Going Geonuclear: Proposals to Reshape the Earth with Nuclear Weapons (1958-1973) / by Adeene Denton

What use is a geologist in a nuclear age? As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the political and economic role of the earth sciences in the United States fluctuated wildly during the Cold War, largely as a result of collaborations between individual scientists as well as their subdisciplines and the Army, the Navy, and the oil industry. The technological advancements behind the greatest advances in scientific thought and understanding about the Earth had a price tag, one that the Cold War-era U.S. government was willing to pay in order to explore more inventive options to advance the public and political standing against the Soviets. In addition to these direct collaborations, however, earth scientists were also brought closer to the American nuclear program than any of them had expected. We typically view the U.S. nuclear program, run between the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, as the realm of wildly inventive physicists. However, as the AEC found itself with a bit of a PR problem later into the Cold War, the earth sciences became increasingly relevant as a palatable solution.

Between 1955 and 1960, the nuclear weapons stockpile of the United States increased from 2.422 to 18,638, and would continue to proliferate into the coming decade. With a rapidly increasing number of nuclear weapons being produced and distributed across the country in missile silos of indeterminate location, proponents of nuclear weapons stockpiles found themselves having to justify what was becoming a hotly debated topic: what, exactly, could a superpower purportedly interested in peace possibly intend to do with the power to set the word on fire a hundred times over?

Project Plowshare arose out of the ambitious concept that nuclear weapons could be tools for peace – hence the name. It represented the dream of physicists and politicians to dramatically reshape the Earth with the nuclear weapons feared by so many in the name of advancements for humankind – a dream with massive geologic implications. The nuclear tests and conceptual studies born from the project represent an era of incredibly audacious geologic thinking, emboldened by a time in which environmentalism and regulation of dangerous technology had not yet begun to keep pace with the evolution of the technology itself.

Below, I’ll cover some of the main ideas surrounding Project Plowshare, the internal governmental name for the U.S. program to develop peaceful construction projects in which nuclear explosions could be used. I address the initial proposal by Dr. Edward Teller and other nuclear scientists as well as some of the ideas for testable projects that followed, which often fell into two, somewhat overlapping veins: massive construction projects (a.k.a., geoengineering), and massive resource extraction projects. Though neither concept ever truly came to fruition, Project Plowshare represents one of the most audacious examples of a trend that accelerated in the Cold War and continues today – the coopting of science for personal as well as political interests. For geologists, this has dire consequences indeed, since their territory is the earth itself.

“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks…” Isaiah 2:4.
Figure 1. Image from B.G. Bray et al., (1968). U.S. Patent No. 3409082 (Process for stimulating petroliferous subterranean formations with contained nuclear explosions.) 

Figure 1. Image from B.G. Bray et al., (1968). U.S. Patent No. 3409082 (Process for stimulating petroliferous subterranean formations with contained nuclear explosions.) 

Project Plowshare: Dr. Edward Teller’s Attempt to Turn a Legacy of War into Peace

The concept of nuclear weapons as “powerful workhorses” arose out of attempts by both scientists and politicians in the late 1950s to develop “clean” (read: fallout-free) bombs that, theoretically, had relevant uses in war and peace. Dr. Edward Teller, the eponymous “father of the hydrogen bomb,” was inspired by a February 1957 symposium, the “AEC Weapons Laboratory Symposium on Non-Military Uses of Nuclear and Thermonuclear Explosions,” in which scientists suggested the infamous Suez Crisis the previous year could have been easily solved by excavation of a second canal through Israel using nuclear explosives. In a June meeting, Teller argued to Eisenhower in favor of increased nuclear tests to develop the idea further, and for permission for his scientists at Lawrence Livermore to develop testable construction projects based on the concept. Intrigued, Eisenhower agreed. Such was the genesis of Project Plowshare, which began in earnest in late 1957 within the Livermore labs in California.

By 1957, the birth year of the project, public opinions on nuclear testing and stockpiling were already polarizing. Adlai Steven had advocated a ban on thermonuclear testing as part of his presidential campaign platform the previous year, and Teller’s meeting with Eisenhower came on the heels of numerous requests for a cessation of tests at the DOE’s Nevada Test Site. Fears of fallout, destruction, and Soviet retaliation were strong within the American populace, and the scientific community itself was split on the issue. Despite all this, Teller allegedly declared to Eisenhower that a clean bomb could be produced in a “matter of six or seven years” if his scientists had the proper funding – a claim that is now clearly overambitious.

Figure 2. Edward Teller in 1958 during his directorship of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, soon after the approval of Project Plowshare.

Figure 2. Edward Teller in 1958 during his directorship of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, soon after the approval of Project Plowshare.

Project Plowshare, and Edward Teller’s relentless advocating for it, thus doubled as an argument for continued nuclear testing, as using nuclear weapons for nonmilitary purposes might be one way around the test ban, as well as a way to continue to collect value information for the military. Historians have suggest that Teller and others, including AEC commissioner Dr. Willard Libby – framed their support for Plowshare as a way to seed the idea into the public consciousness, hoping to change dubiousness into support through evangelizing about what Plowshare could accomplish. It was also clearly an attempt to preserve their own research program; with a nuclear weapons test ban, the scientists of Livermore might at best see their own research curtailed, or at worst, lose their jobs. What better way to preserve their relevance and stature than through a series of high-profile, peaceful projects?

Despite pushback on the international stage, both from allied countries and the Soviet Union (which claimed, not incorrectly, that such a project was simply a plan to illegally acquire military data), by the end of 1957 Project Plowshare had the funding to explore a series of radical “demonstration projects” as proof of concept. Several hundred engineers, scientists, technicians and other necessary workers were acquired for the project. What followed was a series of proposals that made it to various phases of testing and implementation, aimed at proving to the American public and the world that geoengineering was indeed a feasible concept – by showing them an already completed construction project. Attempts at completing these project were carried by out by a coalition of politicians, industry consultants, and government-employed scientists (including geologists) under the direction of ambitious physicists, determined to find locations where the earth itself, as well as the people that lived on it, might be amenable to such a literally groundbreaking effort.

While back-of-the-envelope calculations convinced many people that it made sense, everyone involved soon found that when faced with real-world constraints, peaceful atomic energy might not be so easy to apply to geologic systems.

Roadcuts Made By Giants: Revisiting the Failed Dreams of Geoengineering

But where were the scientists of Livermore going to make the world’s first purposefully peaceful giant hole? For them, it was crucial to deliver to the world a real-life “proof of concept” of both the necessity and benefits of geoengineering. And yet, such a project proved to be monumentally difficult to execute for reasons that soon became obvious: to prove that geoengineering was a worthy tool, the Plowshare team needed to construct a functional harbor, canal, or similarly large and useful structure that could reasonably be said to be prohibitively difficult by commercial or national production standards. However, they also needed to build said harbor in a place as uninhabited as possible, since clean bombs were not actually a functional model at the time. Thus, because most harbors and canals are typically associated with largely inhabited areas, Plowshare, and the governmental entities funding it, was put in a bit of a bind. A physical test of Project Plowshare required governmental justification for building a harbor in a isolated region that would be unnecessary at best, as it would serve no one. At worst, it would also be radioactive.

Much has been said concerning Project Chariot, the “almost famous” moment for the Plowshare program; most of it (rightly) centered on the successful efforts by indigenous Alaskans and allied biologists, ecologists, and other academics to prevent its implementation. Here, we instead focus on the justifications invoked by Plowshare members for the implementation of the project. In particular, it’s crucial to take a look at some of the complicated mental gymnastics required to develop a reason for Chariot and its later incarnations to be necessary national pursuits, with a corresponding plea to the American people to support them.

The north slope of Alaska was actually Plowshare’s second choice for an ideal harbor construction site. Arica, Chile was their ideal location, as it could offer similarly flimsy justifications for harbor constructions with the added benefit of not directly affecting any Americans (Chile was not consulted on these plans). However, the obvious political difficulties in such a proposal led the Plowshare team to be constrained to U.S. territories, much to their chagrin. Thus, scientists had to quickly find some good reasons for blasting Cape Thompson, Alaska with 280 kilotons of explosives (Fig. 3). The answer came quickly: easy access to minerals. The commonly held belief of mineral inaccessibility, as well as the long-held belief in the power of American petroleum and mineral rights to supply the American people, was to be a running theme throughout Plowshare’s existence. Buoyed by favorable repots from both the U.S. Geological Survey and engineering firms employed as contractors by the government, both of which also seems to have also acted as vehicles for new site selection and project ideas throughout Plowshare’s lifetime, Livermore scientists could defend Chariot as a necessity for ensuring that Americans were well-supplied in future generations. However, in another unfortunate running theme with the project, their information was either unfortunately or deliberately out of date. Cape Thompson was hundreds of miles away from the “nearby” deposits of the Brooks Range, and any productivity it might have would be offset by sea ice rendering it even more inaccessible to shipping for most of the year. Still, USGS geologists argued that, given the limitations of Plowshare’s program, the geologic and engineering conditions at the Cape meant it was their best shot. Thus, reasons had to be found. And it was these horribly flimsy reasons around which Chariot was structured that allowed a coalition of indigenous people and Alaskan academics to effectively push back against a full-funded government program.

Figure 3. Schematic design for the harbor constructed from Project Chariot. Original image adapted from Lawrence Livermore National Labs and the AEC, reproduced in Kirsch (2005), the excellent book from which this schematic was scanned.

Figure 3. Schematic design for the harbor constructed from Project Chariot. Original image adapted from Lawrence Livermore National Labs and the AEC, reproduced in Kirsch (2005), the excellent book from which this schematic was scanned.

It is crucial to note that Project Plowshare did not end with the semi-public demise of Project Chariot. In their increasing desperation to find another suitable practical demonstration, the Plowshare planners continued to develop plans en mass, including canal studies in Central America and in the American South, as well as highway construction in the Mojave Desert. In many cases, these projects were even more aggressive, both in scope and in the number of people who could potentially suffer collateral damage. The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway project, for example, coopted an existing (if excessively ambitious) plan to blast a 235-mile canal across northern Mississippi linking the two prominent rivers. The Livermore scientists, working with locally contracted engineering firms, found that 1.9 megatons of explosions were needed to complete the project; eighty-one nuclear detonations would occur in a region home to over 340,000 people. The fallout sector would be fifty miles wide. Project Carryall, meanwhile, was to blast a new path for route 66 through the Bristol Moutains of southern California using twenty-three separate explosives. Feasibility studies indicated that at least 660 tons of radioactive material would impact a local region incorporating some thirty thousand people.

Each of these plans fell victim to practical concerns, particularly an ongoing demonstration issue: without the evidence that such projects would be both feasible from a construction standpoint and relatively harmless to nearby people, resistance gradually mounted. In the end, the only thing the AEC wanted more than good publicity for thee nuclear program was to avoid generating more bad publicity – particularly the kind one might get from exposing a significant section of the populace to radiation from bombs that were much less clean than the spokespeople of the program stated. And so, the demonstrations could not proceed for want of a demonstration. Plowshare would move no earth in its projects.

Making Money Off the Bomb: Peaceful Nuclear Weapons as a Method for Petroleum Extraction

So far in our discussion of these massive geoengineering projects one crucial group has remained at the fringes of the story – the geologists themselves. Ideally, trained geologists are a group best positioned to comment on any sort of massive earthmoving activities, and yet little information exists to determine the extent of their involvement. What did geologists think of Plowshare’s bold plans to reshape the Earth, and how did they engage with them? It is exceedingly difficult to find information about individual geologists whose names were tied to the project; information is relegated instead to group activity.

We know that geologists of the USGS participated directly in Plowshare as part of site-selection efforts (Project Chariot), feasibility studies (Project Carryall), and assessments of geologic impact from any of the Plowshare-inspired nuclear tests (Project Gnome). However, government-employed geologists weren’t the only geologists who found themselves involved in – and potentially benefitting from – Plowshare. Industrial geologists could and did take advantage of the resources of Project Plowshare to stretch the concept of what the oil industry deemed possible. The other arm of Project Plowshare was thus based heavily on industrial interests: the development and enhancement of petroleum reserves. These lesser-known Plowshare projects proceeded under the careful eye of both the government and American oil companies, two groups that stood to profit enormously if the attempts were successful.

Oil companies and their employees were all too eager to assist the Plowshare team in finding other uses for nuclear devices than simple excavation, as indicated by the number of patents filed by senior geologists during the heyday of the program. Senior employees at Phillips Petroleum Company, Continental Oil Company, and Shell Oil Company filed a total of four separate patents between 1968 and 1969 pertaining to the production of oil from use of “contained nuclear explosions,” including claims that nuclear explosions would permit easier extraction of oil as well as enhance the capacity of existing reservoirs (Fig. 4). Project Oilsand, one of the first proposals to come out of Project Plowshare in 1958, was purportedly proposed by L.M. Natland, a Richfield Oil geologist. Project Oilsand, originally termed Project Cauldron, was a proposal to turn the Athabasca Oil Sands of Alberta, Canada into accessible oil, a process believed to require up to 100 individual explosives.

Figure 3. Image from H.W. Parker (1969) U.S. Patent No. 6708538 (Producing oil from nuclear-produced chimneys in oil shale.) 

Figure 3. Image from H.W. Parker (1969) U.S. Patent No. 6708538 (Producing oil from nuclear-produced chimneys in oil shale.) 

These patents were filed before and during the implementation of Project Gasbuggy, a nuclear test in late 1967 designed to be a practical test of the ideas being rapidly patented – whether nuclear explosions could usefully fracture rock formations to ease extraction processes. Gasbuggy, like the two later tests, Rulison in 1969 and Rio Blanco in 1973, were conducted in collaboration between the Livermore Plowshare teams and outside consultants from oil companies, including Continental Oil Company and El Paso Natural Gas Company. The petroleum engineers and geologists were to assess the fracturing of the rocks and assess any petroleum or natural gas produced. They were largely disappointed. Gasbuggy did indeed produce a chimney of fragmented shale through which natural gas could be extracted; however, the entire site was found to be toxic, including the natural gas. Rulison, another project aimed at natural gas production, also produced large amounts of the intended merchandise; once again, the gas was found to be dangerously radioactive. Gas stimulation via nuclear explosives did open up previously inaccessible natural gas pockets, as advertised – the gas just wasn’t safe by the burgeoning standards of the EPA. While the contamination did fade over three to four years, a non-negligible amount remained. Both the oil companies, which did not want to commit to such a long regulatory timeframe, and the public, which was uninterested in radiation exposure regardless of amount, rejected the possibility. Plowshare’s potential commercial uses were scuttled in a matter of years. Meanwhile, with the failure of Plowshare to mitigate radiation concerns the oil companies instead turned to massive hydraulic fracturing as an alternative, beginning the era of what is known today as “fracking.” The modern era of petroleum and natural gas extraction had begun.

In the end, nuclear-based petroleum extraction was another failed ambition of the Plowshare program. Its primary obstacle was the growing ethical concerns of allowing contaminated natural gas to be used to cook meals and heat homes for families across the country. In a time when the scientists themselves weren’t sure how much radiation was too much, the geologists and their industry employers balked at the burden of trying to sell the public on basking in the heat of nuclear-produced gas. While no documents were located indicative of individual geologists in either the USGS or within oil companies questioning the party line, it is clear that they viewed their jobs liaising with project Plowshare as an opportunity to gain unprecedented knowledge (and for the oil guys, potentially lucrative business opportunities). It was unfortunate that Plowshare also brought with it a troublingly public moral quandary.

In Conclusion: Why Does Plowshare Matter?

In some ways, the actions of the scientists involved with Project Plowshare foreshadowed the difficulties faced in the climate change debate to come. Edward Teller and his coalition of physicists and engineers fought with prominent geneticists, biologists, and ecologists in a battle for control of public opinion as well as political sway with the executive branch. The consequences of such academic spats had the potential to affect not just their own careers, but also the trajectory and influence of their fields; worse yet, their decisions could affect the lives of millions. For geologists, a group of scientists more deeply tied to industry, Plowshare had an added temptation of wealth and prestige for those who could utilize the nuclear option effectively. Thus, scientists were themselves split on an issue that today seems quite black and white.

From the comfortable position of hindsight, Plowshare amounts to a failed publicity exercise, aimed at normalizing American nuclear activities for the public. Internal memos were circulated with plans to reshape the language around nuclear bombs themselves as part of a successful series of Plowshare demonstrations: “fallout” was to become “debris,” and “ground zero” was to become “D.P.” – detonation point. While today we may look at Project Plowshare as another absurdity of Cold War America and its overbold military-industrial schemes, it is crucial to think of what might have been.

At its most basic, Project Plowshare was an attempt to use nuclear weapons for national and commercial construction projects. However, such a summary emphasizes the ridiculous nature of the idea and in turn minimizes its more insidious nature. What Plowshare was in the mind of Edward Teller was much more than that: it was an attempt to normalize nuclear weaponry in the eyes of the American public, and in so doing insulate the military-academic-industrial complex from criticism. Hundreds of people were employed by the government to try to make Plowshare work, and in the end they failed to shape public opinion the way they intended.

What matters is that they tried.

Works Cited

Bray, B.G., Knutson, C.F., Coffer, H.F. (1968). U.S. Patent No. 5467737. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Deans, H.A., Prats, M. (1967). U.S. Patent No. 3474863A. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Executive Summary of the Plowshare Program (ADD LINK). U.S. Department of Energy.

Findlay, T. (1986). Swords into Plowshares: The Invention of Peaceful Nuclear Explosions. Canberra: Peace Research Centre.

Frank, J., Ruff, J., and Zodtner, H. to Distribution. “Memorandum: Glossary of Terms for Plowshare Program,” September 18, 1958, Plowshare Box P-29, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

Fry, J.G., Stane, R.A., and Crutchfield Jr., W.H. (1964). Preliminary design studies in a nuclear excavation – Project Carryall. Highway Research Board, Highway Research Record 50.

Kirsch, S. (2005). Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick.

Needham, R.B. (1969). U.S. Patent No. 3618663. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Norris, R. and H.M. Kristensen (2010). Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945-2010. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Parker, H.W. (1969). U.S. Patent No. 3454958. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Teller, E. with A. Brown (1962). Legacy of Hiroshima. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company.

Tewes, H.A. (1979). Survey of gas quality results from three gas-well-stimulation experiments by nuclear explosions. United States Department of Energy.