Retrotechtacular: Better Living Through A-Bombs

Usually, if you are listening to people debate about nuclear issues, it is one of two topics: how to deal with nuclear weapon stockpiles or if we want nuclear power plants in our backyard. But there was a time when the US and the USSR had more peaceful plans for nuclear bombs. While peaceful plans for nuclear bombs might sound like an oxymoron, there was somewhat of a craze for all things nuclear at some point, and it wasn’t clear that nuclear power and explosives wouldn’t take over many industries as the transistor did, or the vacuum tube before it.

You may have heard about Project (or Operation) Plowshare, the US effort to find a peaceful use for all those atom bombs. The Atomic Energy Commission video below touts the benefits “for all nations.” What benefits? Mostly moving earth, including widening the Panama Canal or creating a new canal, cutting highways through mountains, assisting mining and natural gas production, and creating an artificial harbor. There was also talk of using atomic blasts to create new materials and, of course, furthering the study of the atom.

The Lawrence Livermore lab also commissioned a film about a part of the project that you can watch below (You might think it is the wrong video until you get about three minutes in.) If nothing else, there is some great video of vintage test equipment in the lab footage.

So What Really Happened?

You might think that nothing came of this. After all, blasting nukes in harbors and mines would leave a messy radiation field behind. But there were 27 test blasts, some of which used more than one bomb, between 1961 and 1973. Most of the devices were fairly small, but at least one was over 100 kilotons. For reference, the bombs used in Japan were about 16 kilotons and 21 kilotons.

As you might expect, some of these blasts didn’t go well. One test blast vented radioactive steam over a press gallery full of reporters. A later blast threw up a huge radioactive dust cloud 12,000 feet into the air that started heading east.

One reason stimulating oil and gas production was attractive is because oil and gas are sometimes radioactive naturally, so processing already considers that.

Meanwhile, in Moscow

This wasn’t just an American thing. The USSR had the typically named “Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy” program with similar aims. Since their original position was to ban all testing, they were a little late to the party, starting their program in the mid-1960s.

However, they made up for it with 156 explosions up through 1989. That includes six actual uses that were not considered tests, including capping errant gas wells. They also had mishaps. One explosion was supposed to unearth diamond-rich ore, but the results were disappointing, and water in the area was polluted with plutonium. Other explosions vented radioactive steam, and monitors in Japan and the United States were able to detect some of the radioactivity.

You can find a US report about the Russian program that includes some historical background on Plowshare online.


While we are always fans of futuristic tech, we are happy our next freeway won’t be excavated with an atom bomb. Of course, a common excavation project in the 1960s was, in fact, a backyard bomb shelter, so there would have been some irony in using bombs to dig bomb shelters.

The nuclear craze wasn’t just limited to digging and mining, however. Even Ford showed off a concept for a nuclear-powered car in 1958. And we talked more about the science behind capping oil wells with nukes if you would like to find out more.

42 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Better Living Through A-Bombs

  1. Nowadays nuclear debate is mostly about whether nuclear bomb will be used by russia and whether a conventional weapons response is adequate in case of a single tactical nuke

    1. Listen to LazerPig and you’ll discover the chances of Rossiya having a viable nuclear weapon are… approching zero. Maintenance? Yep tick that box – money for the maintenance? elsewhere.

      1. Nukes are the ONLY thing that keeps that nation relevant and its borders unmolested. The fact that it still has an heirloom cold war doomsday system is their lifeline, and you can bet they know it. Even if nothing else in the entire nation was functioning, the last thing on earth they would let fall into disrepair is those nukes. Sorry, LazerPig or whoever is wrong.
        There is money in Russia if you know where to look, and there are natural assets that the (admittedly small circle of) people with all that money are very interested in keeping, so yes somebody is paying for upkeep.
        Speculating about something like that with the pseudonym LazerPig seems like comical hubris. What’s the next step after assuming that they couldn’t possibly have nukes? Hm? Brinksmanship never dies it seems, still just as strong as it was in the mid 20th century.

        1. There’s around 2500 abandoned radioisotope thermal generators scattered around Russia and the former Soviet republics. They were used to power things like navigation lights, radio beacons, and radio repeaters.

          They’re well shielded but unfortunately a lot of them are held together with ordinary metric hex head bolts, so any idiot can find one, open it up, and die horribly. It’s happened a few times.

          Of greater concern is some terrorists extracting a plutonium core from one of them (with protective gear so they don’t die horribly) then using it with conventional explosives to contaminate a city or smashing up the core and dumping it in a water supply.

          1. To add to your point: many nuclear scientists left Russia during their economic troubles in pre-Putin, Yeltsin-led Russia. I remember participating in high school debates in the late 90s, citing articles (remember citing?) about how people were concerned that many of these scientists had been hired by other countries and that was as big a threat (if not bigger) than materials getting out of Russia. If the sanctions against them manage to do any sort of real economic damage (they still sell oil and are still part of OPEC+) then I’d find this possibility just as worrying now.

      2. It’s not exactly true. While a lot of their missiles will fail (reasonable estimate is ~50%), a lot of warheads will malfunction (that’s harder to estimate), and a lot can be intercepted (Patriot performance in Kyiv demonstrated that 100% interception ratio is reachable, at least if there are less than many dozens of simultaneous hypersonic objects), it’s still not a zero threat – especially if aimed at less valuable targets which are not well protected by SAM systems.

        Much less of a threat than many people tend to think though

      3. The Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization; March 1, 2022 report to Congress has not one word about any Russian stockpile stewardship, probably because what we do know is highly classified, not necessarily because they aren’t doing any.

        Stockpile stewardship

        Stockpile stewardship refers to the United States program of reliability testing and maintenance of its nuclear weapons without the use of nuclear testing.

        Because no new nuclear weapons have been developed by the United States since 1992, even its youngest weapons are at least 30 years old (as of 2023). Aging weapons can fail or act unpredictably in a number of ways: the high explosives that compress their fissile material can chemically degrade, their electronic components can suffer from decay, their radioactive plutonium/uranium cores are potentially unreliable, and the isotopes used by thermonuclear weapons may be chemically unstable as well.

        The stockpile stewardship program is supported by the following experimental facilities:

        Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility, Los Alamos National Laboratory
        Contained Firing Facility, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
        National Ignition Facility, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (which is the laser facility recently bragging about more fusion energy output than energy input; the facility was built immediately after the comprehensive nuke test ban)
        Z machine, Sandia National Laboratories
        Omega, Laboratory for Laser Energetics
        High Explosive Application Facility, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
        Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research, Nevada National Security Site
        Large Bore Powder Gun, Nevada National Security Site
        Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, Los Alamos National Laboratory
        Proton Radiography, Los Alamos National Laboratory
        Big Explosives Experimental Facility, Nevada National Security Site
        TA-55, Los Alamos National Laboratory
        U1a Facility, Nevada National Security Site

        The data produced by the experiments carried out in these facilities is used in combination with the Advanced Simulation and Computing Program.

        1. Given the state of the rest of their army it’s probably reasonable to assume Russia’s stewardship may be less than perfect though.

          I’d wager, a bit like some of their other advanced weapons, there may be one or two good ones used to show off and the rest are likely less than perfectly functional, the money for upkeep having been channelled elsewhere by everyone in the chain as is Russian tradition.

  2. Don’t forget about nuclear propulsion for spacecraft. NERVA or Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application was aimed at creating a more efficient engine for space travel ( in effect a “Noooklear Wesssel” ) in the 50’s and 60’s. It was abandoned but recently has been reconsidered. Also don’t forget about the terraforming idea to nuke the Martian ice cap to release CO2 and water to start warming up the planet. Not a great idea because of Mars’s lack of a magnetosphere needed to keep the sun’s energetic particles from stripping away the new atmosphere. However, the idea still remains to “dust off and nuke it from orbit… It’s the only way to be sure..” 😁

    1. Orion was crazier still; they didn’t even redesign the bomb much. At least NERVA is a continuous reactor that you pass liquid hydrogen through the middle as both coolant and propellant; Orion just slightly modifies some city-busters and passes those out the rear end to smack against a big ablative plate with shock absorbers the size of multiple skyscrapers to even out the bumps.

          1. You sure about that?

            I thought the idea was conventional rocket to orbit, nuclear from there.
            The concerns weren’t so much that a successful launch would release radioactivity into the atmosphere but that an unsuccessful launch might. That and the program could be a cover to get nukes into space which could then be sent back down as weapons.

          2. It was definitely to us the nukes to get to orbit. There’s an excellent book about project Orion by George Dyson which I recommend to anyone interested in subject.

        1. That’s what the nukes are for. 100 or so nukes to reach LEO, thousands of tons payload. The available specific impulse of firing nukes out of the back is amazing. They’d got pretty far in the engineering design.

          It’s one of those ideas where everything looks great until you take a step back and say “You want to do what now?”.

  3. Needs a mention of Project Orion, the coolest possible use of an excess of nuclear bombs:
    Think putting a firecracker underneath a bean can, just greatly scaled up and with a detonation rate of around 1 hertz. Closely related to Project Medusa, which is the same thing except you throw the nukes in front of you and catch their detonations with a giant parachute a few kilometers away in space. Hooked up to a big fishing reel on the bow.

  4. While gas and oil may be “naturally” radioactive and attempts can be made to clean it up in processing, Project Rulison had the unfortunate side effect of creating a VERY radioactive natural gas well as a result of the explosion. They were able to process out a good deal of the radioactivity, but not enough to be willing to use it for public use (natural gas supplies to people’s houses for cooking and heat). And public perception wasn’t helped either. If it’s 1% higher than background radiation,… it’s still radioactive.

    1. Sadly people are generally rather daft. 1% higher or 100% higher – it’s higher therefore bad. Like North Korea getting upset Japan wants to release the Fukushima water into the sea – where the released water is radioactive, but less radioactive than the sea so overall the sea would be less radioactive due to the dilution.

      1. Like Ocean Acidification when seawater Ph is slightly above neutral. No such thing as “acidification” unless Ph is below 7. But “slightly less alkaline” doesn’t have the scary word “acid” in it.

        1. Pedantry of the highest order, bad even by
          Hackaday standards: if you add an acid to an alkali you are acidifying, even if you don’t add enough to neutralise the alkali.

  5. Well if you consider how the invention of high explosives increased the efficiency of mining, large scale construction, etc you can see where they were coming from but that pesky radiation got in the way. I suppose we could look into these things if we ever invent pure fusion nuclear explosives.

      1. didin’t i read it depends on the starting materials, seems some ore “cleaner” than others. Of course you need the neutrons in a bomb to (Help?) fission the tamper.

  6. Leaving aside the merits of the article, the picture at its head is interesting of itself. I remember a drawing in a primary-school book in the 1960s showing a couple of chaps in the same relative positions next to a lathe with gushing text about how “splitting the atom” was going to improve everybody’s lot… it probably also said something about “energy too cheap to meter”.

    The main difference was that in the drawing, the technicians were in full hazmat suits.

  7. Another related but equally fascinating project was work to develop a nuclear propulsion system for aircraft during the cold war. The goal was to have aircraft that could remain airborne for extended periods well in excess of available flight times of conventional jet aircraft. At least two test stands were constructed and went critical at what is now known as the Idaho National Laboratory (much of the design and engineering of nuclear naval surface and submarine propulsion systems was also done at the INL, as well as some reprocessing of spent naval reactor fuel). These test stands, de-fueled of course, are in public display). These test stands were successful in generating high temperature material performance data, but were never airborne. Not surprisingly, the concept of nuclear aircraft was determined to be impractical due to the weight of shielding that would be needed to protect crews. As we’ve seen now, aerial refueling and drone technology make nuclear aircraft even more of a historical anachronism.

  8. There was a mock article or hoax paper in the 1960’s that was inspired by Plowshare and taken seriously by some news outlets and made a huge stink with protests and various experts interviewed, etc. It was the Cro-Con or Cross-Continental Canal, to be made with a series of nuclear explosions for a canal from the Mississippi or Great Lakes to California or some such. I can’t recall where it appeared and neither can the Interwebs. National Lampoon? The Journal of Irreproachable Results? NYT editorial?

  9. We can all look forward to the movie coming out soon, Oppenheimer. There have been a few poorly received mega movies lately. Let’s hope this movie isn’t a bomb.

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