As the book title Too Dumb to Meter: Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends, and Duds on the U.S. Road to Atomic Energy implies, nuclear power has traveled a rough road. In this POWER exclusive, we present the 14th and 15th chapters, “A Man, a Plan, a Canal” and “The End of the Exploding Game,” the final two chapters of “Eddie Teller’s Exploding Ambitions” section.
14. A Man, a Plan, a Canal
Having struck out in Alaska and hitting a foul ball on the Nevada Test Site, the AEC turned its attention southward, toward an objective Teller and others had been thinking about for years. As the palindrome has it: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama. Add a series of H-bomb explosions, and Teller’s vision came into focus: a sea level passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, rendering the existing canal, heroically built between 1904 and 1914, redundant. Ultimately, like all the other ambitious Plowshare projects, the Panama Canal program failed—a victim of technical hubris, practical obstacles, and daunting international problems, including fundamental instability in the government of Panama and problems erected by the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
The Panama Canal—one of the engineering wonders of the world—opened in August 1914, just as World War I was getting underway in Europe. The ship channel across the isthmus of Panama changed patterns of commerce and military response worldwide, dramatically increasing international business while reducing risk and dramatically expanding the scope of U.S. military power. The canal, which connected the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic, cut weeks and millions of dollars off the costs of shipping goods between the two oceans. It also meant that shipping didn’t have to run the nasty, twisting path at the bottom of South America, rife with lousy weather, narrow channels, icebergs, and long distances down and up the massive continent.
Historian David McCullough, in the preface to his fine work The Path Between the Seas, wrote: “The creation of the Panama Canal was far more than a vast, unprecedented feat of engineering. It was a profoundly important historic event and a sweeping human drama not unlike that of war. Apart from wars, it represented the largest, most costly single effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth.”
The U.S. Army Corps built the Panama Canal at the beginning of the twentieth century and retained an interest in it, including stationing troops in Panama, in the U.S.-owned Canal Zone until Panama took full control in the end of the century. The Canal Zone was actually U.S. territory, subject to U.S., and not Panamanian, laws. Until November 1903, the isthmus was part of Colombia, but a local revolution, with the backing of the United States, led to creation of the Republic of Panama and the signing of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. The treaty granted the United States a ten-mile-wide swath of territory from Panama City to Colon for the construction and operation of the canal. A U.S. firm, the Panama Canal Co., took over French interests to run the canal and collect the considerable tolls.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state, John Hay, who negotiated the treaty with the new Panamanian republic, wrote at the time to Wisconsin Republican Sen. John Coit Spooner, that the treaty was “very satisfactory, vastly advantageous to the United States, and we must confess, with what face we can muster, not so advantageous to Panama….you and I know too well how many points there are in this treaty to which a Panamanian patriot could object.” The awareness of the unbalanced nature of the treaty would later have an impact on the plans for blasting out a new canal.
Ships enter the canal from the Atlantic north of Colon and travel 51 miles, typically a nine-hour journey, to the Pacific Ocean entrance at Balboa. But the canal is not perfect. A major problem is getting over the continental divide, which separates the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds. That requires locks to lift vessels some 85 feet. The canal has three sets of locks, with two locks at each set. That causes backups at the entrances to the locks on the canal. In shipping, as in much of business, time is money.
The size of the locks also limits the size of the ships, both commercial and military, that can pass through the engineering marvel. The Bridge of the Americas at the port of Balboa, where the canal links to the Pacific, also limits the height of the vessels that can pass to under about 190 feet. The width of the locks is about 110 feet, with a useful length of 1,000 feet, defining the parameters for what are known as Panamax ships. As a practical matter, these are ships that can carry about 70,000 tons of cargo.
The United States had long recognized the value of a sea level canal bridging the Caribbean and the Pacific. The initial plan for the Panama Canal was for a sea level project. That proved impractical, and the idea was abandoned in 1906 in favor of a lock-based project. But the dream of a sea-level isthmian canal never completely faded. In 1947, Congress approved a series of studies of thirty sea level canal routes covering a wide swath of territory from Ecuador to Mexico. Among other drivers for a canal upgrade or new canal was military. While many analysts had talked about a third set of locks to overcome the size limits of the canal, military experts believed that locks were particularly vulnerable to attack from air and sea. A second canal, at sea level, would be less vulnerable and would allow military shipping to pass from the two oceans faster.
The early studies found the most promising route was in the Darien region on the Caribbean coast near the border with Colombia. In October 1956, the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that a sea level canal was not possible politically, although militarily desirable. The Plowshare project in Panama would once again raise the vexing question of what is military and what is civilian.
The AEC and the Panama Canal Co., a U.S. firm which operated the canal from its inception until 2000 when the government of Panama took over canal ownership and management, had discussed using nuclear bombs to excavate a new canal as early as 1947, although nothing came of those low-level musings for a decade.
In the February 1957 Livermore conference to launch nuclear excavation and landscaping, one of the most popular ideas that arose was to use a series of nuclear blasts to create a new canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The secret meeting included twenty-four scientists from Los Alamos, Livermore, and the rest of the vast U.S. atomic energy complex.
A paper at the 1957 conference predicted that the existing canal would face devastating slowdowns after 1961. A Wall Street Journal article in March 1961 noted a “canal bottleneck” and predicted that the result could be to “throttle the expanding international trade of the United States and a score of other nations.” The Livermore paper estimated that building the canal across the preferred route would require exploding twenty-six nuclear bombs, totaling 16.7 megatons (equivalent to 16.7 million tons of TNT). To deal with the radiation problem, the builders would have to relocate the local population, mostly indigenous Indians, for an unspecified time.
The idea for a canal created by nuclear explosions began not in Panama but in Egypt. The Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and opening a short sea route between Europe and Asia, opened in 1869. By the mid-1950s, the canal had become a pawn in international politics. Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser was building the Aswan High Dam to contain the Nile for flood control and electric generation. Nasser had financing from the United States and Great Britain for the dam, but both rich countries withdrew their support when Nasser, playing Mideast power politics, started cozying up to the Soviet Union.
In 1956, Egypt nationalized the canal, which had been run by the Suez Canal Company, a private Egyptian company with heavy French investment. Nasser hoped to use the revenue from the canal to cover the loss of the French and British investments in the Aswan dam. In response, France, Britain, and Israel invaded Egypt. Using mines and sunken ships, Nasser blockaded the canal. With U.S. backing, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson intervened, persuading the United Nations to create a multinational peace-keeping force, which restored stability to the canal and the region.
In the United States, Edward Teller saw the events in Suez and envisioned a way to resolve the crisis permanently: a second canal located in Israel. In a 1968 textbook, Teller writes that during the Suez crisis in mid-1956, he and three colleagues met at Livermore, where they “raised the possibility of cutting another canal through friendly territory with nuclear explosives.” For political and practical reasons, nothing came of this idle Suez speculation, but it planted a seed in the minds of Teller and Livermore’s Gerald Johnson, later an important Plowshare official.
The Panama project fired imaginations at the 1957 Livermore conference that created the Plowshare program, but it had to take a place behind the program’s more mundane plans for domestic blasts, particularly Chariot and later Sedan. One of the rationales for Sedan was to generate data about the way nuclear explosives would create craters that could be connected to form a long trench as the basis of the new canal. While the Livermore engineers and scientists learned some valuable facts about cratering from the Sedan explosion, there was much more data needed before a practical approach to a Panamanian canal could begin.
As Livermore and the AEC began studying the basics of building a new canal, the Panama Canal Co. hired the engineering firm of Parsons, Brinckerhoff to study the feasibility of a third set of locks or a new sea level canal. According to Panama Canal historian John Lindsay-Poland, officials of the San Francisco–based engineering company read about the AEC’s Plowshare program and the plans for Alaska and contacted the San Francisco Operations Office about their studies for the canal company. In July 1958, officials from Parsons met with AEC commissioner Willard Libby, who assigned Livermore to analyze the nuclear option for the study, completed in February 1959. Libby told the Parsons engineers that the blasts would require evacuating some populations and establishing a twenty-five-mile buffer zone between the project and any significant populations, effectively ruling out the existing site of the canal.
Livermore’s notion to span Panama with nuclear explosives had a solid ally at the AEC’s Division of Military Applications in Washington. The division chief was Gen. Alfred Starbird of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Starbird told Gerald Johnson, whom York and Teller had put in charge of the Plowshare program, that he should involve the Corps in the Panama project. Livermore’s blasting plan already had the theoretical endorsement of the Panama Canal Co. Johnson later said, “The Panama Canal Company interest and the Corps of Engineers’ interest is really what put the heavy focus on excavation. Because they, in a sense, were a potential customer. We had a target and a high level target.” Teller and Johnson briefed President Eisenhower and his cabinet on the canal and other Plowshare projects.
Despite the work of the Army Corps in 1947 in scoping out alternative routes, the U.S. government was considering routes outside Panama in 1958. One alternative, which Eisenhower favored, was the Mexican Tehuantepec passage. Ike considered publicly announcing U.S. interest in it, but Christian Herter, his secretary of state, dissuaded him. Herter raised the harmful impact such an announcement would have on Panamanian relations. The Livermore analysis, presented to Johnson in March 1958 (in carefully couched language so as not to displease the White House), found lots of obstacles to the Mexican route for a new canal, concluding: “it should be realized that a great deal of additional planning would be necessary before any actual construction work could be started.” Johnson wrote on the cover page, “Good report.” That was the last gasp of a Mexican Atlantic-Pacific canal.
In January 1960, the Panama Canal Co. began reviewing and updating its earlier studies done with the AEC on a new canal. In early 1962, President Kennedy asked the AEC and the Army Corps to look at the feasibility of using nuclear bombs to create the new canal, leading to a series of studies in 1964, after Kennedy’s assassination. Using H-bombs to build the canal made sense only if it was considerably cheaper than conventional digging and blasting. The 1947 studies, done by the Corps, which identified the Darien route as the most practical, put the cost of a conventionally-built canal at $5.1 billion. It was never clear that a Plowshare project could come in under this figure.
As the commission began its work, challenges to the economics of nuclear excavation began to surface. In a 1962 speech to the American Nuclear Society and a 1963 paper based on the ANS presentation, Teller argued that the cost of nuclear explosions in the megaton range would be two cents per cubic yard of earth moved, versus one dollar for conventional excavation. That figure drew no challenges, and early studies seemed to accept at face value AEC claims of the economic cost savings from nuclear explosions. A 1960 Army Corps study conducted with Livermore concluded that the Darien route would cost $770 million using nuclear excavation technologies, versus the 1947 estimate of $5.1 billion using conventional excavation methods.
But Army Corps Col. James Stratton, who worked on the Corps’ 1947 studies, raised caution flags about “dubious” cost estimates. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Stratton noted that AEC chairman Glenn Seaborg had told Congress that verifying the efficacy of nuclear excavation technology would cost some $250 million. Stratton argued that at least part of those research and development expenses should be charged against the sea level canal.
Stratton also warned that the existing estimates did not incorporate the costs of infrastructure, including protecting the human population along the route, or the special costs of military defense. A full-in estimate, he suggested, would bring the cost of the nuclear canal up to about the equivalent of conventional technology. If that was the case, he said, using nukes to blast out the canal route was foolish.
A major international obstacle also faced plans for a nuclear blast across Panama, a hurdle that bedeviled Teller throughout Plowshare’s lifetime. In October 1963, the United States ratified the Limited Test Ban Treaty (much to Teller’s chagrin). The treaty prohibited nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, the oceans, and space. The Panama project would feature underground blasts, which were not out of bounds under the treaty. However, the treaty also banned any underground shot that would have caused “radioactive debris to be present outside the territorial limits of the state under whose jurisdiction or control the explosion is conducted.” Given the small size of Panama, the geography of the isthmus, and the best route for a sea level canal, snuggled up next to Colombia, it would have been impossible to conduct a series of blasts the size of those contemplated for the canal without dropping fallout on Colombia and half a dozen or so other Central and South American countries.
The next blow to the canal project came when President Johnson signed a law in September 1964 creating the Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal Study Commission to mount an investigation “to determine a site for the construction of a sea level canal” connecting the oceans. Congress appropriated $17.5 million for the exploration of the sea level canal. That appeared to be a positive development; it was not to be.
As the Army Corps began field studies in Panama, the project ran into a series of technical, economic, and political complications, as well as difficult interactions within the convoluted web of U.S. federal government agencies and contractors. One assessment said that the studies involved thirteen federal agencies, including six military agencies, twenty-seven prime contractors, and up to one hundred seventy Canal Commission personnel located in Darien. Much of this activity was designed to mollify the government of Panama, which was facing pressure from leftists in the country to take control of the canal away from the Americans. Following riots in Panama and the Canal Zone in January 1964, which saw twenty-four Panamanians and four U.S. soldiers killed, Panama broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. Panamanian president Roberto Chiari demanded renegotiation of the 1903 canal treaty. The countries reestablished diplomatic relations in April 1964. The study commission was designed in part to paper over the tensions between Panama and the United States. In December President Johnson agreed to negotiations on a new treaty.
While the White House may have seen the nuclear canal project in the context of international relations, in Congress, and particularly in the all-powerful Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the canal project had emerged as an important symbol of American muscle. Sen. John O. Pastore, the Rhode Island Democrat who chaired the committee in 1965, said that the canal was “the one thing that has given this thing life and the one thing that has more or less enthused this committee to provide the money for Plowshare. Once you have ruled that out, I am afraid interest is going to drop off.”
In addition to the test ban treaty, another international agreement threw sand in the slowly-meshing gears of the nuclear canal. Negotiations started in 1965 for the Treaty of Tlateloco, which was signed in February 1967 and went into effect in April 1968. The treaty banned nuclear weapons in Latin America, although there was an ambiguous provision that the AEC interpreted as permitting the use of H-bombs in civilian construction. At the same time, the existing conundrum of how to distinguish so-called peaceful uses of explosives from weapons continued. As physicist and journalist Barbara Levi wrote in an analysis for Princeton University, “The potential of nuclear explosions for both destructive and beneficial uses has posed a persistent arms-control dilemma: what measures can be taken to deny nuclear weapons to a nation without also denying it the possible benefits of peaceful nuclear explosions?”
As part of the Panama Canal program, Livermore and the AEC were setting off a series of nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site to explore various technical issues, including the effect of soil characteristics, ground shock, air blast effects (such as blowing out windows), and the spread of radiation. Two of those tests, known as Sulky and Palanquin, demonstrated just how little the nuclear scientists actually knew about controlling their technology.
15. The End of the Exploding Game
The failures of Palanquin and Sulky marked a quiet end to the Panama fantasy. It died with a whimper, followed by the entire Plowshare program, which fizzled out in the early 1970s with no fanfare. Despite repeated assurances from the White House that the Panama Canal project was on the government’s priority list—those statements were convenient fiction that served the needs of the administration to feed the nuclear enthusiasts in the Congress’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.
President Johnson said on television on December 18, 1964, that the United States was seriously interested in blasting out a canal in Panama using nuclear bombs. The same day, Livermore lit off the Sulky blast, a small explosion in a test site shaft at Area 18, Buckboard Mesa. Livermore designed Sulky to examine the effects of cratering and extent of radiation dispersal in hard, dry rock. They were also designing it as a substitute for the larger Schooner excavation blast, with the size terms of the Limited Test Ban Treaty ratified in 1964 in mind. The boffins expected that burying the Sulky shot deeper than originally planned would produce a larger crater, reducing the radiation that escaped from the explosion. But Sulky didn’t create a crater. Rather, it produced a broken rock pile. What did the scientists and engineers learn? As historian and geographer Scott Kirsch put it, the Plowshare program learned that “if nuclear explosives were buried too deeply, these data had shown they made mounds instead of craters.”
Palanquin followed Sulky. Palanquin was also relatively small, four kilotons equivalent, also an attempt to solve the vexing fallout problem while skirting the test ban treaty. The idea behind Palanquin, Kirsch explained, was “down-hole deep debris entrapment. If the engineers could direct the radioactive dirt and dust from the explosion downward into a cavity created by a June 30, 1964, blast, dubbed Dub, they would have created the equivalent of the long-awaited ‘clean bomb.’” The idea was so promising that Livermore moved up the Palanquin test in the queue of explosions the Firecracker Boys hoped to set off.
Livermore did not expect much radiation from Palanquin, so the scientists limited monitoring and sampling plans too close to the site. The AEC also pulled the cone of silence down over Palanquin. An AEC directive ordered: “Every effort will be made to prevent the public from becoming aware that Project Palanquin is scheduled for execution soon.” The agency expressed anxiety about the perception that the test might violate the treaty. The directive continued, “in particular, we want to avoid misleading or speculative articles which might create the impression that the United States thought it was violating the terms of the nuclear test ban treaty. To the contrary, the United States does not think it is or it would not have authorized conduct of the experiment.”
Palanquin went off course from the beginning. Milliseconds after the detonation on April 14, 1965, radioactive gases spurted high into the air as the grout failed that sealed off the borehole where the bomb was buried. The pressure of the explosion was supposed to push the radioactive gases down into the Dub cavity. Instead, the gases jetted through the four-foot hole, along with ten times more water vapor than the scientists expected.
Even dull government language conveyed the wild ride of Palanquin. A June 3, 1965, physics report on the blast, declassified in 1994, reported:
A “plug” of material was ejected from the emplacement hole, causing a break in the cavity and consequently a sudden drop in cavity pressure. This stemming breach created a high velocity jet of hot gases and rocks which led to an “erosional” crater similar to that produced by gas or steam-well blowouts. Essentially all of the radioactivities were first in gaseous form; then most of these activities condensed in fragments of vesicular glass varying from a millimeter up to several tens of centimeters in size. On the average, only about one percent of the radioactive fragments passed beyond a range of five miles, although some radionuclides of a volatile nature were much more abundant at longer ranges.
The eyewitness report continued: “During the first ninety milliseconds, cavity pressure was high enough to rupture the thirty-six-inch emplacement casing (three-quarter-inch wall thickness, and a free air burst strength of eighty to one hundred bars).”
The result was a plume of radioactivity that reprised the catastrophic Sedan fallout track. Surprised government officials, including AEC chairman Glenn Seaborg, began tracking the radioactive path of the Palanquin explosion, but issued no public statements. As was typically the case, the AEC decided on silence in order, it said, not to cause fear in the public. That decision also reflected a desire to not inflame public opinion against future testing. Seaborg, who was keeping the White House updated, was fearful that the Palanquin cloud would pass over the U.S. border and into Canada, violating the Test Ban Treaty.
Within a day, the Palanquin plume had passed east of Spokane, Washington, and was headed toward Canada. Soon, it was over Butte, Montana, and excess radioactivity had passed into Canada. Seaborg said the radiation levels were so low it was “doubtful whether anyone else would detect them.” Additionally, in an excuse any parent would recognize, when the agency publicly announced the test four days later, the AEC and the White House whined that they had not violated the treaty and, even if they did, it wasn’t as bad as what the Russians did in January in a test that spread radiation to Japan.
While the radiation diminished with distance and dilution, local radiation near the test site was far higher than the scientists had predicted. According to AEC records, six local families were moved to the NTS base camp for whole-body radiation counts and four of the families, including eighteen children, showed “slight thyroid burdens” from radioactive iodine concentrations. AEC officials later acknowledged that predicted fallout levels from Palanquin, which was designed to contain the fallout underground, were “low by a factor of one hundred at five miles, low by a factor of thirty-three at ten miles, low by a factor of ten at eighteen miles, and low by approximately a factor of five at forty and fifty-five miles.”
Palanquin marked the beginning of the end for Plowshare’s excavation and cratering program. The firecracker office had three more explosions planned in the cratering test series: Cabriolet, a small (2.3-kiloton) blast at the Nevada Test Site; Buggy (a row of five 1.1-kiloton bombs) on the test site; and Schooner, a much larger (35-kiloton) blast. The Plowshare program had originally designed Schooner as a 100-kiloton test on federal land at the eastern Idaho reactor test site, scheduled for 1966, but was unable to bring it off following Palanquin’s problems. A month after the Palanquin fiasco, Livermore’s Glenn Werth vowed that Schooner would continue as Plowshare’s top cratering priority.
But Palanquin’s failure put all future Plowshare blasts on hold, on orders from Lyndon Johnson’s White House. The New York Times quoted Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance, who said the White House did not want the tests to open “another propaganda front” in the public relations battle with the Soviet Union. Reporting at a November 1968 Plowshare meeting in Las Vegas, the AEC’s H.D. Bruner noted, “The Palanquin failure set back the program by two years.” The White House cleared the AEC to go forward with Cabriolet and Schooner. On January 28, 1968, the Cabriolet explosion went off, an event one historian described as “another low-yield, low-publicity test in Nevada.” Buggy followed on March 12, producing a trench nine hundred feet long, the first, and ultimately only, attempt at what would be needed to dig a canal. The always enthusiastic New York Times headlined its story, “Buggy, Cabriolet A-Test Prove Canal Feasibility.” That was, it turned out, the usual overstatement.
The long-delayed, considerably-downsized Schooner test followed on December 8, 1968, not in Idaho as planned, because of local objections, but on the test site. The 35-kiloton bomb, buried three hundred fifty feet deep in hard rock in the test site’s Area 20, blasted a crater eight hundred fifty feet across and two hundred feet deep. The AEC, in a public statement two days later, claimed that the radioactivity from Schooner was “infinitesimal,” not quite a hard number. Robert Pendleton, the University of Utah scientist who with his students had been showered by Sedan and first raised the alarm about iodine-131, claimed the Schooner fallout would increase risks for cancer from long-lived radioisotopes.
Pendleton acknowledged that Schooner did not produce the nasty radioactive brew that rained down from Sedan. The AEC’s claims for Schooner, Pendleton said, were “gobbledygook” and that a “credibility gap between the AEC and the knowledgeable people of the western United States” had opened up. Indeed, the AEC did its best to stifle information about off-site radioactivity from Plowshare tests. Chairman Seaborg rejected a draft of the AEC’s annual report to Congress, complaining of “too much detail on radiation off-site.”
Seaborg also made sure the AEC report did not mention that fallout from Schooner produced an egregious violation of the test ban treaty, although the Canadian Broadcast Corporation reported that sampling at some monitoring stations December 13 to 15 were ten to twenty times normal. For reasons of cold war solidarity, the Canadian government made no protests over Schooner’s border-crossing atomic trespass.
One powerful local had begun to doubt the AEC’s radiation estimates. The reclusive, obsessive billionaire Howard Hughes, who lived in Las Vegas, offered to fund further research into what was going on at the test site. A New York Times Magazine article by science reporter Gladwin Hill blamed AEC secrecy for the credibility gap. “The AEC originally tried to conduct the testing here in complete secrecy,” Hill wrote. “The result was the nationwide furor in the 1950s over fallout hazards. The AEC was forced to shift to a policy of candor, which endured until testing went underground. At that point, the man who is still the AEC’s chairman, Dr. Glenn Seaborg, dually distinguished for his knowledge of physics and his lack of knowledge about public information, imposed a virtual news blackout on testing details except for terse official communiqués.” Hill added, “Since Howard Hughes spoke out, the AEC has been scrambling to get back on the candor wagon and spread the word of its safety policies and practices, obscured in the news blackout.”
The radioactive curtain started to discernibly descend on the Plowshare program’s Panama pretentions with the failure of the Carryall project. Carryall, on the Plowshare plate since 1963, was a mammoth, 1.8-megaton plan to blast a pass through the Bristol Mountains in California’s Mojave Desert. It would create an easier East-West passage for the Santa Fe railroad and for the nation’s legendary cross-country highway, Route 66. The project was one of Edward Teller’s favorites. Developed by the California Division of Highways (under Gov. Pat Brown), the railroad, and Livermore, the project would chop fifteen miles off the railroad route, cutting nearly an hour off travel time and saving the railroad considerable money. Without the nuclear blasts to clear out the mountains, the new route would require a two-mile rail tunnel, rendering the plan uneconomical. The Firecracker Boys would supplant the tunnel by smashing through the two miles with twenty-three bombs, set off in two stages.
Carryall got caught up in the repeated Plowshare delays, with the added weight of doubts about the AEC’s estimates of radiation from the blasts. The project feasibility study predicted that Carryall would release six hundred sixty tons of fission products. That low-ball guesstimate was only 66 percent of the fallout from the Sedan blast although Carryall was eighteen times larger. The estimate drew a skeptical review from M.L. Merritt of Sandia Corp., a New Mexico AEC contractor that performed conventional explosions as part of the Plowshare program. Merritt concluded that the Carryall analysis “includes nearly every safety factor that should be considered except the offsite effects of the dust cloud.” Merritt also expressed doubts about whether Carryall could comply with the test ban limits.
After multiple postponements, Carryall got a final schedule for the fall of 1968. But the project, far closer to population centers than any of the blasts at the test site, was raising serious objections from an increasingly well-informed public. Focusing on the AEC’s habitual secrecy about radiation, noted health physicist C.D. Casoyas of the University of California’s San Francisco Medical Center wrote the AEC in May 1967. He charged Livermore and AEC Chairman Seaborg with a plan “to suppress an open discussion of the failure of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory to assess the number of casualties that the population of Los Angeles would suffer from the low-level radiation effects of the 1.7-megaton Carry-All nuclear cratering blast…” noting an unexplained delay in Carryall announced in early 1966, Casoyas added, “Up to the present time, neither the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, nor the State of California, nor the Atomic Energy Commission will state the reasons which led to the postponement of the Carry-All blast, even though its feasibility had been established in 1963, and it would have served the purposes of the Santa Fe Railway System.” While the AEC made no formal announcements, Carryall simply vanished from the schedule of Plowshare experiments.
The Panama curtain fell, signaling the end of the show, when the canal commission appointed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 made its official report to President Nixon in 1970. The report was equivocal, but it didn’t take Livermore and the AEC long to read between the carefully-written lines. The ultimate judgment of the canal commission was that a sea level canal didn’t make economic, geopolitical, or military sense. As for using H-bombs to blast a sea level canal, the commission report said that “although we are confident that someday nuclear explosions will be used in a wide variety of massive earthmoving projects, no current decision on U.S. canal policy should be made in expectation that nuclear excavation technology will be available for canal construction.”
Ultimately, the failure of the Panama Canal project was the end of the Plowshare program. Livermore continued with some plans for the program for another three years, but without any political support in the Nixon administration or the Atomic Energy Commission. Ultimately, faced with across-the-board failure, Plowshare died—not with a bang, but a whimper.
—Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER. Too Dumb to Meter is available from the POWER Bookstore or Amazon.com and is serialized by permission.