When you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And if you have several thousand nuclear warheads just lying around, it seems a shame not to put them to good use. Here are ten of the most bizarre proposals for nuclear bomb use over the decades.
Among the wild and wacky ideas for President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" program, few were wilder and wackier than Edward Teller's proposed nuclear-pumped X-ray lasers.
The New Scientist summarized the concept in 1987:
It worked on the principle put forward by Teller in the 1940s. By focusing relativistic X-rays and gamma rays produced by a fission bomb, isotopes of hydrogen could be fused, releasing prodigious quantities of energy. It was the basic principle of the H-bomb. Taking this a stage further, a small hydrogen bomb surrounded by lasing rods would, when struck by the X-rays, emit laser energy across great distances. The entire device would be destroyed in the resulting ﬁreball, but not before it had propagated energetic X-rays. The idea was to point each rod at a separate missile and strike them all simultaneously.
Teller's protégé and partner on the research project was physicist Lowell Wood, who had a flair for the dramatic. A briefing he put together for CIA Director William Casey in April 1985 was titled, "Soviet and American X-Ray Efforts: A Technological Race for the Prize of the Planet." That same month he tried to convince Lt. General James Abrahamson, the head of the SDI Organization, to do a demonstration test in Nevada, using nuclear-pumped X-ray lasers to ignite the atmosphere. Wood titled that briefing, "Pillars of Fire in the Valley of the Giant Mushrooms."
But, it was never meant to be. In 1987, a whistle-blower at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory revealed that Teller and Wood had conveyed "overly optimistic, technically incorrect" information about the laser research to the nation's top policy makers. (Wood had gone so far as to say during a Congressional hearing that a single X-ray laser platform could "win" a nuclear conflict by wiping out incoming Soviet missiles.)
The X-ray laser project had cost $1 billion dollars. Congress later slashed its funding, demoting it to a small-scale research project.
In 1958, the United States initiated the Plowshare Program, which sought to develop techniques to use nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes. Between December 1961 and May 1973, the United States conducted 27 Plowshare nuclear explosive tests.
Not all of the proposed projects (thankfully) made it beyond the planning phase. Earlier this year, io9's Esther Inglis-Arkel wrote about one such effort, Project Cauldron:
The Athabasca Oil Sands are just northeast of Alberta, Canada. For an oil-hungry world, they're the ultimate frustration. Oil literally clings to the sand right on the surface. As it turns out, though, a slurry of sand and oil proves a tougher challenge to oil extractors than oil buried far underground. Manley Natland, a geologist working for an oil company, saw a lot of profit to be made in Athabasca, but no way to make it. One day he was working in Saudi Arabia and saw a brilliant red sun sink down in the sky until it looked like a giant explosion coming up from the ground - and he had an idea.
That idea was in sync with the general drive to make nuclear weapons a solution instead of a problem. Operation Plowshare was underway, trying to make use of nukes. That project tested atomic bombs to see if they were fit for road construction, the making of artificial lakes, or the generation of hydroelectricity. Project Cauldron, also known as Project Oilsands, was a nifty little addition to the project. The idea was to set off as many as a hundred nuclear bombs under the oil sands. The bombs would heat the oil, making it easier to extract, and would create a sort of cavern underneath the sand to catch any oil that flowed down. Drilling and extraction should then be easy.
Great idea, right? The United States Congress and Alberta's Federal Mines committee thought so. Residents living near Oilsands were not as enthusiastic. The nearest town was ten kilometers from the planned site of the first test. Although the town had only twelve residents, the people there made enough of a fuss to stall the test until the national and international mood shifted away from using nuclear weapons as construction equipment. Too bad. What harm could have come from setting off a bomb under a massive oil field?
In 1958, the U.S. Air Force initiated Project A119, a top-secret plan to detonate a nuclear bomb on the Moon. The goal was to demonstrate American military and technological prowess in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik.
Air Force officials approached Leonard Reiffel, a physicist at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Armour Research Foundation, which, since 1949, had been studying the consequences—and potential scientific applications—of nuclear explosions on the lunar surface. The Air Force enlisted Reiffel and his team of scientists, including a young Carl Sagan, to help determine the feasibility of the project—notably, whether the explosion could be seen on Earth.
In an exclusive newspaper interview published in May 2000, Reiffel revealed the details of the plan:
"It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on Earth," he said. "The US was lagging behind in the space race."
"The explosion would obviously be best on the dark side of the Moon and the theory was that if the bomb exploded on the edge of the Moon, the mushroom cloud would be illuminated by the sun."
"I made it clear at the time there would be a huge cost to science of destroying a pristine lunar environment, but the US Air Force were mainly concerned about how the nuclear explosion would play on earth," said Reiffel.
Although he believes the blast would have had little environmental impact on Earth, its crater may have ruined the face of the "man in the moon."
There were rumors in 1957 that the Soviet Union was working on a similar plan. One person who took the threat seriously was Joshua Lederberg—a brilliant, 32-year-old molecular biologist and geneticist who had developed a fascination with research into the origins of life. In the aftermath of Sputnik, he feared the Soviet Union would celebrate the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution by detonating a nuclear bomb on the Moon, creating a "Red Star" for the entire world to see. Lederberg saw this as a wakeup call: The United States must begin a program to search for signs of extraterrestrial life before the Russians contaminated the entire solar system. As such, he urged the creation of an exobiology program at NASA.
Studies of underground nuclear tests conducted in Nevada revealed that, in the early stages of the explosions, 30% of the energy was deposited in melted rock that reached temperatures higher that 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, the detonations produced large quantities of radioisotopes.
That got scientists thinking: What if there was a way store the heat in that nuclear cavity and tap into it as a controlled power source? And, what about radioisotopes, which were increasingly being used in scientific experiments, medical diagnosis and therapy, agriculture and industrial production? Would it be possible to extract radioisotopes produced by the blast from the molten rock before it solidified?
These questions became the inspiration for Project Gnome, which President John F. Kennedy described as "a further example of this country's desire to turn the power of the atom to man's welfare rather than his destruction."
On December 10, 1961, Project Gnome detonated a 3.1-kiloton device, 1,184-feet underground, amid thick salt deposits in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
As a report published by the Defense Nuclear Agency noted:
GNOME was developed with the idea that a nuclear detonation in a salt deposit would create a large volume of hot melted salt from which heat might be extracted. The possibilities to be investigated for the production of power were the tapping of the steam created by the detonation itself and the generation of high-density, high-pressure steam by the circulation of some heat-absorbing fluid, like water, over the heated salt. This generated steam would be used to drive a steam or hot gas turbine coupled with an electric generator.
Moreover, "it was hoped that salt, being water soluble" could be processed to recover radioisotopes "more cheaply and simply than from an insoluble, low-grade ore."
Things didn't quite work out as planned. Although Gnome was supposed to have been a contained explosion, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) reported: "Radioactive steam produced from heating water in the salt bed cavity was vented to the air above the site through a shaft. Maximum 10,000 roentgen per hour readings in downwind monitoring caused the AEC to close several public roads near the site."
And, with characteristic understatement, the AEC report concluded, "the production of electric power from nuclear excavated salt cavities is economically uncompetitive with alternative electric power production technologies."
Recently, I wrote about Fritz Zwicky, who was the first astronomer to conceive of dark matter, supernovas and neutron stars. He also had a theory about colonizing the solar system using nuclear bombs. We could terraform other planets, he argued, by pulverizing them and then moving them closer or further from the sun.
Zwicky also claimed to have designed the ultimate mining tool, the "terrajet." He described his plans for gentrifying our solar neighborhood in a 1961 interview with the Associated Press:
Mercury and Venus, now unbearably hot because they are too close to the Sun, can be shoved into orbits near the Earth by nuclear explosions, Zwicky said. Frozen planets like distant Jupiter can be blasted nearer the Sun.
"Jupiter is so big and its gravitational pull so strong that man would find it difficult to move about on the surface." Zwicky said. "The answer is to whittle it down to proper size with terrajets and nuclear power, using the debris to increase the size of Jupiter's moons so they too can be colonized."
Planets and moons with insufficient atmosphere could be provided with oxygen and water as byproducts of large-scale models of the terrajet earthborer, which could at the same time be digging channels for lakes and rivers.
Poisonous atmospheres could be dissipated by the same nuclear blasts that shove their planets into more favorable orbits. Studies now underway indicate nuclear bombs need not be highly radioactive, so the surfaces of the transported planets would not be permanently uninhabitable.
"Imagine a lake, half the size of Lake Erie, in the Sahara Desert!" proclaimed a 1976 newspaper article.
Imagine, indeed. The idea of creating a massive lake in Egypt has been kicked around for more than a century, ever since German geologist Albrecht Penck suggested it in 1912.
The site for this proposed endeavor is the 7,570 square-mile Qattara Depression, which is 436 feet below sea level. The patch of land is tantalizingly close to the Mediterranean Sea, making it a potentially ideal location for generating power. The basic idea: Dig a canal connecting the sea to the depression, which would then flood and form a lake. The lake water would evaporate in the desert heat, allowing for a constant inflow that could generate hydroelectricity.
In the 1970s, a West German engineering company, Lahmeyer International, undertook a feasibility study for the project. Their conclusion? It would cost the Egyptian government $3.3 billion to construct a canal—200 feet deep, 50 miles long and 920 feet wide—connecting El Sira on the Mediterranean Coast to the Qattara Depression. However, the company could complete the task for only $1.2 billion by excavating the canal with 200 hydrogen bombs.
The Egyptians declined the offer.
NASA's Project Orion, which was initiated in 1958, envisioned propelling a spacecraft by detonating a series of atomic bombs behind the vessel—a concept known as nuclear pulse propulsion.
The idea was the brainchild of famed mathematician and Manhattan Project alum, Stanislaw Ulam, who, in the late 1940s, was considering ideas for nuclear propulsion. He came to the conclusion that the engineering required to contain a nuclear blast was impractical and rejected the conventional rocket design in favor of the "pusher plate."
The project, led by physicists Freeman Dyson and Ted Taylor, proposed a spacecraft carrying several bombs, which would each be ejected one at a time and detonated. A reaction mass—either built into the bombs or dropped separately—would be vaporized into plasma that would then bounce off the pusher plate. Large, multi-story high shock absorbers—in the form of pneumatic springs or low-pressure gas bags—would support the plate and absorb the impact of the explosion to propel the ship forward.
The project was officially shelved in 1963, with the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited all nuclear detonations except those conducted underground.
In the mid-1950s, Jack W. Reed, a meteorologist at Sandia Laboratory, was studying the atmospheric effects produced by America's first detonation of a hydrogen bomb, which had lofted a massive central column of air more than 20 miles into the sky.
And that's when he had the idea of using nuclear weapons to disrupt hurricanes.
At a 1959 symposium on the Plowshare Program, Reed presented a research paper, "Some Speculations on the Effects of Nuclear Explosions on Hurricanes."
It appears that a megaton explosion in the eye would engulf and entrain a large quantity of this hot "eye" air and carry it out of the storm into the stratosphere…. A rough approximation for entrainment observed from tests in the Pacific shows that a 2.0-megaton explosion would engulf and lift from the storm a volume amounting to less than 10% of the initial eye volume below 10,000 feet, 25% of the air initially between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, 66% of the air between 20,000 and 30,000 feet, and all the eye air between 30,000 and 40,000 feet. Nearly all significant storm features occur below 40,000 feet. This removed air would be replaced by horizontal convergence of cooler air from the storm walls, which mixed in the indicated ratios changes the eye temperature.
Or, put more simply: Reed theorized that a large blast detonated in the eye of a hurricane could loft most of the relatively warm air in the hurricane's eye— its central engine—high above the storm. The warm air would then be replaced by colder, denser air, weakening the storm.
Nobody was particularly eager to pursue the idea. However, Reed's legacy sort of lives on. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has observed, "during each hurricane season, there always appear suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms." NOAA has even published an online primer, explaining why nuking weather is problematic:
The main difficulty with using explosives to modify hurricanes is the amount of energy required. A fully developed hurricane can release heat energy at a rate of 5 to 20x10∧13 watts and converts less than 10% of the heat into the mechanical energy of the wind. The heat release is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. According to the 1993 World Almanac, the entire human race used energy at a rate of 10∧13 watts in 1990, a rate less than 20% of the power of a hurricane.
If we think about mechanical energy, the energy at humanity's disposal is closer to the storm's, but the task of focusing even half of the energy on a spot in the middle of a remote ocean would still be formidable. Brute force interference with hurricanes doesn't seem promising.
"Apart from the fact that this might not even alter the storm," NOAA adds, "this approach neglects the problem that the released radioactive fallout would fairly quickly move with the tradewinds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems. Needless to say, this is not a good idea."
"Project Chariot" was the code name the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) gave to a 1958 plan to create an instant harbor on the coast of Alaska by detonating thermonuclear bombs. Four devices, each with a yield of 100 kilotons, would carve out the harbor's entrance channel; while two devices, each with a yield of one megaton, would exacavate the basin. The explosion—equal to 40% of the ﬁrepower expended in World War II—would blast seventy million cubic yards of earth as high as the stratosphere
The initiative was championed by (who, else?) Edward Teller, who personally toured Alaska, promoting the harbor as an important economic development. While delivering the University of Alaska commencement address, he declared that such a project "needs big people.... and big people are found in big states." Newspapers, chambers of commerce and even church leaders rallied to the cause. One editorial, published on July 24, 1958—three weeks after Congress passed the Alaska statehood bill—boasted, "We think the holding of a huge nuclear blast in Alaska would be a fitting overture to the new era which is opening up for our state."
What the Alaskans didn't realize was that the main goal of Project Chariot was to obtain the data necessary to plan for the excavation for a new Panama Canal. Alaska was simply the dry run.
But Project Chariot was shut down, thanks to an opposition movement begun by Inupiat Eskimos. As Dan O'Neil, a research associate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks wrote in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
This episode represents the first successful opposition to the U.S. nuclear establishment. Chariot was possibly the first government project challenged on ecological grounds, and occasioned the first integrated bioenvironmental study—the progenitor of the modern environmental impact statement. Alaskan natives parlayed their anti-Chariot activism into the ﬁrst-ever conference of the Alaska Eskimo people, the first statewide native newspaper, and ultimately, a stunning victory in their land claims ﬁght in Congress.
In 2010, as the BP oil spill continued to vomit into the Gulf of Mexico, some armchair engineers proposed nuking the well.
"Probably the only thing we can do is create a weapon system and send it down 18,000 feet and detonate it, hopefully encasing the oil," Matt Simmons, a Houston energy expert and investment banker, told Bloomberg News, attributing the idea to "all the best scientists."
The identities of these "best scientists" were never revealed, probably because there weren't that many of them. In theory, a nuclear explosion might appear to be an attractive option since the extreme heat melts the rock, creating a seal over the seafloor gusher. The strategy had worked before on dry land. According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2000, "The Soviet Program for Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Explosions," the Soviet Union had detonated five nuclear devices between 1966 and 1981, beginning with an explosion that sealed off a gas well fire that had been burning for three years. The 1981 blast didn't work, possibly because the engineers did not have the precise location of the borehole.
However, none of those detonations had involved oil or had been set off underwater near the sea floor. As Salon's technology editor Andrew Leonard explained:
The wellhead is 5,000 feet underwater, and the well bore penetrates another 13,000 feet below the seabed. Solutions that are possible on land or in shallow water are not readily applicable, or the well would already be plugged.
It's also worth noting that in the Soviet case, additional "slant wells" had to be drilled in order to get the nuclear explosive deep enough and close enough to the original well to be able to seal it off… it's not clear that [a surface] cap would be able to withstand the immense pressure exerted by the oil and gas bubbling from below.
This is just speculation, but I'm also guessing that we don't have a whole lot of data about what happens to the geology of a deepwater oil reservoir when a nuclear bomb is detonated in the general vicinity. I'd hate to be the president who authorized a nuclear strike against an oil well and discover that the blast created numerous fractures in the seafloor that allowed even more oil and gas to escape. It seems to me that one might want to hold such a tactic in reserve as a last resort.
And then there are the worst-case scenarios — such as the possibility that a nuclear explosion might ignite a chain reaction of methane hydrate eruptions that could result in the most horrific global catastrophe since the Permian extinction.
Who knew that the nuclear weapons could be so dangerous?