When Nuclear Bombs Were Going to be Used For Construction Work

The creator of dynamite wanted to use it in mining and construction, but saw it turned into a weapon. But nuclear weapons nearly went the other direction: they were developed as weapons, but were going to be used in construction.

In Project Gnome, scientists experimented with using nukes to build, instead of destroy.

When the world found out about the nuclear bomb — a single bomb that could destroy an entire city — the world wanted reassurance. Scientists and technology buffs turned out in force, spinning dreams of a world in which nuclear reactors were the perfect way to provide clean, limitless energy (which some people would argue is still possible) while others said that nuclear bombs would be perfect for glorious, large-scale construction projects (which everyone, I think, would agree is not possible).

And underground nuclear testing showed that a bomb would make an entire mountain buck a few inches up and down, but otherwise left the area remarkably unscathed.

Construction industry officials, used to large-scale projects being accomplished by blasting away rock, saw this as an opportunity. People talked of setting off nuclear bombs as a way to hollow out mountains to make vast caverns to be used as living quarters, or to construct roads through otherwise impassable hills. People thought nuclear explosions could be just one more tool, to be used in any number of public works projects.

Out of this came Project Gnome, a 1961 test of whether or not nuclear bombs could be used in all the ways envisioned by the atomic utopianists. They decided that they would set off a modest nuclear explosion near an underwater aquifer near Carlsbad Caverns. The explosion would cause the aquifer to be steamed instantly, clearing out the space for human use. And releasing a huge amount of power. A single bomb might be able, they thought, to provide hydroelectric energy more efficiently than an entire power plant. The administration was confident enough to invite reporters for the test. The 3.1 kiloton blast was supposed to seal itself off.

This did not work. The blast sent heat, smoke, and radioactive material barreling up one of the shafts to the surface. The radiation on the surface quickly decayed. The inner cavern wasn't as immediately usable — in fact, the government didn't send anyone down there to take readings until six months later. When they did, scientists found that the blast had created pillars of melted salt and had irradiated other salts over the ceiling until they were bright blue, green, and purple. The cavern was still 140 degrees Fahrenheit. No one was going to either live, or drive through, that place.

Despite the lack of success of the initial project, the concept of nuclear bombs as construction tools was tested another half-dozen times before being abandoned. The public is still banned from visiting the underground site of Project Gnome. The surface area is marked by a concrete monument and a plaque warning people not to dig for souvenirs, since they may be radioactive.

Image: Department of Energy

Via Atomic Tourist and Uranium.