Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Geiger's Project Plowshare and Nuclear Harbors de Luxe

You DO use nuclear weapons, hmmm?
Between the fog and the mizzle (misty rain) today, a film noir themed post seemed appropriate. Today, The Week published an article about how during the late 1950s, the United States planned on using nuclear weapons to respond to the stir created by USSR's successful launch of the first satellite, Sputnik. First documented in the biography of the legendary science communicator, Carl Sagan, who was only a graduate student at the time, the project, conceived by physicist Leonard Reiffel, would detonate a nuclear ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) at the edge of the light and dark side of the moon so as to have the greatest psychological effect and global visibility.

The project was scrapped almost as soon as it was put together, and while it may be one of the most ridiculous uses of nuclear weapons ever thought of, it certainly is not the only one. Project Plowshare was the American government's plan starting in the 1950s and ending in the early 1970s to find a "peaceful, non-military use" for nuclear weapons.

While I could go on about the cultural aspects of nuclear science as the technological solution and the economics of making a nuclear weapon, I'll try to stick to the odd ideas the Atomic Energy Commission came up with for peacetime uses of nuclear weapons. Among the more intriguing projects were attempts to fracture rocks for the release of natural gas and oil, as well as leach copper from deposits still in the ground.

Project Chariot Harbor Excavation Plan
Everyone of the Project Plowshare nuclear explosions occurred in either Nevada, Colorado, or New Mexico, with the lion's share happening on the Nevada Test Site. One of the projects that was shelved (mainly because of strong opposition by the public) was Project Chariot, a plan to blast a harbor out near Cape Thompson in Alaska by using around 2.4 Megatons (Megaton = 1,000,000 tons of TNT) worth of nuclear explosives.

Cape Thompson, Alaska
The father of the Hydrogen Bomb, Edward Teller, personally went to Alaska to promote this project, and found a somewhat cool response (heh, Alaska jokes) from the local businesses. At over 300 miles north of the nearest harbor of importance, Nome, a harbor at Cape Thompson would be frozen the majority of the year. Furthermore, the "reason" for blasting out the harbor was to provide access for ships to take coal mined from the Brooks Range hundreds of miles away down to the continental United States. To make matters worse, the site sits less than 200 miles from the Siberian coastline, and as you might imagine, the Russians did not take lightly to Americans using nuclear explosives so near their waters, peaceful intent or not.

Point Hope, Alaska
However, in what quite possibly constitutes the first successful opposition to the federal government's nuclear technology programs, the native Iñupiat people, residing in Point Hope 30 miles to the south, along with the ecologists residing at the University of Alaska, brought enough attention to the potential environmental, health, and social effects of the project that by the time the Atomic Energy Commission realized Cape Thompson was not an ideal site, there was very little chance they would be able to move ahead anyways.

The costs and benefits of defeating this project were mixed; on one hand the Iñupiat people ushered in an new age of Alaskan Native activism that would eventually lead to the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. However, the University of Alaska scientists who opposed the project, William Pruitt and Leslie Viereck, found themselves out of a job and blacklisted from other institutions in the United States. So bad was the experience for Pruitt and his family (his mother was interrogated by the FBI) he moved to Canada in 1965 and did not return to the United States until his friends and colleagues successfully campaigned the University of Alaska to reinstate both him and Leslie Viereck.

The year was 1993.

For more information on Project Chariot and the battle waged against it, see Dan O'Neill's "Alaska and the Firecracker Boys" in Bruce Hevly and John M. Findlay's The Atomic West.

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