Eddie Teller’s Exploding Ambitions

In Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster (1954), the scientifically precocious teen, after already inventing a nuclear powered airplane and an atomic submarine, turned his talents toward moving earth. Tom harnessed a nuclear pile for the motive power and heat to blast and melt rocks. Questioned whether the device could be used by nefarious foreigners as a weapon of war, Tom replied, “But the earth blaster is for peacetime use. It’s not a weapon that could be used for fighting a war.”

Or could it?

11. The Atomic Earth-Blaster

Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb and inspiration for Terry Southern’s wonderful screenplay Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, had a revelation in the mid-1950s—a case of life imitating art (or at least life imitating Tom Swift Jr.). Throughout his lifetime, Teller saw H-bombs as instruments of peace: first to rearrange inconvenient aspects of geography and geology, later to erect a space-based nuclear shield against incoming Soviet ballistic warheads, and finally to blast incoming asteroids off paths that would crash them into Earth.

Teller early conceived of using H-bombs to rearrange the shape of the planet—for peaceful uses, of course. Thus, they called it the Plowshare program. Teller had met with Eisenhower in 1955, offering the elderly president visions of the peaceful atom, including earthmoving applications. These ideas coincided with Ike’s major international policy objective, Atoms for Peace, launched two years earlier.

Over the next two decades, the United States would repeatedly attempt major atomic earthmoving projects, shooting off a series of feckless and often dirty nuclear explosions in an orchestrated program of what some have called “geographical engineering.” in the end, nothing physical was accomplished except a couple of obscure holes in the ground.

But among its legacies—validating the theory of unintended consequences—the Plowshare endeavor ultimately contributed greatly to the growing environmental and anti-nuclear movements, adding additional dimension to the problem of radioactive fallout and damaging the credibility of government institutions, particularly the Atomic Energy Commission and its congressional overseers. The program, no doubt to Edward Teller’s dismay, also helped propel the United States and the Soviet Union into a lasting series of atomic test ban treaties. The fallout from Plowshare, commented one historian of the program, was “first radiological, then political.”

The civilian atomic energy project Teller pushed through Congress and the Atomic Energy Commission gained the Biblical name Plowshare from young physicist Harold Brown. The name came from the admonition in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah (2:4): “They will beat their swords into plow-shares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

At the time of his earthmoving insight, Teller was working at Ernest O. Lawrence’s University of California Radiation Laboratory at Livermore. Teller had persuaded the AEC to create Livermore as a second national atomic weapons laboratory and a competitor to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Los Alamos was the fruit of his rival and nemesis, J. Robert Oppenheimer. While the government was initially indifferent to Teller’s ambitions, the plan for a second national nuclear weapons laboratory took off after the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949.

A brilliant Hungarian physicist who immigrated to the United States as Germany conquered Europe and savaged Jews, Teller felt stifled at Los Alamos in the Manhattan Project. He pushed for the development of a thermonuclear (hydrogen fusion) bomb to succeed the fission bomb that Oppenheimer developed. Oppenheimer opposed the development of the fusion Super bomb, as did many Los Alamos scientists.

But Teller ultimately prevailed. The H-bomb was a sensational success, vaporizing a Pacific atoll and spreading inadvertent nuclear fallout over much of the world. Los Alamos had grown too remote and too confining for Teller’s atomic ambitions. Lawrence’s Livermore lab was a broader canvas for Teller’s atomic arts.

Once he and the legendary Lawrence convinced the government to establish a second nuclear weapons lab at the Livermore radiation laboratory in 1952, thirty-six-year-old Teller turned to projects that would confound his former colleagues at Los Alamos. Livermore would become the challenger to all the Los Alamos bomb projects, and the originator of new projects to use nuclear bombs, particularly Teller’s H-bombs, in the service not only of military destruction but also of nominally peaceful, civilian purposes.

Nuclear energy was a game for young men, particularly at the California offshoot of Los Alamos. Teller was born in 1912. Herbert York, the first Livermore lab director, who later became a key science advisor to presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, was thirty-two at the time Livermore was created. Brown, who supported Teller’s visions of peaceful nuclear explosion and succeeded Teller as Livermore director in 1960 (and became defense secretary under President Jimmy Carter), was born in 1927.

Lawrence, the guiding hand behind the laboratory, the éminence grise, was still only fifty-one when the AEC created the second weapons lab, and had been a star of international physics for over twenty years. While most of the bright lights at Livermore were theoretical physicists such as Teller, Lawrence was an experimentalist, a machine builder who valued tangible data that validated theory. During its early years, the Livermore laboratory not only radiated nuclear energy, but the personal energy of its young and ambitious staff.

In 1956, Livermore floated the notion of using nuclear explosives to clear and move dirt and rocks, when the AEC cautiously authorized a secret symposium on the subject. Brown, working with his boss Teller, organized the event, which took place February 6–8, 1957, at Livermore in the California desert. The event brought together scientists from across the widespread U.S. nuclear weapons complex to contemplate a new mission for their weapons.

Teller kicked off the conference with a typically hyperbolic and creative approach to using nuclear explosions. He literally proposed to shoot the moon. “One will probably not long resist the temptation to shoot at the moon,” said Teller. “The device might be set off relatively close to the moon and one would then look for the fluorescence coming off the lunar surface, or one might actually shoot right at the moon, try to observe what kind of disturbance it might cause.”

While Teller was focused heavenward, the symposium took a somewhat more practical down-to-earth turn. There was considerable enthusiasm for nuclear landscaping, particularly directed at digging a new, sea level Panama Canal. In concluding remarks, Brown described the future of the global earthmoving program, which he saw as “a group of some number, such as ten or twenty people, thinking about it for six months or a year, picking out the good ideas, and working them out in some detail.” It didn’t take that long. By July, the Plowshare program was officially a Livermore mission, under the titular leadership of the AEC’s Division of Military Applications in Washington, working through the AEC’s San Francisco office.

The Plowshare program got a major boost in September 1957, when the AEC set off a 1.7-kiloton blast nineteen hundred feet inside a mesa at the agency’s Nevada Test Site. Code named Ranier, the test demonstrated that underground explosions were feasible. The test resulted in no radioactive fallout. The AEC was attempting to understand the feasibility of under-ground testing and detection, but AEC Commissioner Willard Libby, the only scientist on the commission, saw it as justifying a program of peaceful explosions, as outlined at the Livermore conference seven months earlier. Libby told an Amherst College audience in October that Ranier validated his notions of use of atomic bombs for “non-military or peaceful applications of nuclear explosions, and the possibility that much of the testing can in the future be done under conditions of no radioactive fallout.”

Teller was truly interested in ways to use the power of the atom to help humanity. He was also a fervent anti-communist who wanted to forestall the advance of the Soviet Union by any means. Ultimately, many scholars concluded that Teller’s plan to rearrange the landscape by “geographical engineering” with atom bombs was as much about continuing testing bombs in the face of internationally-agreed-upon treaties limiting nuclear weapons as a desire to accomplish civilian ends. Facing the horror of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviets, and the fallout from atmospheric tests by both nuclear powers, the concept of limiting testing, and ultimately limiting the arms themselves, was in the air. Teller found that atmosphere threatening.

Freeman Dyson visited Livermore in 1958 and found it “wildly exciting.” He wrote home: “A lot of talk at Livermore was about cheating the test ban. We found a lot of ways to cheat which would be quite impossible for any instruments to detect. The point of this is not that the Livermore people themselves intended to cheat, but was that they are convinced the Russians can cheat as much as they want any time they want, without being found out.”

The international situation was an important component throughout the AEC’s program planning. The commission was both the nation’s civilian nuclear agency, and—more importantly—the designer, maker, and often de facto policymaker of the nation’s nuclear weapons program. At the 1957 suggestion of the Soviet Union, the world’s nuclear powers—the United States, Britain, and the USSR— agreed in October 1958 to a voluntary moratorium on future above-ground nuclear bomb tests, while they discussed a permanent ban. Eisenhower, at the urging of the AEC, defined the limits of the moratorium to allow explosions aimed at peaceful uses. The voluntary test ban expired in 1961, as the world was negotiating for a formal follow-up: the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty.

In an October 16, 1958, secret letter to then–AEC chairman John McCone, when the Eisenhower administration put in place its portion of the voluntary international moratorium on atmospheric testing, Teller wrote that much of Livermore’s activities would “depend to a considerable extent on the precise terms of the moratorium. If we assume that only such tests will be banned which actually can be policed, then a considerable amount of testing can accompany the further development of weapons.” Livermore, Teller wrote, will “increase greatly our efforts in the non-military uses of nuclear explosives…We expect that the Plowshare program will account for 4 percent of the laboratory’s effort in the next period.”

During the two-year interregnum between the voluntary ban and the new limited treaty, there was much discussion about the distinction between above-ground and underground testing, as well as debate about what constituted “peaceful” tests. AEC commissioner Willard Libby told a university audience, before the voluntary moratorium, “We must proceed with the non-military applications of nuclear explosions under any conditions! Let us all hope these will be conditions of real disarmament fully implemented and inspected.”

The distinctions in the arms control discussions often turned out to be blurred. If a “peaceful” explosion developed data useful for military planners—whether that was part of its stated mission or not—what was it? If a bomb placed underground actually broke the surface, either by design or accident, was it an underground or above-ground blast? If fallout from a peaceful experiment crossed international borders, was that a treaty violation? Debate swirled around these and other questions.

The concept of turning weapons into peaceful engineering tools had a clear propaganda purpose, as well as constituting an attempt to harness the atom to peaceful purposes. A major aim of the program, openly stated, was to allay fears of the atom and atomic testing among the public. In closing the Livermore conference, Brown said, “in the past twelve years, all kinds of phobic public reactions have been built about nuclear bombs,” implying that blasting useful harbors and canals with the atomic bombs could help change that attitude. Eisenhower’s Atomic Energy Commission chairman, Lewis Strauss, was even more forthcoming than Brown about the public relations mission of Plowshare. In 1958, Strauss said Plowshare’s goal was to “highlight the peaceful application of nuclear explosive devices and thereby create a climate of world opinion that is more favorable to weapons development and tests.”

Teller had great ambitions for Plowshare. He wanted to use nuclear bombs to dig out a new harbor in rural Alaska; blast a sea level ditch across the isthmus of Panama; open a rail route through the Mojave mountains from California to the east; release oil from shale and sand and natural gas from so-called tight deposits in the Rockies; make steam to generate electricity; and mine caverns for storage of natural gas in Pennsylvania. His vision was broad and breathtaking, although, like much of his endeavors following the H-bomb, it proved too far-reaching. So devoted were Teller and his California crew to lighting off nuclear explosives to rearrange the landscape that they earned the tongue-in-cheek sobriquet the Firecracker Boys from Alaska historian Dan O’Neill.

The most visible result over more than a decade of planned and realized explosions was an enormous, useless, and radioactive crater in the desert of the Nevada Test Site south of Las Vegas, along with numerous violations of international test ban treaties, before the program officially went off the government’s books in 1974. No canals, no harbors, no new sources of fossil fuels, no new approaches to making electricity. Between 1957 and 1974, the Plowshare program detonated twenty-nine nuclear bombs at the Nevada test site and another six in New Mexico and Colorado. A planned explosion in central Pennsylvania aimed at creating a cavern for storing natural gas never got off the ground. While the AEC and Livermore downplayed the environmental results of the Plowshare explosions, several resulted in major radiation releases to the atmosphere, causing closure of highways, wash-downs of vehicles, and contamination of milk produced by local cows. During that time span, the AEC spent some $770 million (in 1996 dollars) on the Plowshare program, employing a couple hundred full-time workers annually at Livermore.

12. Chariot Swings Down to Alaska

Teller’s first Plowshare target was to rework the landscape in remote, rural Alaska. The bull’s-eye was a desolate site in northwest Alaska on the Chukchi Sea, where the Atomic Energy Commission proposed to carve out a new ocean harbor with a series of H-bomb blasts. Livermore called it Chariot; many of the Plowshare projects, for unknown reasons, had names related to methods of ground transportation: Sedan, Buggy, Schooner, Sulky, Palanquin, Ketch, and Cabriolet.

Teller wanted to use the Alaska project to demonstrate the atomic earthmoving technology and its potential for good. Chariot was, in short, an initial marketing effort. At a press conference in 1960 in Alaska, Teller said, “if your mountain is not in the right place, drop us a card.”

Why Teller chose the specific site or the name of the Alaskan project is lost in the mists of history. Still, Teller and his crew clearly did not arbitrarily choose the remote site. Teller and AEC chairman Strauss had decided as a political matter that it would be impossible to sell the technology outside the United States (Panama, for instance) unless the United States was able to first demonstrate its safety and efficacy at home. The AEC was also wary of spreading atomic fallout over an unsuspecting population, as had occurred with the first tests of the H-bomb in the South Pacific.

Alaska, remote from the lower forty-eight states, with few inhabitants, and not yet a state itself, seemed ideal for the first demonstration. Alaska consisted almost entirely of federally-controlled land; the territory had little political clout in the larger nation. In early 1958, the AEC’s San Francisco office asked the U.S. Geological Survey, part of the Department of the interior, to analyze the prospects for blasting out a harbor on the Alaskan coast between Nome and Point Barrow—an enormous swath of sparsely-settled territory with the distance between the two settlements about three hundred miles through the air (with a sixteen hundred-mile coastline). Later the AEC clarified its USGS request, asking for a study of a twenty-mile coastal strip south of Cape Thompson, some twenty-six miles southeast of the native village of Point Hope. At the same time, Livermore hired a San Francisco contractor, E.J. Longyear Co., which did considerable work for the laboratory, to look at the mineral estate. Both the USGS and the private contractor issued positive reports on blasting an Alaska harbor. Neither actually traveled to Alaska to conduct the investigations.

The project timing was suspicious. As one of Teller’s biographies notes, Teller publicly announced the Chariot project at a press conference in Juneau, Alaska, in July 1958 “while the Conference on Experts was meeting in Geneva to discuss an end to nuclear testing.” The Livermore press conference was a surprise to the Alaskans, as Teller and his crew from Livermore landed in the territorial capital unannounced.

Teller’s hastily-called Juneau press conference in 1958 unveiled his plans for a deep-water harbor at Cape Thompson, 160 miles across the sea from the furthest reaches of the Soviet Union. The area for the Chariot project constituted sixteen hundred square miles, considerably larger than the state of Rhode Island. But it was remote from any centers of political power, closer to Africa than to Washington, DC. Teller made enormous claims for the Chariot project. It would, he told the Alaskans, have great economic benefits for Alaska, including offering a new opportunity for commercial fishing (then and now the largest employer in the state). The new, man-made harbor would also allow development of significant coal deposits in that part of Alaska.

Teller said his bomb builders could precisely carve out the harbor, with no harmful radiation coming from the explosions. He said grandiloquently that the Livermore engineers could “dig a harbor in the shape of a polar bear if desired.” Teller also said that in choosing the site in Alaska, “We looked at the whole world—almost the whole world.” That was a bit of a lie, rescued only by the final clause. Teller himself had limited the search to sites in the United States.

Livermore characteristically moved quickly to ramp up the Chariot project, to some discomfort at the AEC in Washington. The New York Times reported in September 1958, in a short article on page six, datelined Geneva: “The Atomic Energy Commission is about to drop plans to excavate a harbor in northern Alaska because nobody seems to want it. Dr. Willard Libby, a member of the commission, said today it had made a survey into the possibility of using nuclear explosions to carve out the harbor.” Libby was at the international test ban negotiations when he made the statement. The only nuclear scientist on the commission at the time and a major designer of the gaseous diffusion project that liberated enough U235 from natural uranium to support the first atomic bomb, Libby was a strong supporter of the Plowshare program. But his remarks in Geneva reflected the doubts about Chariot within the commission.

Tension arose between the Plowshare program in California, the AEC in Washington, and some prominent Alaskans throughout the history of the Chariot blast. In 1959, new AEC chairman John McCone told the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, “We are seeking an alternative to the harbor in Alaska because, as I said to the committee once before, we couldn’t find a customer for the harbor.” Alaska’s newly-installed Democratic senator E.L. “Bob” Bartlett told the committee that “no one on the commission staff concerned with this believed for a minute private capital would, in the foreseeable future, invest money in this area merely because an artificial harbor had been created…I have now been completely disillusioned…For one, I hope the AEC does its blasting elsewhere.”

But Teller was an accomplished politician and publicist. He kept the Alaska project alive for several years, despite a crumbling base of support among Alaska business interests and amid continuing doubts at the AEC. His force of personality and blinding brilliance overcame most political obstacles throughout his career. His problem, in the Chariot project and elsewhere, was that his imagination often exceeded physical and practical realities that ultimately undermined his dreams.

The Chariot announcement and press conference got little attention outside Alaska. The big national rollout came on June 5, 1959, in a New York Times front-page article written by science reporter Walter Sullivan. in an article with no attribution to named sources, and undoubtedly based on information from Teller and John Wolfe of the AEC’s San Francisco office, where Wolfe was in charge of environmental analysis, Sullivan wrote, “Plans have recently been completed for an exhaustive study of a lonely stretch of Alaskan coast where five hydrogen bombs may be used to blast a harbor from the tundra.

“The plan is to fire one bomb near enough to the beach to carve out a channel. The four others would be grouped about three-quarters of a mile inland to produce the harbor basin. The site is the mouth of Ogotoruk Creek, near Cape Thompson, 175 miles across the Chukchi Sea from the Soviet Union.” The AEC said it was hoping for the Chariot shots in “1960 or 1961.”

Alaska historian Dan O’Neill observed, “Though these remarks played well with the newspaper editors and with many civic boosters, nearly every single material claim Edward Teller made in Alaska seems to have been untrue.” That observation pertains not only to Teller, but to everything the Livermore national laboratory and the Atomic Energy Commission said about the Alaska project. Overstatements, misleading claims, obfuscations, and outright lies would later prove to be the standard operating procedure for the Plowshare program.

The New York Times article also drew attention from the Soviets. On June 14, according to the Times, the Soviet newspaper Sovetsky Flot commented, “The explosion of these bombs will be nothing but a camouflaged test of thermonuclear weapons. The reactionary forces of the United States are engaging in the impudent deception of people.” The Soviets had an aggressive nuclear excavation program of their own in progress (in contrast to the case of the nuclear-powered airplane).

Predictably, the United States almost immediately began chanting the “here come the Russians” mantra to advance its atomic ambitions, although this time, there was substance to the claim. Times science writer Gladwin Hill wrote in April 1960, “The United States is moving slowly into a sort of hare-and-tortoise race with the Soviet Union in the field of massive underground explosions for engineering purposes.” The article continued, “Plowshare scientists, whose headquarters are at the commission’s laboratory in Livermore, California, are certain that Soviet knowledge has forged far ahead of American knowledge in this realm.” Hill quoted the AEC’s Gerald Johnson calling for the Soviets to reveal their data on atomic excavations. Johnson claimed that if they would release their data, “The Plowshare excavation program could be advanced by at least two years.”

As Paul Josephson describes in Red Atom, the Soviets had a head start on “peaceful nuclear explosives,” or PNEs, the jargon used during international negotiations to describe blowing up the landscape with nuclear bombs. By 1958, the Soviet Union had used nuclear explosions to dig diversion canals and clear forest.

Teller feared that the Soviets would exploit their lead in atomic landscaping in the race to win the hearts and minds of uncommitted nations. He wrote in a 1962 book, “The time may be near when the Russians will announce that they stand ready to help their friends with gigantic nuclear projects. The consequences of such aid would be an economic penetration a hundred times more extensive than those following the Soviet offer to help Egypt construct the Aswan dam.” He also saw the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union as a propaganda war, with the Soviets demonstrating that they “certainly must be ahead of the United States in military applications. As a propaganda weapon, [the Soviet PNE program] could finish the work begun with the launching of Sputnik.”

The AEC and Teller were back in Alaska in March 1960 for a press event to further tout Chariot, including the quip about moving mountains. At this press conference, the AEC unintentionally revealed that the agency had already prejudged the likely environmental consequences of the Chariot blasts. The Times reported that the AEC “said its committee on environmental studies for the project had set March or April as the preferred time of year for the detonation of blasts creating the new harbor.” At this point, the AEC had made no ground-based environmental reviews in Alaska. The agency seemed oblivious to the fact that the area harbored a significant Eskimo population. Possibly, the agency didn’t believe the project would harm humans, so the presence of a native population was irrelevant to the AEC project planners.

While the Chariot blast initially had wide support inside Alaska, that soon began to erode, particularly when biologists, geographers, and wildlife scientists at the University of Alaska started scrutinizing the technical claims and claiming a piece of the analytical action for themselves. The academic scientists quickly saw large holes in the AEC’s hasty, remote environmental analysis. The skepticism of the local scientists threated public support for the project. In order to buy off the local academics, the AEC agreed to contract with the university to do baseline environmental studies at the proposed site. As that work progressed, it became increasingly clear that Livermore scientists knew very little about the flora and fauna at the site. When it came to assessments of the environmental effects of an H-bomb blast on remote Alaska, the atomic scientists at the AEC were faking it.

A cadre of University of Alaska scientists spread out over the Cape Thompson area in the summer of 1960, consistently finding facts and circumstances that belied the assertions by the AEC’s chief environ- mental analyst John Wolfe. Among the findings was that the local Eskimo population depended on caribou hunted close to where the government proposed to set off the bulk of its atomic explosions. In turn, the caribou depended, particularly in winter, on lichens as fodder. The lichens were particularly well-evolved to take up the trace element strontium in their life cycle, passing the rare earth element on to the caribou, and hence to the native population. The fission bombs that trigger the thermonuclear blasts produced radioactive strontium, which would move up the food chain and could cause cancer in the Eskimo inhabitants.

Wolfe and the Atomic Energy Commission did everything they could to silence the Alaskan scientists, threatening to refuse to renew contracts for the scientists to continue their investigations unless they knuckled under to the AEC leadership. Some of the scientists also began to question whether they could continue to participate in a program that they believed was intellectually dishonest and seeking to hide problems with the site. On August 15, 1960, the AEC’s Wolfe told a press conference at Point Hope, a tiny Eskimo village, which at thirty-five miles was the closest piece of civilization to the proposed blast site, that a fifteen-month, $2 million study found “no biological objections to the shooting on the basis of our investigations.” Chariot would not damage the hunting and gathering lifestyle of the local Eskimos, Wolf asserted.

Wolfe’s press conference produced considerable skepticism. Some Alaskans were beginning to sense a conflict between what the AEC was saying and what the environmental scientists on the ground were finding. Enter the Alaska Conservation Society, a small group based in Fairbanks that had recently won a battle to protect what is now known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, some nineteen million acres in the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. The local group followed that success by targeting the Chariot project, seeking a delay until the wildlife and people in the region were protected, and calling for an independent environmental analysis.

The decision by the conservationists to target Chariot heartened the University of Alaska environmental scientists, who decided in early 1961 to go public with their concerns about the AEC studies—to which the Alaskan scientists had contributed all of the data. The three academics most concerned about the project, Don Foote, Les Viereck, and Bill Pruitt, wrote a detailed critique of the AEC’s activities in supporting Chariot, for a thirty-page edition of the conservation society’s News Bulletin. Pruitt summed up the biological issues, Viereck addressed botanical matters, and Foote, a fiery activist, contributed a highly-critical overview. The society printed one thousand copies of the March 1961 News Bulletin (a press run some four times the size of the organization’s membership) and distributed it widely.

Pruitt sent a copy to a plant physiologist at Washington University in St. Louis named Barry Commoner, who was becoming known as an opponent of nuclear testing through the Greater St. Louis Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI). The CNI republished the Alaska report, drawing national attention to the Chariot plan. For Commoner, it was the beginning of a long national career as an environmental advocate and political gadfly.

As opposition mounted and Chariot began drawing fire from environmental groups across the country, the AEC repeatedly put back the date for the shot. A major problem, in addition to the green black eye the government was getting from the nascent environmental movement, was the advancing worldwide sentiment for nuclear arms control. In the August 1960 dispatch from Point Hope, the AEC was still insisting that there were no potentially harmful effects from the Chariot blast. But a New York Times reporter commented, “The commission has not yet authorized the detonation, which would take place about 180 miles from the Soviet Union. The guessing is that if it occurs at all it will be delayed for at least two more years. The Geneva nuclear conference and the international picture generally are influencing factors.”

The ultimate obstacle to the Chariot project came at the Department of the Interior, the official protector and benefactor of American native populations (although it has often bungled the role). Early on, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management had approved withdrawal of the federal land for the Chariot project from public use and access, putting it under AEC control. In July 1961, the Point Hope Eskimo village wrote to Kennedy administration interior secretary Stewart Udall, protesting the land withdrawal. The village argued that the 1958 federal act granting statehood to Alaska gave the natives “proprietary rights” to federal land superior to the authority of the BLM. At the same time, the Alaskan opponents to the project were keeping Interior informed of what they viewed as the AEC’s hostile and high-handed actions and attitudes in the north.

In August 1961, Udall indicated, without a formal finding, that the natives had rights to the land that the AEC must respect. In January 1962, Udall told the AEC that Interior would review any environmental analyses of the Chariot project. That effectively signaled the end of the project, as it became evident that neither Udall nor the White House was likely to let the project move forward. in April 1962, an article in Harper’s Magazine, “The Disturbing Story of Project Chariot,” by Paul Brooks and Joe Foote, brother of Alaska environmental scientist Don Foote, drew further national attention to the stalled Chariot.

The August 24, 1962, edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner carried the headline “Projec Chariot called off.” The paper printed an Associated Press dispatch, datelined Washington, written by veteran AP reporter Raymond Crowley. His conclusion was both condescending and racist, and no doubt reflected the views of many in the Plowshare program and at the AEC: “Alaskan Eskimos won a victory over atomic science today. The great white father isn’t going to order any time soon, if ever, a big nuclear boom on their happy hunting grounds. The Atomic Energy Commission has shelved long-laid plans to blast out a new harbor above the Arctic Circle, near Cape Thompson in northwest Alaska. These plans—known as Project Chariot—had disturbed the Eskimos no end.”

13. Sedan Side Trip to Nevada

By the end of 1961, the AEC was internally acknowledging that the Chariot program’s environmental studies were damaging the agency’s credibility. In May 1962, Livermore told the AEC it was time to park Chariot, which the New York Times dutifully reported as a likely outcome, although the lab remained fully committed to the parent Plowshare program.

John Kelly, the AEC’s overseer of Plowshare (although Teller didn’t take to oversight well), was already planning to limit the publicity damage from canceling Chariot in the face of local opposition and Interior Department obstruction. Kelly concocted an “information Plan” for political damage control. He suggested that releasing the information that the AEC was canceling Chariot should be “carefully timed to coincide with a convincing event” that would demonstrate that Chariot was no longer technically necessary. Another key part of the damage control would substitute underground explosions for the above-ground blasts that would have been central to Chariot’s harbor-blasting.

That carefully-timed event was called Sedan, designed as a huge shot at the Nevada Test Site some ninety miles south of Las Vegas set for July 6, 1962. In order to gather engineering and physics data for the planned Panama Canal project, Sedan was designed as an underground explosion that would create an above-ground crater. It was, therefore, neither atmospheric fish nor underground fowl in the terms that defined the limits of test ban treaties.

The AEC planned the event for its public relations value as much as for what the engineers, geologists, and physicists would learn. Sedan would create a large, visible crater, providing much of the data the scientists hoped to gather in Alaska. Instead of a series of explosions, as planned for Alaska, Sedan would use just one bomb. The shot would also take place at the test site, where there was a substantial buffer between the site and privately-owned land. The test site also had been hosting nuclear blasts for a decade, surrounded by rural ranching and farming communities that generally accepted the AEC as a worthwhile neighbor.

The AEC had to move fast to distract attention from the wheels coming off of the Chariot project. Livermore suggested scrubbing Chariot on April 30, 1962. The White House national Security Agency approved Sedan as a replacement on May 8, with the shot scheduled for July at Area 10 in Nevada. This quick development (warp speed for government work) suggested that the AEC and Livermore had been planning the Chariot successor for some time prior to the official paperwork.

As a first step in the AEC’s public relations plan—based on the assumption that everything would go swimmingly—immediately after the explosion, the commission would announce that Sedan had been a great success. The press release, of course, was written well in advance of the event it described. Because the AEC controlled all access to the test site and all information coming from it, the commission could claim success without contradiction. Then the AEC would follow with a press release saying that the data from Sedan “largely obviated the need for Project Chariot.”

Physicist John S. Foster, the fourth Livermore director (following York, Teller, and Brown), wrote in a draft letter formally killing the Chariot project: “Perhaps never stated, but of course always kept in mind, is another purpose of Chariot, namely…To dramatically demonstrate (a) the capability of nuclear explosives to excavate large volumes of earth in a controlled and constructive manner, and (b) that such excavations can be done safely with minimal hazard.” Those unstated purposes carried over to the AEC’s wishes for the Sedan shot. The wishes became the doctrine.

The lynchpin in Teller’s entire Plowshare enterprise was a so-called clean bomb, one that released little radiation and lots of explosion. Fission bombs produced a nasty alphabet soup of radioactivity. The splitting of uranium atoms yielded not only atomic fragments, but many additional elements, such as radioactive plutonium, cesium, strontium, and iodine, all of which endanger human health in various degrees and over various time periods. Radioactive strontium, for example, poses little immediate danger, but is long-lived and concentrates in bone. Iodine represents an immediate threat, particularly to the developing thyroid glands of children, but loses its radioactivity fairly quickly, over a matter of days.

Fusion bombs, on the other hand, didn’t produce radioactive elements. They didn’t split heavy atoms but released energy by combining light (hydrogen) elements. But fusion bombs needed fission bombs as triggers. Teller’s quest was to minimize the radioactive effects of the fission trigger as it set off the “clean” fusion explosion. He never succeeded.

On July 6, 1962, Livermore scientists fired off their thermonuclear bomb buried 635 feet under the soft alluvial desert at Area 10. The device had the explosive force of 104 kilotons, equivalent to one hundred thousand tons of TNT. The blast was the largest ever in North America at the time, making the bombs that fell on Japan in 1945 look puny by comparison.

There was a purpose to the large size of the Sedan project. Livermore’s Gary H. Higgins, a division leader at the lab, noted in a January 1970 letter to Robert E. Miller, manager of the AEC’s Nevada Operation Office, “Comparison of projected costs of nuclear excavation and conventional excavation show that nuclear excavation is only practical and economic when the individual explosive yields are in the order of 100 kilotons and larger.” Higgins added, “if the AEC or the U.S. government cannot, in good faith, assert that a useful excavation will result from a project, very few (if any) users will consider nuclear excavation as an alternative to more costly but proven conventional techniques.”

The Sedan shot went off at 10:00 a.m. One description said the blast triggered “a rumbling base surge that extended outward from ground zero in a wavelike motion in the earth’s surface.” A spherical dome six hundred feet across rose from the ground. As it reached a height of three hundred feet, the dome blew apart, hurling rocks and dirt nearly half a mile into the air.

Unlike the early public relations plans for the blast, there was no press presence when the engineers ignited Sedan. Nor were there any outside photographs, although the agency took still and motion pictures, as it did of all its blasts. Nonetheless, Sedan got considerable press coverage, relying on the AEC press releases for information. The United Press international wire service reported, “The mightiest nuclear blast within the United States and the first known detonation of any hydrogen type of explosive in this country was set off underground today. It tore a great open-faced crater in the desert floor.”

That massive crater today is visible at the test site. It is a 320-foot deep hole, some 1,200 feet wide, about what the Livermore engineers had predicted prior to the detonation. The next day, the AEC, in a press release, said the blast had ejected some 7.5 million cubic yards of rock and dirt, a “significant contribution to nuclear earth-moving technology.” That scientific claim, it turned out, was false. As Livermore’s Gary Higgins wrote in 1970, “Sedan, in desert alluvium, does not give information relevant to most of the proposed excavation applications.” But the AEC later used the claimed results of the Sedan test with great success.

Within an hour of the Sedan explosion, the AEC issued a press release claiming that “95 percent of the radioactivity was trapped in the ground, or in the earth that fell back promptly.” The remaining radioactivity, said the AEC, “had fallen close to the test site.” There was, of course, no way for AEC scientists to know those facts so soon after the event.

The alleged success of Sedan turned out to be a tissue of AEC lies; the reality was much different than the press release hyperbole. In 1965, the AEC’s final report on Sedan acknowledged that the blast had been much dirtier than expected. The 1965 analysis said, “The Sedan detonation gave a dust cloud which was 50 percent larger than predicted and deposited nearly five times more radioactivity than predicted. This indicates that the relationship between depth of burst, yield, and radioactivity escape used to extrapolate to the Sedan event must be re-examined.”

The radioactive plume rose two miles into the air, quickly getting into the upper atmosphere where it could be easily transported great distances. The radioactive cloud began moving north and northeast at 12 mph. Even as the AEC claimed that the test had been clean, events on the ground demonstrated that the agency was prevaricating. The site of the Sedan test, ground zero, was only ten miles from the test site’s northern border, so the fallout from the blast was surely already off the site and into civilian territory by the time the AEC put out its glowing pre-written press release.

At 2:45 p.m. the same day, the AEC told reporters that the radioactive cloud had crossed Nevada State Highway 25 some thirty miles from the test site, and state police had closed the road and evacuated people from nearby ranches. The radioactive dust cloud forced the city of Ely, Nevada, well over a hundred miles away, to turn on the streetlights at 4:00 p.m. Within five days, the cloud had passed over six states and entered Canada.

On Saturday, July 7, Robert Pendleton of the University of Utah’s radiological health department and twenty students were reading back-ground radiation some twenty miles southeast of Salt Lake City, looking at the presence of radioactive cesium. A red-brown cloud approached the crew from the direction of the Nevada Test Site and passed over Pendleton and his students. “Our instruments went completely nuts and we couldn’t measure what we were trying to do,” he reported. Pendleton and others from the university began collecting samples the next week of milk and fodder from farms near Salt Lake, finding high levels of radioactive iodine, which they attributed to Sedan and other tests at the test site. Pendleton advocated keeping the milk out of the liquid market, diverting it to production of cheese and powdered milk, giving time for radioactive iodine to decay. The AEC and the U.S. Public Health Service ignored his data and warnings. Later, AEC scientists concluded that they had badly underestimated the threat of short-lived radioactive elements such as iodine-131, with an eight-day half-life, contained in radioactive fallout. Soon, scientific disputes over radioactive fallout would explode on the scene.

A week after the Sedan explosion, Nevada Highway 25 was still closed and radioactive debris had to be hosed off with pressurized water. For the next eleven years, during which approximately twenty more shots were fired, radiation proved to be a problem neither Livermore nor the AEC could control. Teller biographer Peter Goodchild noted, “The ‘clean’ bomb, so much the basic essential of the Plowshare vision, was to remain an enticing chimera forever on the horizon, one of Teller’s motivations in his continuing fight against the test bans. To this day, it has never been fully realized.”

The Sedan explosion left one tangible, lasting result—a hole in the desert. The bomb blew 12 million tons of Nevada Test Site earth into the air, leaving the largest crater ever made by man—a giant dimple in the earth some 390 yards in diameter and 97 yards deep.

The reality of the Plowshare failures never dented Teller’s atomic optimism or that of the AEC program overseers. Teller remained convinced that it was possible and practical to use nuclear weapons as substitutes for bulldozers and manpower. His personal brilliance and persuasive skills, combined with the AEC’s prodigious public relations machine, concealed and glossed over the problems with Sedan and kept funding flowing to the Plowshare program. Geographer and historian Scott Kirsch noted:

Public representations of the experiment remained highly selective. The degree to which Plowshare advocates were able to “carefully phrase and limit the subject” (as an earlier AEC public information directive had put it) was critical not just to public knowledge of Sedan and the Plowshare program but also to the practice of nuclear excavation as an experimental science carried out within the classified spaces of the Nevada Test Site and the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Livermore. For despite Plowshare’s apparent defeat in Alaska, the emergence of disturbing new arguments about the health hazards of ingested radioiodine, and ostensibly severe limitations imposed by the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, its excavation program actually gained unprecedented funding increases for nuclear cratering tests between 1962 and 1968.

A positively glowing article in Life magazine in March 1963 illustrates the force of the atomic publicity apparatus. The article began with a lovely underground color photo of a cavern created by the 1961 Gnome test in Carlsbad, New Mexico, apparently taken by an AEC photographer—since there was no source given for the photo (or for the black-and-white photos of the Sedan shot that accompanied the article’s text). The Life article said, “Presenting these Project Sedan results to Congress in its annual report, the AEC predicted that it would probably be able to take on major earth-moving projects in about five years.” The article added an entirely misleading veneer to its report, no doubt provided by the AEC. “In the underground Sedan blast, more than 70 percent of the energy released was ‘clean,’ i.e., it did not contaminate the surrounding earth with fission products.”

A detached observer might have seen the Sedan explosion as a warning to the AEC and Livermore scientists and engineers that H-bomb excavation might be a futile and dangerous venture. But optimism blinded even the smartest Plowshare advocates. AEC chairman and Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg came close to exposing Sedan for what it was in an undated presentation—most likely given to the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in 1970—included in a published 1970 compilation of his testimony and speeches. Seaborg said, “Our experience with nuclear cratering has been limited. A large number of physical processes take place concurrently and successively in a nuclear excavation explosion, and these processes proceed almost instantaneously. Therefore measurements are very difficult; there is little wonder that nuclear cratering has not yet advanced to the state of a precise technology.”

How about those polar-bear shaped harbors, Dr. Teller?

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.