Thrawn Rickle 91


Operation Plowshare
© 2005 Williscroft

During the 760s and 750s BC, a Palestinian named Isaiah created a remarkable document that we know today as the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian holy book commonly called the Bible.

As far back as the late 1800s (AD) scholars have disputed the authenticity of this book, especially of the latter third or so, but there is no doubt that somebody who was a keen observer of current events wrote most of this remarkable document more than two thousand six hundred years ago. Probably the most well known passage comes from chapter 2, verse 4, where the writer is prophesying about the coming messiah, and says that the nations of the world will “…will beat their swords into plowshares….” 

My cynical observation is that this does not appear to have happened yet, nor does it look like it might happen anytime soon. Nevertheless, back between 1957 and 1973 something extraordinary happened here in the United States. 

This was the height of the Cold War. Across America, people were building bomb shelters designed to withstand a near-by nuclear blast, and equipped to allow the occupants to survive a nuclear attack. Schools regularly practiced fallout drills, and children competed to see who could get under a school desk the quickest. 

During this time I served on nuclear submarines. We regularly drilled on what we called Weapons Systems Readiness Tests – WSRTs. The idea was to be able to launch our nuclear missiles as soon as possible after receiving a launch message. We got the drill down to about twelve minutes, which included the time needed to authenticate the launch message. 

This was serious business.

It was a scary time. 

One of the problems with nuclear weapons is that they are not entirely predictable in a theoretical setting. Without detailed tests of specific configurations, the outcome of a specific explosion could only be predicted in a general manner. Testing was absolutely necessary in order to have reliable nuclear weapons that would perform as anticipated. Since most nuclear weapons are designed to explode over a target, producing a hammer-like effect that flattens the target, atmospheric testing appeared to be the only way to develop these weapons effectively. 

Unfortunately, atmospheric testing has negative consequences, some of which are long-term or even very long-term. In the ensuing fifty years we have learned a great deal about nuclear explosions, so that today, if it became necessary, we could test nuclear weapons above ground with little or no long-term effects for our atmosphere or the planet in general. 

But this was not the case back in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Consequently, there was a public outcry for limiting and eventually eliminating atmospheric nuclear testing. For many scientists, we had unleashed an evil genie over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so that even Robert Oppenheimer who – more than anyone else – was responsible for the development of the atomic bomb, began protesting that all testing had to stop. 

Other scientists, however, saw nuclear weapons as a way to protect our way of life and to further our knowledge of how the Universe operates. A leader among these was Edward Teller who is best remembered as the father of the hydrogen bomb. Teller developed a method of using an atomic bomb as a trigger for a thermonuclear fusion reaction that could produce an explosion many thousands of times more powerful than an atomic bomb. 

A typical atomic bomb from the 1950s and 1960s produced an equivalent explosive force of between 1 thousand and 100 thousand tons of TNT. By any measure, that’s a big explosion. By comparison, however, a typical thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb produced an explosion equivalent to between 50 and 100 million tons of TNT. 

Now that’s a really big explosion. 

Teller and his associates saw these mighty explosions as a way to eliminate the Soviet Union’s ability to retaliate against this country in the event of all out war. Their underlying assumption was that we would not attack first, and that if we had an absolute ability to retaliate with such devastating force against an attacker, a potential attacking nation would be deterred in the face of such absolute certainty. Conversely, of course, we would be deterred from attacking the Soviet Union, if they also had the ability to respond to our attack with equally devastating force. 

It was called Mutually Assured Destruction – MAD. 

Although Teller is mostly remembered for his work on the Hydrogen Bomb, he was also very active in trying to develop peaceful uses for nuclear weapons. On June 19, 1957, Operation Plowshare was formally inaugurated. The name, of course, referred to Isaiah’s ancient prophecy about nations that “…will beat their swords into plowshares….” 

The magnificence of the concept is that the nation responsible for developing the thermonuclear bomb was also the nation that saw beyond the military usefulness of these ferocious weapons to how they might be employed to better the condition of humans the world over. 

Simply stated, the idea was to enlarge or even create harbors using carefully placed nuclear charges; to blast away intervening hills and mountain sides to enable clear surface passage across major mountain ranges; and even to “dig” a new canal connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific through Nicaragua. These were serious studies that appeared to have real potential for becoming the next big terrestrial engineering projects. 

To this end, Teller and associates set up a series of twenty-eight underground test explosions commencing with the 3 kiloton Gnome test on December 10, 1961, in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Since no one really understood how such explosions would play themselves out under actual conditions, it was vitally necessary to test various configurations and explosive strengths in order to develop appropriate configurations, and to learn how to direct the explosive output in the desired direction. Gnome was part of a thirty-two test series nicknamed Nougat, but was the only Operation Plowshare explosion in the series.

The next test – Sedan – followed in about six months on July 6, 1962, at the Nevada Test Site. Sedan was much more powerful at 104 kilotons, and was part of a larger test series called Operation Storax which was a series of mostly air-dropped weapons that were tested following the Soviet abandonment of the 1958 to 1961 test moratorium.

From then until the abandonment of the project following the Rio Blanco test on May 17, 1973, Teller and associates tested another twenty-six devices ranging from very low yield that would be suitable to opening a difficult mountain pass, up to 105 kilotons that could move the very largest obstacles an engineering project might face.

The sixteen-year history of these carefully designed and executed tests proved conclusively that Operation Plowshare was a viable and effective way to conduct such large-scale engineering projects. Teller learned how to shape thermonuclear charges to focus the explosive power to do exactly what was required. He also learned how to eliminate virtually all residual radioactivity, so that the explosions resulted in virtually no hazardous aftereffects.

Unfortunately, by this time the word “nuclear” had passed through and been changed by the left-of-center scientific establishment, resulting in wide-spread publicity by eco-fascist extremists. Nuclear became the bad boy of modern science, and its proponents were ostracized by their peers.

In 1968 while I was attending University of Washington, Teller visited the campus, and appeared as a guest lecturer in my physics class. Our professor found it necessary to explain that Teller was a fine scientist, but we should not let his “extreme” political views influence our own politics (Teller later became a personal friend of President Ronald Regan).

Edward Teller passed away on September 9, 2003, and with his passing Operation Plowshare finally died as well. It was a magnificent concept, fully viable, completely doable, and the very best solution to many really difficult engineering problems.

Because we seem unable to wrap ourselves around nuclear reality, super tankers and other large ships travel all the way around the tip of South America instead of crossing at the isthmus, ultimately costing consumers uncounted billions in added costs. Goods traveling by truck and train across the Rockies have significantly increased costs, especially in the Winter, because we are not able to open passes that would significantly increase travel efficiency and thus lower costs. Costal cities around the world are unable to take advantage of ocean commerce because they lack appropriate deep-water harbor facilities, which we could create inexpensively and easily with Plowshare.

I observed cynically at the start of this article that “…[beating] their swords into plowshares…” was not likely to happen anytime soon. Unfortunately, it looks like I was right – and I morn the loss.