For nearly two decades, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) pursued the peaceful application of nuclear weapons. These idealistic and overly ambitious atom-centered dreams included atomic-powered spacecraft, nuclear-powered airplanes, and the employment of the atom in large-scale engineering projects. While the AEC, alongside corporate partners, successfully developed nuclear power reactors and the U.S. Navy [End Page 763] achieved nuclear propulsion during these same decades, the other potential peaceful uses experienced mixed success at best. Scott Kaufman’s Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America, examines the AEC’s dogged—and costly—attempts to demonstrate the usefulness of large-scale nuclear engineering, even in the face of mounting national and international concerns.
Conceived during President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, Project Plowshare evolved into an ambitious program intended to enable engineers to redesign geography while saving time and money. The Rainier nuclear shot in 1957 convinced commission officials and scientists that a small nuclear blast could be contained underground. This led to additional experiments to create short-lived radioactive material, underground storage chambers, and large-scale excavations. AEC commissioners and scientists planned to display the full capability of peaceful nuclear explosives (PNEs) by carving out an artificial harbor on the western coast of Alaska. This experiment, Project Chariot, ultimately was canceled, and its checkered history would haunt the commission and its hopes for nuclear geo-engineering. Kaufman continually refers to the failure of this early Project Plowshare undertaking and the unwillingness of those involved to learn from its demise.
Despite Project Chariot’s ignominious end, the commission and its supporters moved ahead with increasingly more ambitious uses for PNEs, such as the creation of a new sea-level canal across the Panamanian isthmus. Advocates promised that Project Plowshare would lead to the excavation of a new canal, permit the nation to tap into new underground fuel sources, and dig out new harbors, while minimizing public and environmental exposure to radioactive fallout. Kaufman argues that Plowshare actually suffered from a constant range of problems, including health effects associated with fallout, and nuclear test-control treaties which curbed demonstration shots and imposed radioactive exposure limits. He further notes that the arrogance displayed by scientists such as Edward Teller, and AEC commissioner Lewis Strauss, inflamed opposition and inspired the embryonic environmental movement. Kaufman claims that atomic scientists and bureaucrats repeatedly revealed a sharp disconnect between themselves and the public throughout the history of Plowshare. When Plowshare experiments moved off the federally controlled Nevada Test Site, the realities of convincing an increasingly skeptical American public seemed to overwhelm AEC leaders.
The alarm expressed by the American public led the commission to shop for Plowshare projects and customers abroad. Through three presidential administrations, the commission and supporters tried to move forward on the excavation of a new Panama Canal, even as deteriorating diplomatic relations between America and Panama threatened to undermine this effort. Plowshare advocates turned to Australia in the early 1970s [End Page 764] to finally demonstrate the feasibility and efficiency of nuclear excavation of harbors. AEC leaders hoped to entice both the Australian government and corporate interests to permit the use of PNEs on the northwestern coast of the nation. The adventure Down Under ultimately ended in frustration for Plowshare supporters.
Project Plowshare encompassed more than harbor creation proposals. The commission attempted to expand the appeal of PNEs to the public and businesses by shifting some attention onto underground gas and oil stimulation. Unfortunately, radiation remained a problem even as the program used smaller thermonuclear devices designed to minimize the generation of radioactive isotopes. Kaufman points out that in the natural gas stimulation shots undertaken by the AEC, the gas produced was unmarketable due to contamination. A string of experiment failures, outspoken public opposition, restrictive diplomatic agreements, and budgetary cuts contributed to the demise of Plowshare.
Kaufman’s narrative expands not only the history of Plowshare but also the story of nuclear weapons and arms control. His work complements Scott Kirsch’s Proving Grounds: Project...