Navajo uranium miners and their families, who were exposed to toxic heavy metals for years, were left with serious health issues like cancers, respiratory illnesses, and Navajo neuropathy, a neurological disorder that affects children.
Nuclear waste also accumulated without much of a plan for disposal.
According to Hamblin, the “Atoms for Peace” campaign also inspired some of the arms-control problems that most frustrate the US today.
“Countries use it to bolster the peaceful side of what they’re doing when intelligence organizations would say: they’re building a nuclear bomb,” he said.
“They will join [nuclear watchdog] the IAEA and say: “Well, actually, no, we’re just doing Atoms for Peace stuff, all these technologies that are supposed to help in our development.”
“That is the rhetoric that the US has been supplying them for decades.”
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