Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘Operation Plowshare’

Operation Plowshare and Operation Gnome – Atoms for Peace!

Monday, March 30th, 2015

nuclear_blast

So it is the 1950s and for the United States the Cold War has been humming along fairly nicely, both the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are building an expanding collection of nuclear weapons, the first hydrogen bomb tests went well, but for the U.S. your government is running into a problem, the citizens are simply not accepting the awesome potential of atomic energy, and specifically atomic weapons, to remake the world into a better, more amazing place.  Instead they keep gripping about the possibility of utter devastation due to a potential nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.  So it was decided to put on a series of demonstrations of the fantastic peaceful applications for atomic weapons, mainly in the field of “massive construction projects involving making huge holes suddenly appear in the ground.”  Hence the creation of Operation Plowshare, a major U.S. initiative to develop a series of projects to improve America through the use of controlled peaceful nuclear explosions.

Project_Chariot_plans

An example of an Operation Plowshare sub-project is the idea above, Project Chariot, a plan to use five carefully timed atomic blasts to create a brand new harbor in Alaska for use in trade and settlement.  Concerns about radioactive contamination and environmental damage did not deter this program, what did derail the plan was first concerns that setting of five nuclear weapons in close proximity to each other might be harmful to the local Alaskan native populations living nearby.  More critically though was the problem of cost, building this shiny new harbor would be expensive and the region in Alaska did not really need a new nuclear created harbor.  Most of the ideas considered were not actually tried, such as using atomic weapons to dig channels between underground aquifers in Arizona, or leveling off mountain tops in California for road construction, or my personal favorite, using multiple nuclear weapons to dig a huge trench for a new highway project.

Project_Gnome

However Project Gnome was implemented, a nuclear blast in New Mexico in 1961 aimed at the idea of detonating the weapon inside a huge salt dome.  The plan was the melted salt would retain a great deal of heat from the blast, allowing water to be bumped into the cavity, heated, and steam produced.  This in turn could be used to produce electrical energy from a constructed power plant on-site.  Ideally the system would provide a steady and regular source of extremely low-cost energy and the success could be duplicated in other eligible areas of the country.

The actual plan did not work out as well as hoped, when the weapon was detonated it failed to seal the shaft that had been dug down to get the weapon in position and cracks in the surface from the blast, along with the open shaft, vented radioactive steam into the atmosphere.  This turned off the U.S. population to the idea, although a year later a team sent down to check on the results of the blast confirmed the salt was still hot enough for use in steam production.  The idea though was abandoned, as was Operation Plowshare as a concept by 1977 after numerous additional test blasts to play with other ideas.  (Including an alternative to fracking as a means of natural gas production – rock shattered by water or rock shattered by the power of the ATOM!  What sounds cooler?)

Sources:  Wikipedia article on Project Plowshare and Project Gnome, io9 article on Operation Plowshare