In A Nutshell
The world of Bethesda’s juggernaut series Fallout is one where nuclear power was harnessed for the good of the world—until it all went sideways. That was very nearly the case in real life, as the US government poured tens of millions of dollars into the Plowshare Program. The idea behind the individual operations within Plowshare was to find new ways to use nuclear energy, including as a tool for large-scale construction and excavation, for extracting natural gas, and for generating steam to power generators. Even more terrifying, they considered a nuclear explosion beneath a nuclear waste treatment plant.
The Whole Bushel
Bethesda struck gold with their Fallout series, a juggernaut in gaming. It’s based in a post-apocalyptic world that was ravaged by, of course, nuclear fallout. The backstory in the game is that after the detonation of the atomic bomb over Japan in World War II, the world decided to do something else with nuclear power and harness it for the powers of good. There were nuclear-powered cars and robots that helped around the house. Nuclear power made life better until, of course, everything went sideways and the world was reduced to a land of mutants and cola contaminated with radiation.
That world was strangely close to actually happening.
In 1958, the Atomic Energy Commission started the Plowshare Program, a project that was going to look at using nuclear power for good. The project ran until 1975, and they actually explored a whole host of uses for atomic energy and atomic bombs that were designed to help mankind rather than destroy it. And it was no minor side project run in a dark room in the basement of a government office. By 1974, more than $82 million had been invested just in the division of Plowshare that was looking into using nuclear weapons to facilitate the production of natural gas.
In 1962, an experiment named Sedan detonated a bomb at a Nevada test site to determine whether or not nuclear weapons were a viable option for large-scale construction projects that required a huge amount of excavation, such as building harbors and canals. A year later, the Tornillo experiment was an attempt to create a cleaner sort of nuclear bomb for excavation and construction projects. A year after that, Ace detonated a bomb in Nevada as a follow-up. Saxon, Simms, and Switch all used developmental test nukes in an attempt to make a bigger and better demolition tool.
At the end of the decade, Gasbuggy and Rulison were run to see if nuclear weapons were a possible tool for extracting natural gas from fields across the country. The first test was detonated just outside of Farmington, New Mexico, and the second near Grand Valley, Colorado. Perhaps not surprisingly, test results were less than satisfactory. Rulison ended with the extraction of natural gas, sure, but it was so contaminated with radiation that it wasn’t fit for public use.
One of the largest proposed projects within Plowshare was Chariot, which would have used a series of nuclear detonations to excavate a harbor near Point Hope, Alaska. The testing grounds were equal in size to the state of Delaware, and it was only after three years of development that local residents succeeded in getting the project shut down.
Gnome was one of the first projects in the Plowshare Program, and it determined whether setting off a nuke underground (near Carlsbad, New Mexico) would produce enough steam to be harnessed and used to run electric generators.
The Soviet Union was doing the same thing, supposedly starting as early as 1949 when they issued a statement saying they were pursuing the use of atomic energy as a tool for irrigating deserts, moving rivers, mining, and even breaking up icebergs.
And the use of atomic energy almost got more meta in 1973, when someone suggested disposing of nuclear waste with a nuclear explosion. That plan that involved setting off a nuclear explosion beneath a nuclear waste processing plant. The radioactive waste was then going to be dumped into the cavern formed by the explosion over the course of 25 years. The idea was that the reaction would boil itself out, turning the underground cavity into glass and safely disposing of the waste.
Show Me The Proof
SciTech Connect: The Soviet program for peaceful uses of nuclear explosions
US Department of Energy: Plowshare Program
Wired: 7 (Crazy) Civilian Uses for Nuclear Bombs