Peaceful nukes

In the 1960s and 1970s, both the United States and the Soviet Union explored “peaceful” applications of nuclear weapons: excavating earth for lakes and canals, geological research, and extinguishing gas well fires.

Sedan nuclear test
Federal Government of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The world has not been improved by the existence of nuclear weapons. But, in the 1960s and 1970s, that didn’t stop the two biggest producers of nuclear weapons from attempting to prove otherwise. In the United States it was called Project Plowshare (beautiful name, by the way). In the Soviet Union it was called Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy (an exceptionally Soviet name). Both programmes tried some creative – and ultimately highly dangerous – peacetime applications for their arsenal.

How about excavation? Earth-moving is expensive and time-consuming. Instead, you could just bury an enormous bomb in the ground and let it move the earth all at once. The Storax Sedan explosion, pictured above, is the most famous of those operations. The bomb, just over 200kg, moved more than ten billion kilograms of Nevada alluvium and left the largest human-made crater in the United States:

Sedan crater
Federal Government of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Three years later the Soviet Union tried their own version, the Chagan test. It created a crater that today is the base of Lake Chagan in Kazakhstan. But both the Soviets and the Americans used nuclear weapons for other geological purposes: mining, breaking up rock to allow for natural gas extraction, that kind of thing. But the most unusual application – and, oddly, the most practical application – was to extinguish a natural gas well.

The well in question, in what is today Uzbekistan, had been burning out of control for nearly three years. The nuclear bomb was inserted in a directional well – i.e. one coming in at an angle to the existing well. When it exploded, it crushed the flaming well and extinguished the flames.

Rare successes like this aside, the spread of radiation, the risk of accidents, and international pressure led to the end of both countries’ peaceful nukes programmes.

[Thanks to Interesting as F**k]

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