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Not to be confused with the anti-nuclear Plowshares Movement.

The 1962 "Sedan" plowshares shot displaced 12 million tons of earth and created a crater 320 feet (100 m) deep and 1,280 feet (390 m) wide

Project Plowshare was the overall United States term for the development of techniques to use nuclear explosives for peaceful construction purposes. The phrase was coined in 1961, taken from Isaiah 2:3–5 ("And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more"). It was the US portion of what are called Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (PNE). Despite successfully demonstrating non-combat uses for nuclear explosives, (i.e., for rock blasting and stimulation of tight gas), negative impacts from Project Plowshare’s 27 nuclear projects led to the program's termination in 1977, due in large part to public opposition.[1] These consequences included tritium-contaminated water and the deposition of fallout from radioactive material being injected into the atmosphere, which led to an increase in environmental levels of radioactivity across the United States.[1]


By exploiting the peaceful uses of the "friendly atom" — in medical applications, earth removal, and later in nuclear power plants — the nuclear industry and government sought to allay public fears about nuclear technology and promote the acceptance of nuclear weapons. At the peak of the Atomic Age, the United States Federal government initiated Project Plowshare, involving "peaceful nuclear explosions". The United States Atomic Energy Commission chairman announced that the Plowshares project was intended to "highlight the peaceful applications of nuclear explosive devices and thereby create a climate of world opinion that is more favorable to weapons development and tests".[2]


Proposed uses for nuclear explosives under Project Plowshare included widening the Panama Canal, constructing a new sea-level waterway through Nicaragua nicknamed the Pan-Atomic Canal, cutting paths through mountainous areas for highways, and connecting inland river systems. Other proposals involved blasting underground caverns for water, natural gas, and petroleum storage. Serious consideration was also given to using these explosives for various mining operations. One proposal suggested using nuclear blasts to connect underground aquifers in Arizona. Another plan involved surface blasting on the western slope of California's Sacramento Valley for a water transport project.[1]

Project Carryall,[3] proposed in 1963 by the Atomic Energy Commission, the California Division of Highways (now Caltrans), and the Santa Fe Railway, would have used 22 nuclear explosions to excavate a massive roadcut through the Bristol Mountains in the Mojave Desert, to accommodate construction of Interstate 40 and a new rail line.[1] At the end of the program, a major objective was to develop nuclear explosives, and blast techniques, for stimulating the flow of natural gas in "tight" underground reservoir formations. In the 1960s, a proposal was suggested for a modified in situ shale oil extraction process which involved creation of a rubble chimney (a zone in the oil shale formation created by breaking the rock into fragments) using a nuclear explosive.[4] However, this approach was abandoned for a number of technical reasons.

Plowshare testing

One of the Chariot schemes involved chaining five thermonuclear devices to create the artificial harbor.

One of the first plowshare nuclear blast cratering proposals that came close to being carried out was Project Chariot, which would have used several hydrogen bombs to create an artificial harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska. It was never carried out due to concerns for the native populations and the fact that there was little potential use for the harbor to justify its risk and expense.[5] A number of proof-of-concept cratering blasts were conducted; including the Buggy shot of 5 1-Kt-devices for a channel/trench in Area 21 and the largest being 104 kiloton (435 terajoule) on July 6, 1962 at the north end of Yucca Flats, within the Atomic Energy Commission's Nevada Test Site (NTS) in southern Nevada. The shot, "Sedan", displaced more than 12 million short tons (11 teragrams) of soil and resulted in a radioactive cloud that rose to an altitude of 12,000 ft (3.7 km). The radioactive dust plume headed northeast and then east towards the Mississippi River.

The first PNE blast was Project Gnome, conducted on December 10, 1961 in a salt bed 24 mi (39 km) southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico. The explosion released 3.1 kilotons (13 TJ) of energy yield at a depth of 361 meters (1,184 ft) which resulted in the formation of a 170 ft (52 m) diameter, 80 ft (24 m) high cavity. The test had many objectives. The most public of these involved the generation of steam which could then be used to generate electricity. Another objective was the production of useful radioisotopes and their recovery. Another experiment involved neutron time-of-flight physics. A fourth experiment involved geophysical studies based upon the timed seismic source. Only the last objective was considered a complete success. The blast unintentionally vented radioactive steam while the press watched. The partly developed Project Coach detonation experiment that was to follow adjacent to the Gnome test was then canceled.

Over the next 11 years 26 more nuclear explosion tests were conducted under the U.S. PNE program. Funding quietly ended in 1977. Costs for the program have been estimated at more than (US) $770 million.[1]

Natural gas stimulation experiment

The final PNE blast took place on 17 May 1973, under Fawn Creek, 76.4 km north of Grand Junction, Colorado. Three 30 kiloton detonations took place simultaneously at depths of 1,758, 1,875, and 2,015 meters. It was the third nuclear explosion experiment intended to stimulate the flow of natural gas from "tight" formation gas fields. Industrial participants included the El Paso Natural Gas Company for the Gasbuggy test; Austral Oil Company; CER Geonuclear Corporation for the Rulison test; and CER Geonuclear Corporation for the Rio Blanco test. If it was successful, plans called for the use of hundreds of specialized nuclear explosives in the western Rockies gas fields. The previous two tests had indicated that the produced natural gas would be too radioactive for safe use. After the Rio Blanco test it was found that the three blast cavities had not connected as hoped, and the resulting gas still contained unacceptable levels of radionuclides.[6]

By 1974, approximately $82 million had been invested in the nuclear gas stimulation technology program. It was estimated that even after 25 years of gas production of all the natural gas deemed recoverable, that only 15 to 40 percent of the investment could be recovered.

Also, the concept that stove burners in California might soon emit trace amounts of blast radionuclides into family homes did not sit well with the general public. The contaminated well gas was never channeled into commercial supply lines.

The radioactive blast debris from 839 U.S. underground nuclear test explosions remains buried in-place and has been judged impractical to remove by the DOE's Nevada Site Office.

The situation remained so for the next three decades, but a resurgence in Colorado Western slope natural gas drilling has brought resource development closer and closer to the original underground detonations. By mid-2009, 84 drilling permits had been issued within a 3-mile radius, with 11 permits within one mile of the site.[7]

Nuclear tests

The U.S. conducted 27 PNE shots in conjunction with other, weapons-related, test series.[8]

Plowshare nuclear tests
Test name Date Location Yield Test series
Gnome 10 December 1961 Carlsbad, New Mexico 3 kilotons Nougat
Sedan 6 July 1962 Nevada Test Site 104 kilotonsStorax
Anacostia 27 November 1962 Nevada Test Site 5.2 kilotons Dominic I and II
Kaweah 21 February 1963 Nevada Test Site 3 kilotons Dominic I and II
Tornillo 11 October 1963 Nevada Test Site 0.38 kilotons Niblick
Klickitat 20 February 1964 Nevada Test Site 70 kilotons Niblick
Ace 11 June 1964 Nevada Test Site 3 kilotons Niblick
Dub 30 June 1964 Nevada Test Site 11.7 kilotons Niblick
Par 9 October 1964 Nevada Test Site 38 kilotons Whetstone
Handcar 5 November 1964 Nevada Test Site 12 kilotons Whetstone
Sulky 5 November 1964 Nevada Test Site 0.9 kilotons Whetstone
Palanquin 14 April 1965 Nevada Test Site 4.3 kilotons Whetstone
Templar 24 March 1966 Nevada Test Site 0.37 kilotons Flintlock
Vulcan 25 June 1966 Nevada Test Site 25 kilotons Flintlock
Saxon 11 July 1966 Nevada Test Site 1.2 kilotons Latchkey
Simms 6 November 1966 Nevada Test Site 2.3 kilotons Latchkey
Switch 22 June 1967 Nevada Test Site 3.1 kilotons Latchkey
Marvel 21 September 1967 Nevada Test Site 2.2 kilotons Crosstie
Gasbuggy 10 December 1967 Farmington, New Mexico 29 kilotons Crosstie
Cabriolet 26 January 1968 Nevada Test Site 2.3 kilotons Crosstie
Buggy 12 March 1968 Nevada Test Site 5 at 1.1 kilotons each Crosstie
Stoddard 17 September 1968 Nevada Test Site 31 kilotons Bowline
Schooner 8 December 1968 Nevada Test Site 30 kilotons Bowline
Rulison 10 September 1969 Grand Valley, Colorado 43 kilotons Mandrel
Flask 26 May 1970 Nevada Test Site 105 kilotons Mandrel
Miniata 8 July 1971 Nevada Test Site 83 kilotons Grommet
Rio Blanco 17 May 1973 Rifle, Colorado 3 at 33 kilotons each Toggle

Non-nuclear tests

In addition to the nuclear tests, Plowshare executed a number of non-nuclear test projects in an attempt to learn more about how the nuclear explosives could best be used. Several of these projects lead to practical utility as well as to furthering knowledge about large explosives. These projects included:[8]

Plowshare non-nuclear projects
Project name Dates Location Yield Notes
Pre-Gnome 10 February 1959 Gnome site New Mexico 3 events, 365 tons each Scaling seismic events for the Gnome shot.
Toboggan 1 November 1959 NTS Area 6, centered closely around 36°57′54″N 116°00′33″W / 36.96513°N 116.0091°W / 36.96513; -116.0091 122 small detonations Singles, multiples, and lines in the dry lake bed of Yucca Flats.
Stagecoach 1 March 1960 NTS Area 10, 37°09′58″N 116°02′03″W / 37.16607°N 116.03417°W / 37.16607; -116.03417
37°09′58″N 116°02′08″W / 37.16607°N 116.03563°W / 37.16607; -116.03563
37°09′50″N 116°02′14″W / 37.1638°N 116.03709°W / 37.1638; -116.03709
3 shots, 20 tons each Preparatory to Scooter.
Buckboard 1 August 1960 NTS Area 18, centering around 37°05′42″N 116°21′11″W / 37.095°N 116.353°W / 37.095; -116.353 0.5 to 20 tons each At least 13 shots exploring hard rock excavation on Buckboard Mesa
Pinot[9] 2 August 1960 near Rifle, CO 39°32′14″N 107°57′18″W / 39.53729°N 107.95508°W / 39.53729; -107.95508 very small An experiment to inject radioxenon and study percolation through shale layers.
Scooter[10] 1 October 1960 NTS Area 10, 37°10′17″N 116°02′16″W / 37.17143°N 116.0378°W / 37.17143; -116.0378 500 tons An earth moving test similar to, and close to, Sedan.
Pre-Buggy[10][11] 1 June 1961 NTS Area 5, 36°49′57″N 115°58′14″W / 36.8324°N 115.9706°W / 36.8324; -115.9706 4 sets of 256 pounds (116 kg) Study of line forming excavation.
Rowboat 1 June 1961 NTS Area 10, 37°09′24″N 116°02′36″W / 37.15675°N 116.04321°W / 37.15675; -116.04321 4 sets of 256 lbs each Studying row charges.
Pre-Schooner I 1 February 1964 NTS Area 18, between 37°04′29″N 116°20′34″W / 37.07475°N 116.34269°W / 37.07475; -116.34269 and 37°06′25″N 116°21′02″W / 37.10696°N 116.35063°W / 37.10696; -116.35063 20 tons each 4 shots preliminary to the Schooner nuclear test.
Dugout[10] 24 June 1964 NTS Area 18, 37°05′37″N 116°20′42″W / 37.09374°N 116.34509°W / 37.09374; -116.34509 100 tons
Pre-Schooner II[12] 30 September 1965 Bruneau Plateau, ID 42°24′03″N 115°34′25″W / 42.40082°N 115.57367°W / 42.40082; -115.57367 85.5 tons Large scale cratering of hard rock.
Pre-Gondola[13][14] 20 June 1966 to 1 June 1969 Ft Peck, Montana centered around 47°55′50″N 106°38′34″W / 47.9306°N 106.6427°W / 47.9306; -106.6427 0.5 to 210 tons each 26 explosions in a shoreline excavation test at the Ft. Peck Reservoir.
Tugboat[15] 6 November 1969 to 8 December 1970 Kawaihae, HI, centered on 20°01′39″N 155°49′43″W / 20.0276°N 155.8286°W / 20.0276; -155.8286 18 events, 1 to 20 tons each Excavation of a small boat harbor. harbor is in use today.
Trinidad[16] 1 June 1971 to 19 November 1971 near Trinidad, CO, centered close around 37°07′34″N 104°36′14″W / 37.1261°N 104.6039°W / 37.1261; -104.6039 15 events 5 to 44 tons each Clearing a railroad cut near Trinidad, Co. Cut was used in railroad grade.
Old Reliable 1 August 1971 Old Reliable Mine, AZ 32°45′06″N 110°29′21″W / 32.75167°N 110.48917°W / 32.75167; -110.48917 ? Study in situ fracturing and leaching of copper ore.

Proposed nuclear projects

A number of projects were proposed and some planning accomplished, but were not followed through on. A list of these is given here:[8]

Plowshare uncompleted projects
Project name Proposed Date Location Notes
Tombigbee/Tennessee River 1 January 1959 Tishomingo County, MS near 34°49′51″N 88°15′49″W / 34.83082°N 88.26358°W / 34.83082; -88.26358 Excavation of three miles of a divide cut connecting the Tennessee and Tombigee rivers in NE Mississippi.
Oilsands 1 January 1959 Alberta, Canada near 57°01′12″N 111°39′00″W / 57.02°N 111.65°W / 57.02; -111.65 Oil recovery from Athabascan tar sands; many sites in Alberta, Canada would have supported experiments.
Ditchdigger 1 January 1961 NTS Clean thermonuclear explosives for excavation.
Chariot 1 January 1962 AK near 68°06′01″N 165°45′55″W / 68.10028°N 165.76528°W / 68.10028; -165.76528 Five nuclear bombs to excavate a harbor in Alaska's North Slope.
Coach 1 January 1963 Carlsbad, NM near 32°15′36″N 103°52′12″W / 32.26°N 103.87°W / 32.26; -103.87 Production of neutron-rich isotopes of trans-plutonian elements.
Carryall 1 November 1963 Bristol Mountain Pass, CA near 34°19′51″N 115°51′47″W / 34.3307°N 115.86307°W / 34.3307; -115.86307 Plan to use 22 bombs to blast a path over the Bristol Mountains for the ATSF railroad and Caltrans.
Phaeton 1 January 1964 NTS Cratering scaling experiment.
Dogsled 1 January 1964 Glade Park, CO near 39°03′05″N 109°01′35″W / 39.05149°N 109.02627°W / 39.05149; -109.02627 Cratering characteristics in dry sandstone on the Colorado Plateau.
Pan-Atomic Canal 1 January 1965 Nicaragua near 11°19′22″N 84°49′56″W / 11.32265°N 84.83235°W / 11.32265; -84.83235 One of several possibilities for a new sea-level Atlantic/Pacific canal.
Flivver 1 March 1966 NTS} Basic cratering science and engineering.
Dragon Trail 1 December 1966 Rifle, CO near 39°54′01″N 109°01′00″W / 39.90038°N 109.01679°W / 39.90038; -109.01679 A gas stimulation plan similar to Rulison but in the Mancos B formation of Colorado, sponsored by Conoco.
Thunderbird 1 January 1967 35 miles (56 km) east of Buffalo, WY near 44°20′42″N 105°59′28″W / 44.34488°N 105.99101°W / 44.34488; -105.99101 Coal gasification 35 miles east of Buffalo, WY
Galley 1 January 1967 undetermined Row charges under hard rock under varying terrain conditions.
Ketch 1 August 1967 Clinton County, PA near 41°11′29″N 77°44′21″W / 41.19136°N 77.73923°W / 41.19136; -77.73923 Creation of an underground storage facility for natural gas, sponsored by Columbia Gas System Corp.
Bronco 1 August 1967 near Rifle CO Breaking up oil shale deposits for in situ retorting; essentially the same project as Rulison.
Sloop 1 October 1967 Safford, AZ near 32°51′40″N 109°41′33″W / 32.86123°N 109.69242°W / 32.86123; -109.69242 A plan for breaking up low yield copper ore bodies making them ready for leaching in situ, from Kennecott Copper.
Acquarius 1 January 1968 Bowie County, AZ near 32°06′27″N 109°08′53″W / 32.10748°N 109.14811°W / 32.10748; -109.14811 Water resource management, dam construction, subsurface water storage, purification, acquifer modification, at Clear Creek or San Simon, AZ.
Wagon Wheel 1 January 1968 19 miles (31 km) south of Pinedale, WY near 42°35′27″N 109°51′16″W / 42.59077°N 109.85455°W / 42.59077; -109.85455 Another natural gas stimulation project, 19 mi S of Pinedale, WY.
Oxcart 1 January 1969 NTS Investigate excavation efficiency as a function of yield and depth for Project Chariot.
Utah 1 January 1969 Ouray, UT near 40°00′39″N 109°36′23″W / 40.01079°N 109.60648°W / 40.01079; -109.60648 Plan for oil shale maturation experiment.
Sturtevant 1 January 1969 NTS Cratering experiment tailored to the Pan-Atomic canal.
Australian Harbor 1 January 1969 Tasmania, Australia near 40°26′41″S 144°46′41″E / 40.44477°S 144.77818°E / -40.44477; 144.77818 A joint US/Australian plan for creating a new harbor at Cape Keraudren on the Australian NW coast.
Yawl 1 January 1969 NTS Cratering experiment tailored to the Pan-Atomic canal.
Wasp 1 July 1969 Bondurant, WY, 24 miles (39 km) northwest of Pinedale, WY near 43°09′21″N 110°25′45″W / 43.15594°N 110.42915°W / 43.15594; -110.42915 Another natural gas stimulation project.
Geothermal Power 1 January 1971 Valles Caldera, Jemez Mountains, NM near 35°53′42″N 106°51′22″W / 35.89488°N 106.85616°W / 35.89488; -106.85616 Both dry and wet geothermal energy stimulation.

Negative impacts and opposition

Operation Plowshare "started with great expectations and high hopes". Planners believed that the projects could be completed safely, but there was less confidence that they could be completed more economically than conventional methods. Moreover, there was insufficient public and Congressional support for the projects. Projects Chariot and Coach were two examples where technical problems and environmental concerns prompted further feasibility studies which took several years, and each project was eventually canceled.[17] Citizen groups voiced concerns and opposition to some of the Plowshare tests. There were concerns that the blast effects from the Schooner explosion could dry up active wells or trigger an earthquake. There was opposition to both Rulison and Rio Blanco tests because of possible radioactive gas flaring operations and other environmental hazards.[17] In a 1973 article, Time used the term "Project Dubious" to describe Operation Plowshare.[6] There were many negative impacts from Project Plowshare’s 27 nuclear explosions:[1]

Project Gnome vented radioactive steam over the very press gallery that was called to confirm its safety. The next blast, a 104-kiloton detonation at Yucca Flat, Nevada, displaced 12 million tons of soil and resulted in a radioactive dust cloud that rose 12,000 feet and plumed toward the Mississippi River. Other consequences – blighted land, relocated communities, tritium-contaminated water, radioactivity, and fallout from debris being hurled high into the atmosphere – were ignored and downplayed until the program was terminated in 1977, due in large part to public opposition.[1]

Project Plowshare shows how something intended to improve national security can unwittingly do the opposite if it fails to fully consider the social, political, and environmental consequences. It also “underscores that public resentment and opposition can stop projects in their tracks”.[1]

See also

  • Plowshares Movement
  • Atoms for Peace
  • Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy
  • Atomic age
  • Project Oilsand, a 1958 proposal to exploit the Athabasca Oil Sands in Canada via the underground detonation of nuclear bombs.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Sovacool, Benjamin K (2011). "Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power: A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy". pp. 171–2. .
  2. Charles Perrow (September/October 2013 vol. 69 no. 5). "Nuclear denial: From Hiroshima to Fukushima". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 
  3. "Preliminary Design Studies In A Nuclear Excavation — Project Carryall". Highway Research Board. 1964. pp. 32–39. Retrieved 2010-01-30. 
  4. Lombard, DB; Carpenter, HC (1967). "Recovering Oil by Retorting a Nuclear Chimney in Oil Shale". Society of Petroleum Engineers. pp. 727–34. 
  5. O'Neill, Dan (2007). "The Firecracker Boys: H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement". Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-00348-6. .
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Environment: Project Dubious". Time magazine. Apr. 9, 1973.,9171,903965,00.html. 
  7. Jaffe, Mark (07/02/2009). "Colorado drilling rigs closing in on '60s nuke site". The Denver Post. Retrieved 2010-01-30. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "The Plowshare Program - Final Report". Retrieved 10/27/2013. 
  9. Adelman, FL, Bacigalupi, CM, and Momyer, FF (Dec 27, 1960). "Final Report on the Pinot Experiment". Retrieved 10/27/2013. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 L. E. Kirkland, K.C. Herr, and P.M. Adams. "Why landers should explore small, fresh craters on Mars". Lunar and Planetary Institute, The Aerospace Corporation. Retrieved 10/27/2013. 
  11. Graves, E, Wray, WR, and Pierce, RB (Aug 1963). "Project PreBuggy: Scope of Chemical Explosive Cratering Experiment". Retrieved 10/27/2013. 
  12. Saucier, K L and Stewart, F S (Sep 30, 1965). "Project Pre-Schooner II". U.S.Army Corps of Engineers. Retrieved 10/27/2013. 
  13. Kurtz, M K and Redpath, B B (May 1968). "Project Pre-Gondola". U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Retrieved 10/27/2013. 
  14. Vandenberg, WE and Day, WC. "Excavation research with Chemical Explosives". Retrieved 10/27/2013. 
  15. Edwards, SP, Beck, CM (2003). "Project Tugboat: Hawaii's Contribution to the Plowshare Program". Retrieved 10/27/2013. 
  16. Redpath, BB (July 1972). "Project Trinidad: Explosive Excavation Tests in Sandstone and Shale". Retrieved 10/27/2013. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 "Plowshare Program" (PDF). OSTI. US: Department of Energy. 

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