That Time the Soviets Decided to Try to Extinguish a Fire with a Nuke For Reasons…

The phrase ‘the peaceful use of nuclear weapons’ might sound like the ultimate oxymoron. While nuclear reactors are widely used to peacefully generate electricity and medical isotopes, it is difficult to imagine a peaceful use for atomic bombs on account of the whole, you know, radioactive BOOM. But incredibly, between 1961 and 1989, both the United States and the Soviet Union conducted hundreds of atomic tests in order to develop nonmilitary applications for nuclear weapons – and even more incredibly, some of these tests actually worked. This is the story Project Plowshare and Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy, two of the most audacious projects to come out of the Cold War.

Project Plowshare, named after a passage in the Book of Isaiah reading“…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” was officially launched in 1957. The project had its origins in the first Soviet atomic bomb test, which took place at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan on September 23, 1949. The test, codenamed RDS-1, shook the American Defence Establishment to its core. Experts had predicted that the USSR was still 10 years away from developing an atomic bomb, not realizing that during the war a network of spies had infiltrated the top-secret Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico and stolen all the technical technical data the Soviets needed to launch their own atomic program. The detonation of the first Soviet thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb on August 12, 1953 only served to hammer home the point: if America was to survive, it had to start building bombs – and fast. But, there was a problem: the American Public, having seen the horrific destruction and suffering wrought by atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was unlikely to support an all-out nuclear arms race. Facing a major public-relations disaster, on December 8, 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower stood before the United Nations and delivered what came to be known as the “Atoms for Peace” speech, outlining a new direction for American nuclear policy:

The United States would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes.

It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.

The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military buildup can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.

Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program represented a dramatic reversal in American nuclear policy, which since 1946 had forbidden the sharing of nuclear secrets even with close allies such as Britain and France. The program would see the US helping over 30 allied nations set up their own peaceful nuclear programs, providing technical expertise, reactors, and even highly-enriched uranium fuel. Meanwhile back at home the Atomic Energy Commission built dozens of civilian nuclear power plants and even a nuclear-powered cargo ship, the NS Savannah. But while this campaign was effective in keeping allied nations onside and promoting the new atomic age to the American public, it wasn’t enough to keep America ahead of the accelerating arms race. Building a nuclear stockpile meant more than just building reactors; nuclear weapons designs still had to be constructed, tested, and refined. Thankfully, the Soviets themselves had provided a possible answer to this conundrum.

On November 10, 1949, a little more than a month after the first Soviet nuclear test, representative Andrei Vischinsky gave speech before the United Nations outlining his country’s plan to carry out a very different kind of nuclear program:

The Soviet Union did not use atomic energy for the purpose of accumulating stockpiles of atomic bombs. It was using atomic energy for purposes of its own domestic economy: blowing up mountains, changing the course of rivers, irrigating deserts, charting new paths of life in regions untrodden by human foot…progressive science claims that it is possible to utilize the noble force of the explosions builder for for peaceful purposes. With the help of directional explosions one can straighten out the beds of large rivers, construct gigantic dams, cut canals. Indeed, the perspectives disclosed dye to the new atomic energy are unlimited.

Indeed, the idea of using nuclear weapons for nonmilitary purposes is as old as nuclear weapons themselves. In 1945 Otto Frisch, a senior scientist in the Manhattan Project, had proposed using nuclear explosions as a source of high-energy neutrons for scientific experiments, while in 1950 Los Alamos physicist Fred Reines had written a paper exploring the possibility of using atomic bombs to excavate canals or mine valuable minerals. But Reines had concluded that  “…such uses appear at best to be extremely limited in scope owing to the radioactivity hazard associated with atomic explosions.” However, the development of thermonuclear weapons allowed the construction of so-called “clean” bombs, up to 98% of whose power is derived from nuclear fusion. Such devices generate relatively little radioactive fallout, opening the floodgates to a deluge of audacious proposals.

And we do mean audacious Some of the suggested civilian uses for nuclear weapons included widening the Panama Canal, blasting a brand-new “Pan-Atomic Canal” through Nicaragua, blasting giant caverns for storing oil and gas, connecting underground aquifers in Arizona, melting icebergs ice jams, blasting a route for Interstate 40 through the Bristol Mountains of California, changing the course of rivers, and melting Canada’s Athabasca tar sands to allow the oil to be more easily pumped out.

But the most grandiose of these proposals was Project Chariot, a plan to excavate a deep-water harbour on Cape Thompson, Alaska, using a chain of 5 atomic bombs. Alaska having just become the 49th State, the local residents were surprisingly keen on the idea, a 1960 editorial in the Fairbanks News-Miner stating, “We think the holding of a huge nuclear blast in Alaska would be a fitting overture to the new era which is opening for our state.” But one group was decidedly less than enthusiastic: the indigenous Inupiat people of nearby Point Hope, who, along with environmental groups like the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, and Committee for Nuclear Information, campaigned vigorously against the project. It didn’t help that despite all the time and resources the Government was pouring into the project, nobody actually had any use for the proposed harbour. And so after nearly four years of planning and debate, in 1962 Project Chariot was quietly shelved.

In the end, the objectives of Project Plowshare were narrowed down to 6 main areas: excavation, energy generation, isotope generation, oil and gas stimulation, particle physics experiments, and geophysics. Between 1961 and 1975 a total of 31 atomic explosions were conducted as part of the project.

The first Plowshare test, codenamed Gnome, took place on December 10, 1961. The 3.1 kiloton device was detonated at a depth of 361 meters in a salt bed 39 km southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, blasting a massive cavity 52 meters wide and 24 meters tall. The goals of the project were fourfold. First, it was expected that the rock salt would absorb the tremendous heat of the blast and retain it for a long period, allowing water to be pumped into the cavity to produce  steam and generate electricity. Second, the intense neutron flux from the blast would transmute some of the salt into useful heavy radioisotopes, which could be harvested by dissolving the salt with water. This same neutron flux was also used to conduct several particle physics experiments. And finally, atomic physicists had theorized that detonating nuclear weapons in underground caverns would disguise their seismic signature, making nuclear tests harder for enemy nations to detect – and the Gnome shot was used to test this theory. However, of these experiments only the particle physics test proved successful. When scientists drilled into the cavity, they found that the walls and ceiling had collapsed, mixing in rubble with the molten salt and reducing its temperature such that no useful energy could be extracted. Also, though the cavity was supposed to be self-sealing, a plume of radioactive dust escaped to the surface, causing a bit of PR disaster.

Nonetheless, Project Plowshare plowed on. The next test, codenamed Sedan, took place at Yucca Flats on the Nevada Test Site on July 6, 1962. This experiment was intended to test the feasibility of using nuclear weapons for large-scale excavation projects. The 104 kiloton device, detonated at a depth of 194 meters, displaced some 11 million tons of earth, blasting a crater 390 meters across and 100 meters deep and registering 4.75 on the Richter scale. It also generated a substantial amount of fallout, sending two plumes of radioactive dust to an altitude of 5 kilometres that drifted east over Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Illinois. So dirty was this single explosion that it generated a full 7% of the total fallout produced by the Nevada Test Site, which between 1951 and 1992 carried out over 1000 nuclear tests. Despite this, the Sedan shot did make an important contribution to science, allowing geologists to conclude that Barringer Crater in Arizona – today known as Meteor Crater – was formed by a meteorite impact and not a volcanic eruption as previously believed. Work on nuclear excavation also continued, with the majority of the remaining 29 Plowshares experiments being devoted to testing cleaner devices for this purpose. The largest of these, codenamed Buggy, took place on March 12, 1968, and involved the detonation of five 1-kiloton devices in a chain to investigate the feasibility of digging canals.

But perhaps the most unusual and promising of the Plowshare tests took place on December 10, 1967 in northern New Mexico. Codenamed Gasbuggy, the objective of the test was to use a 29-kiloton device detonated at a depth of 1300 meters to fracture a formation of oil and gas-bearing shale, making the fossil fuels easier to extract. In other words: atomic fracking. While the concept worked, the extracted gas was found to be too radioactive for household use. Gasbuggy was followed up by Project Rulison in 1969 and Project Rio Blanco in 1973, both carried out in gas fields in Colorado. These tests managed to produce gas that was only 1% more radioactive than background levels, but by this time the growing anti-nuclear movement had made even mild contamination unviable to customers. Furthermore, due to the staggering cost of the project – $82 million ($500 million today) in all – it was determined that even after 25 years of gas production only around 40% of this investment could be recovered. In 1975 funding for Plowshare dried up and the project officially came to an end.

At the same time as Project Plowshare ,the Soviet Union was also conducting their own Peaceful Nuclear Explosions program. Despite being the first to propose such a project, the Soviets were actually several years behind the Americans in launching theirs. Indeed, upon the announcement of Project Plowshare at the 2nd International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in 1958, Soviet delegate Vasiliy Emelyanov disavowed previous statements by his countrymen and accused the American project of being merely a “cover to evade suspension of bomb tests [which] do not reach practical ends but only political ends.” Nonetheless,  not wanting to fall behind in the arms race, in 1965 the Soviets reluctantly initiated their own Peaceful Nuclear Explosions project, known as Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy. In terms of objectives the Soviet project was very similar to Plowshares, with the main focus being on excavation, oil and gas stimulation, ore crushing, and geophysics. But it was also far larger in scale, with 156 tests being conducted between 1965 and 1989.

One of the most famous tests of the series was the Chagan shot, carried out on January 15, 1965. A 140 kiloton device was exploded on the bed of the Chagan River in the Semipalatinsk test site, blasting a crater 408 meters wide and 100 meters deep. The wall of the crater was then excavated to let the river flow in, creating an artificial reservoir with a capacity of 10,000 cubic meters. While still radioactive, Lake Chagan – also known as Lake Balapan or Atomic Lake – is still used to water local cattle herds to this day.

Another major test of the Soviet program was the Taiga shot of March 23, 1971. This was part of a decades-old plan called the Pechora-Kama Canal, which sought to divert water from northern Russian rivers into the Volga basin and down into the Caspian Sea to aid with irrigation. Three 15-kiloton devices were detonated in a line near the town of Vasyukovo, Perm Oblast, blasting a crater over 600 meters long. Unfortunately, due to the soft stone in the region the crater walls collapsed, reducing the depth of the prototype canal to an unusable 10 meters. Scientists concluded that nuclear weapons were unsuited to digging canals, and the Pechora-Kama project itself was abandoned in 1986.

Other tests followed along the same lines as Plowshare, including shots Butane, Grifon, Takhta-Kagula, Neva, and Helium, all geared towards stimulating oil and gas fields. Like their American counterparts, these tests were largely successful, increasing oil and gas production by up to 40%, and unlike the Americans the Soviets had no qualms about using slightly irradiated fuel. But ultimately as with Plowshare, the technique never saw widespread commercial adoption.

Yet despite its similarities to the American project, Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy holds the distinction of carrying out the only truly practical peaceful nuclear explosions in history. On December 1, 1963, drillers at the Urtabulak gas field in Uzbekistan lost control of well No.11, causing it to blow out and vent over 12 million cubic meters of gas per day – enough to supply a city the size of St Petersburg. Over the next 3 three years many attempts were made to cap the well, but none were successful. As the bottom of the well had not been cemented, even a successful capping just caused gas to vent into other nearby wells. Finally, in 1966, having run out of options, the Soviet Government decided to break out the big guns. In the fall of that year a 44cm diameter slanted borehole was drilled to within 25 meters of the well and a 30 kiloton device inserted. On September 30, 1966 the device was detonated, creating a shock wave that pinched the unruly well shut. 23 seconds later, the flame went out and the well was back under control.

The technique would be repeated four more times, at the Pamuk gas field in 1968, the Mayskii and Kretishche gas fields in 1972, and the Kumzhinsky gas field in 1981. All were highly successful except for the last shot, which due to poor geological data unfortunately failed to seal the well. In 1989, in response to local protests in Kazakhstan, the Soviet Government agreed to a moratorium on nuclear testing and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions program finally came to an end.

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Expand for References
  • Nordyke, Milo D, The Soviet Program for Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Explosions, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, July 24, 1996
  • Carlisle, N & J, Project Gasbuggy, Popular Mechanics Magazine, September 1967
  • Executive Summary: Plowshare Program U.S. Department of Energy, Nevada Operations Office, Office of Public Affairs and Information
  • Rawson, D et al. Project Gnome: The Environment Created by a Nuclear Explosion in Salt, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, September 1964
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