What Could Go Wrong? Nuking Hurricanes and Other Bad Ideas from the Cold War Era

This is a crater from the 1962 “Sedan” nuclear test that was part of Project Plowshare, the same Cold War-era nuclear program that produced plans to nuke hurricanes and the moon. The 104-kiloton blast displaced 12 million tons of earth and created a crater 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet wide. It also exposed an estimated 13 million Americans to radioactive fallout. Photo courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library

President Donald Trump has denied a report that he proposed using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the U.S., but if he did suggest nuking hurricanes, he isn’t the first.

The idea was proposed in 1959, as part of Project Plowshare, a plan to use nuclear weapons for peacetime uses that was first proposed during the Eisenhower Administration.

Axios, the media outlet that broke the Trump nuke story, stands by its reporting and points out that the suggestion crops up so often that NOAA maintains a page to debunk it.

“During each hurricane season, there are always suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms,” NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division Tropical Cyclone Myths page states. “Apart from the fact that this might not even alter the storm, 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.”

NUKING THE MOON

“Not a good idea” has never stopped a variety of government officials from cooking up ways to repurpose nukes, and a new book by Vince Houghton, entitled Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board, chronicles the most ambitious and outré of these mercifully abandoned plans.

Nuking the Moon offers an ironic take on dubious projects ranging from the eponymous moon nuke proposal and a pre-Trump hurricane nuking proposal, to a selection of stomach-churning animal experimentations that range from attaching bombs to bats to attempting to use cats for espionage. The most fascinating part of the book focuses on Operation Plowshare, a plan initiated during the Eisenhower Administration to promote the peaceful use of nuclear bombs.

The name “plowshare” was chosen from the biblical passage in the Book of Isaiah: “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.”

Houghton quips that we should be glad they didn’t go with” Project Pruning Hook” instead. If they had, the result could hardly have been worse. The hope was that a civilian program would defuse the tensions of the rapidly intensifying Cold War with the Soviet Union, and temper the arms race. At the end of two decades the program had little to show other than increasing the levels of Atmospheric radiation and nuclear fallout exposure for millions of Americans.

Eisenhower delivered the “Atoms for Peace” speech in front of the UN General Council in December 1953. In 1954, Congress amended the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, leaving nuclear weapons under the control of the military, but handing non-military applications over to the Atomic Regulatory Agency.

Before the program was finally discontinued in the late 1970s, 31 nuclear warheads were detonated in 27 separate tests. Proposed projects included blasting a new Panama-style Canal through Nicaragua, dubbed the “Pan-Atomic Canal,” and using thermonuclear explosions to create a harbor in Alaska.

Trump’s suggestion to nuke hurricanes? A meteorologist named Jack Reed proposed it in 1959 as part of Plowshare.

Reed’s paper, titled “Some Speculations on the Effects of Nuclear Explosions on Hurricanes” proposed that, in the words of Houghton, “We needed to blow the living hell out of a hurricane. For science.”

Houghton writes that Reed was bitter in later life, and blamed “political correctness” for his failure to convince the scientific community to test his theory.

“Sure buddy, that’s the reason.” Houghton concludes that it was “far more likely that most of the scientists who evaluated his plan realized the immense power of a multi-megaton nuclear weapon was still no match for the extraordinary amount of energy inside even a moderately strong hurricane.

Houghton points out that, aside from the catastrophic potential for a large swatch of the Caribbean to be polluted with nuclear fallout from a test, the monetary cost of detonating multiple nuclear warheads would have been prohibitive. And then there was the timing: Reed’s proposal was made just as the US and the USSR were formalizing an agreement to limit and eventually ban above-ground nuclear tests.

While Reed’s plan was “dead on arrival,” the idea just won’t die. It keeps returning, zombie-like, every storm season. “There is no way anyone could be that dumb,” Houghton laments. “If only that were true.”

“PROJECT CARRYALL”

One of the last major proposals of Plowshare not covered in Houghton’s book was “Project Carryall”, a Caltrans plan to use 22 nuclear bombs to build a freeway through the Bristol Mountains in the Mojave desert outside of Los Angeles County.

Scott Kaufman, in his 2012 book, Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America, details this elaborate plan to use nukes for construction, not destruction. Kaufman’s tone is objective, not glib, but that doesn’t make his subject matter any less shocking or perversely absurd.

Project Carryall, proposed for 1967, involved using the craters from those 22 nuclear explosions to create a two-mile-long road-cut through the mountains.

Fortunately for residents of Los Angeles, and the desert and mountain communities between LA and Las Vegas, the plan met two major obstacles: nuclear fallout and that same above-ground nuclear test ban that derailed Jack Reed’s hurricane plan.

Plowshare was finally abandoned in the 1970s. Although nukes were never used to actually build a canal, freeway or harbor, the program still came at a high cost. Just one of the test explosions, the one that created the Sedan Crater at the Nevada Test Site, was described as a “clean bomb.” In reality, it exposed an estimated 13 million people to radioactive fallout, and that was just one of the 37 explosions that were made during testing for the program.

“Plowshare was more than a name, it was an article of faith,” writes Kaufman. He remains, to the end of his book, optimistic that the future could still hold the promise of Plowshare’s peacetime nuclear program, once the issue of radioactive fallout and residue is addressed. 

Residents of communities still impacted by radioactive waste from Plowshare nuclear detonations might argue that it was a faith that was greatly misplaced.

“What were these people thinking?” Houghton writes. “What inspired intelligent, accomplished and serious men to put forth the absurd ideas highlighted in this book?”

Houghton says historical context is the key. “These ideas don’t exist in a vacuum,” he writes. “They are a product of the time in which they existed—from the carnage of WW II to the uncertainty and tension of the Cold War. These men were terrified. They held the future of their countries, and even humanity, in their hands. They were desperate. And these were the projects that resulted.”

Houghton ends his book on a somber note: “We are still capable of horrible things, and just as capable of rationalizing those actions with the justification of ‘national security’,”  he writes. “We are no better than our ancestors, just a little less desperate.”

Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America, by Scott Kaufman, is a serious and somber look at one of what is arguably the most outrageous chapters in the history of the U.S.

Nuking the Moon and Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board, by Vince Houghton, is more cynical. It’s written in a humorous tone, but it also provides a well-researched look at a wide range of ill-advised government programs, including Plowshare.

For the reader concerned that the U.S. president really might order a nuclear attack on a hurricane, or is simply interested in a fascinating, horrifying, and frankly, bonkers chapter of American history, both of these books are a compelling read.

 

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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