When science tried to use atomic bombs for infrastructure projects | by Erik Brown | August 2022

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Believe it or not, something positive came out of it

“Sedan” nuclear test crater – By US Federal Government via Commons Wikimedia

JJhere are some words that instinctively put images in your head, for better or for worse. The “atom bomb” fits this bill. It evokes destruction, annihilation and atomic mushrooms. But Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Los Alamos lab, may have said it best. After seeing one of the first test bombs in the Nevada desert, he dropped a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Destroyer of worlds sums up an atomic bomb well.

What if it didn’t have to be like this?

Obviously, splitting the atom can create energy, but could the destructive force of the atomic bomb be used positively for humanity? Yes, definitely a strange question. However, a number of positive discoveries came by accident such as: penicillin, viagra, plastic, microwaves and anesthesia.

Even life-extending chemotherapy derived from the killer device of mustard gas.

A similar sentiment has given scientists and politicians pause. President Eisenhower even addressed the United Nations in 1953 explicitly addressing the subject, in his “Atoms for Peace” speech. He went on to say:

“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… Who can doubt, if the whole body of scientists and engineers in the world had adequate quantities of fissile material with which to test and develop their ideas, that this capability would quickly be transformed into universal, efficient and economical use.

Now turning the “destroyer of worlds” into rainbows and lollipops sounds like a lofty goal on the surface. But how could you do it?

Again, I want you to imagine the words “atomic bomb”, apart from the mushroom cloud, destruction and chaos, does anything else come to mind? Well, a giant crater. And therein lies the answer.

This mighty device can move the earth — a lot of land. And that was the fundamental driving force of Operation Plowshare. According to a report by the US Department of Energy, the project itself was so named after a famous biblical proverb.

“And they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into billhooks; Nation will no longer lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.

Plowshare reported to the Peaceful Nuclear Explosives (PNE) Directorate of the Military Applications Division.

The official program began between 1958 and ended in 1975. It consisted of twenty-seven nuclear explosive tests with thirty-five individual explosions. There was also a moratorium with the Soviets in between. During these periods, blasting continued with high explosives instead.

Nevada Plow Explosions – U.S. Department of Energy via U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Scientific and Technical Information

The Ministry of Energy explains that these tests had two objectives:

“1) large-scale excavation and quarry, where the energy of the explosion has been used to break up and/or displace rock; and 2) underground engineering, where the energy released by deeply buried nuclear explosives increased the permeability and porosity of rock through massive rupture and fracturing.

In other words, either infrastructure like canals, ports, tunnels, dams or underground explosions for fracturing rocks to develop natural gas production. Most of the testing took place in Nevada test areas, as you can see above.

“Scientists viewed features of the natural world as clay for their nuclear sculpting tools and considered no project too large for their bombs. In response to a reporter’s request for a definition of geographical genius, [Plowshare Member] Edward Teller joked, “If your mountain isn’t in the right place, send us a map.”

— Ed Regis, Slate Magazine

The first official nuclear device test was Gnome Project conducted in Carlsbad, New Mexico in 1961. Its focus was more theoretical in nature; mainly to see what would happen after the three kiloton underground explosion.

  • The earth was made up of a lot of salt, so PNE scientists wanted to see what effect the explosion would have on this medium.
  • Investigate “the practical possibility of recovering useful radioisotopes for scientific and industrial applications”
  • Better understand how to use explosions safely for peaceful purposes
  • Emphasis was also placed on the possibility of using the steam created to generate electricity.
Gas Buggy Nuclear Device – US Department of Energy via Commons Wikimedia

Subsequent operations like Petrol Buggy in New Mexico and Rulison Project tested the feasibility of using a nuclear device to fracture rock to produce natural gas. Another test called Tank was also on the drawing board to use five nuclear explosions to create an artificial harbor in Alaska. Additionally, another project envisioned an alternative Panama Canal.

I could spend hours describing the results and structures of the tests performed. However, I’m sure you repeated a question in your mind while reading this. What about radiation?

Well, that’s a stellar point. According to world nuclear organization, the bombs used were different from the traditional styles used in warfare and structured to limit the fallout emitted. Unfortunately, there were two notable releases.

Gnome emitted a few, but the following test Sedan released “twin dust plumes” which landed in Iowa and South Dakota. Time magazine also wrote an article on dams describing the problems with testing to produce natural gas. Namely, the gas was contaminated with radioactive by-products.

The magazine also claimed that the economics of using PNEs were very remote since the profits from the gas did not cover the cost of the explosions in the best scenarios. Not to mention the uproar of the public.

Tech companies are often criticized for releasing software before it’s ready for prime time use. They rely on patches released later. A similar strategy would not be tolerated for PNEs until scientists can develop fixes to improve them.

Money dried up for the project in 1975 and many ideas were left on the drawing board, including Chariot. Plowshare ended with only twenty-seven tests. I say only for good reason. The USSR had its own version of a PNE program, which carried out more than a hundred tests.

I’m sure the jury in your mind has condemned the PNE idea to the stupid trash can of history at this point, but withhold judgment for one more minute. What if I told you that the idea was not totally absurd?

“Imagine a 196-ton cancer machine that can target a patient’s tumor with sub-millimeter precision while sparing nearby healthy tissue and minimizing side effects. In its simplest terms, it’s proton therapy.

— MD Anderson Cancer Center website

I’m sure the idea of ​​radiation terrifies you. It evokes zombies whose skin melts from their mutant bodies after a nuclear holocaust. But I would put it in a category closer to fire: dangerous if out of control, but useful if contained.

A few years ago, I regularly drove my mother to a medical center in northern New Jersey for proton therapy. His cancer demanded it. A tumor was growing on a tender area that was inoperable. Over the course of a few months, I learned a lot about technology.

Standard radiation uses electrons and protons, which tend to strike both healthy and cancerous tissue. Proton therapy uses only its namesake. The machine splits hydrogen atoms, channeling only protons at 125,000 miles per second to a specific location, damaging only the target area.

After dozens of trips, I have met people all over the world who have been saved by this technology. Do you remember Eisenhower’s speech? It was the greatest of the destructive forces from which humanity benefited. Oppenheimer’s destroyer of worlds caught cancer at this medical center and won many battles.

PNE and “Atoms for Peace” might seem like crazy ideas, but their purpose was just plain wrong. Gnome was the answer. Instead of looking to use the explosions for infrastructure and mining, the secret was in “useful” radioisotopes.

  • A whole field called nuclear medicine uses radioactive material in organs to diagnose their functioning.
  • Brachytherapy inserts small pieces of radioactive substances into the body near a tumor, treating everything from breast cancer to gynecological cancers to prostate cancer.
  • There is also proton therapy which I know personally.

These are the true atoms of peace. They just didn’t come in a form that looked like a bomb, but more like a hospital building. In other words, swords had to take a winding road before they could be converted into plowshares.

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