Project Plowshare

Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America

Scott Kaufman
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 296
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.cttn34r4
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  • Book Info
    Project Plowshare
    Book Description:

    Inspired by President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech, scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission and the University of California's Radiation Laboratory began in 1957 a program they called Plowshare. Joined by like-minded government officials, scientists, and business leaders, champions of "peaceful nuclear explosions" maintained that they could create new elements and isotopes for general use, build storage facilities for water or fuel, mine ores, increase oil and natural gas production, generate heat for power production, and construct roads, harbors, and canals. By harnessing the power of the atom for nonmilitary purposes, Plowshare backers expected to protect American security, defend U.S. legitimacy and prestige, and ensure access to energy resources.

    Scott Kaufman's extensive research in nearly two dozen archives in three nations shows how science, politics, and environmentalism converged to shape the lasting conflict over the use of nuclear technology. Indeed, despite technological and strategic promise, Plowshare's early champions soon found themselves facing a vocal and powerful coalition of federal and state officials, scientists, industrialists, environmentalists, and average citizens. Skeptical politicians, domestic and international pressure to stop nuclear testing, and a lack of government funding severely restricted the program. By the mid-1970s, Plowshare was, in the words of one government official, "dead as a doornail." However, the thought of using the atom for peaceful purposes remains alive.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6583-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Promoting the Peaceful Atom
    (pp. 1-6)

    In April 2010 an explosion took place on British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killing eleven people and causing millions of gallons of petroleum to contaminate the Gulf of Mexico. As BP attempted to find some means to stop the spill, CNN reporter John Roberts suggested in an off-the-cuff remark, “Drill a hole, drop a nuke in and seal up the well.” Roberts drew criticism from the Barack Obama administration and atomic experts, who said such an act “would be not only risky technically, with unknown and possibly disastrous consequences from radiation, but also unwise geopolitically,” for it risked a...

  6. 1 A Plan of Biblical Proportions
    (pp. 7-26)

    At 10 a.m. on September 19, 1957, a nuclear blast shook a mesa at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), located about sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas. Willard Libby, a member of the AEC, recalled that he and other observers who had positioned themselves about two and a half miles away heard “a muffled explosion” and felt “a weak ground wave.” The entire “mountain jumped about six inches,” a “ripple … spread over [its] face,” and some rocks rolled down the formation’s slopes. The explosion generated shock waves equivalent to those of an earthquake of approximately 4.6 on the Richter...

  7. 2 Just Drop Us a Card
    (pp. 27-49)

    In mid-August 1958 several Eskimos from the village of Point Hope, Alaska—Daniel Lisbourne, Peniluke Omnik, and Lisbourne’s nephew—took Lisbourne’s small boat to nearby Ogotoruk Creek to hunt caribou. Located in northwestern Alaska, the eleven-mile stream empties into the Chukchi Sea. It was, and remains to this day, an area rich in plant life and a feeding ground for caribou, which make up a sizable portion of the Eskimos’ diet. Unfortunately for Lisbourne, he and his party returned to the village empty-handed. But they did bring back some odd news: there were surveyors camped at the creek. What they...

  8. 3 A Program on Hold
    (pp. 50-70)

    Les Viereck was a wildlife biologist who had gone into botany and spent a substantial amount of time studying plants throughout much of Alaska. In March 1959 he received a letter from Albert Johnson, a botanist at UAF who had agreed to join the bioenvironmental studies sponsored by the AEC. The purpose of those studies was to determine whether the first Plowshare experiment, Project Chariot, could take place safely. Other commitments prevented Johnson from spending long hours in the field, so he asked Viereck to come on board as his assistant, with Johnson drawing up the investigations and Viereck doing...

  9. 4 From Moratorium to Test Ban
    (pp. 71-96)

    John F. Kennedy’s accession to the presidency made Plowshare’s defenders nervous. He had joined Adlai Stevenson’s call during the 1956 presidential campaign for a ban on nuclear testing and in 1959 had rejected a proposal by would-be Republican presidential nominee Nelson Rockefeller for a resumption of underground tests. That same year, Kennedy had warned about “fall-in”: the threat to humans, he stated, came not just from radioactive fallout but from radioactive waste that ended up in water and food supplies. Such comments prompted Thomas E. Murray, formerly a member of the AEC, to attempt to pin down the Massachusetts senator...

  10. 5 The Complexities of Canal Construction
    (pp. 97-122)

    On January 7, 1964, U.S. students at Balboa High School, located in the Panama Canal Zone, began raising the U.S. flag daily outside their institution. This followed a decision by officials in Washington in 1963 to have the U.S. and Panamanian flags fly together at seventeen different locations in the Zone but to remove the Stars and Stripes from outside various public facilities, among them schools. The students knew they had violated their nation’s policy, and U.S. students at other schools followed suit. Angered, several hundred Panamanian students paraded into the Zone, with the intention of hoisting their country’s flag...

  11. 6 Nuclear Testing, Nonproliferation, and Plowshare
    (pp. 123-147)

    Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly in September 1958, Ireland’s minister for external affairs, Frank Aiken, asked for help in halting the growth of the “nuclear club,” made up of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France. He further appealed to those countries with atomic technology not to pass it on to others and for nonnuclear states not to acquire it. “Try to imagine,” he asked those present, “whether, if nuclear war broke out, we would not then regret having failed to make the sacrifices which might have helped to avoid it.” The next month...

  12. 7 Making Headway?
    (pp. 148-171)

    It had become clear to Robert Anderson, the head of the Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal Commission, that his agency simply could not finish its work in time and with the appropriations it had received. On March 6, 1967, he wrote Vice President Hubert Humphrey, asking for another $6.5 million and an extension of his agency’s reporting deadline from June 30, 1968, to December 1, 1970. Delays in getting the necessary surveys under way, a lack of equipment, the slow progress of the Plowshare nuclear excavation program, and “more realistic cost estimates based upon actual field conditions” had moved him to make...

  13. 8 Plowshare Goes Down Under
    (pp. 172-195)

    “What specific potential applications of nuclear excavation technology have been identified?” asked an internal AEC memorandum in the fall of 1966. The answer included projects of various sizes, among them Carryall and the sea-level isthmian waterway. Yet the number of projects for which the AEC considered use of the atom was incredible. The memorandum listed more than 110 possibilities, over half of them outside the United States, ranging from building canals in Canada and Malaysia, harbors and dams in the Somali Republic and India, and roads in Colombia and Chile to eliminating a waterfall in Bolivia, removing rapids from a...

  14. 9 Dead as a Doornail
    (pp. 196-223)

    “The American Gas Association reported over the weekend that proved reserves of natural gas decreased by almost 2 per cent in 1968,” wrote New York Times reporter Gene Smith in April 1969. “The trade association stated that a major factor in the decrease of 5.5 trillion cubic feet in reserves was ‘the continuing decline in exploratory wells drilled in the search for oil and natural gas.’ ” The year also had seen a reduction in the country’s petroleum reserves. Although at this time the cost of oil and natural gas remained low, numbers such as those quoted by Smith could...

  15. Conclusion: Back from the Dead?
    (pp. 224-236)

    The Erie Canal, Edward Teller told an audience in Tokyo in 1973, “played a great role in opening up the Middle West, which at that time was a wilderness.” Begun in 1817, that waterway commenced operations in 1826, “and within a few years paid for itself.” Now, said Teller, there was an opportunity to achieve a similar feat using nuclear explosives.¹

    The subject about which Teller spoke was not a new isthmian canal. Rather he hoped to sell the audience on the construction of a waterway across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand, the narrow strip of land that connects mainland...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 237-276)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 277-286)
  18. Index
    (pp. 287-296)