Mid-20th century scientists envisioned a new Panama Canal blasted down to sea level with thermonuclear explosives. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)
This month officials will formally open the new, expanded Panama Canal. The "inauguration," as it's being called, marks the largest modification of the canal since it opened in 1914.
The expansion took nearly a decade to complete and required moving 130 million cubic meters of earth (one cubic meter will fill a pickup truck) -- all to make bigger locks to move today's enormous cargo ships between oceans.
When French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps first envisioned it in the 19th century, the original dream was for a sea-level canal with no need for locks to move ships up and down the steep topography of the isthmus. The French -- and the Americans, who completed the job -- abandoned that notion when faced with the enormous earthmoving and engineering it would require.
But after the advent of the atom bomb in 1945, scientists were trolling for "peaceful" uses for atomic energy and it struck them that A-bombs might make awesome earthmovers.
"We can move with such explosions great amounts of earth, very cheaply," Teller boasted in an early promotional film for what came to be known as Project Plowshare. It was managed out of the Lawrence Radiation Lab (now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).
Earthmoving in the Atomic Age
Proposed routes for a canal to be excavated with nuclear explosives:
The Hungarian-born Teller was a key figure in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. For his role in developing the next generation of thermonuclear explosives, or hydrogen bombs, Teller was given the moniker, "Father of the H-bomb." But in the 1950s, he turned his attention to finding a role for his creation in civil engineering. And what better megaproject than a whole new canal that would take the biggest ships imaginable?
"We needn’t take a coastline as it happens to be," he ventured. "We can make a harbor, a water-level canal, even across the American isthmus."
"Scientists, politicians, they all dreamed," recalls Tom Ramos, a physicist and unofficial historian at Livermore Lab. "The first image was this new source of energy that would solve much of the energy problems of the country, and apparently the world."
Ramos says the first notion of how nuclear power plants might work was not with a reactor, but with repeated underground detonations that would create steam to run turbines.
That idea never took hold -- probably for the best -- but, applied to earthmoving, nukes seemed like a natural. Uses were hatched for mining and what is now commonly called "fracking," breaking up underground rock formations to free up gas and oil reserves.
Nukes would carve a new harbor out of the rugged Alaskan coastline. Project Carryall would deploy a string of 22 atomic bombs to carve a road cut through the Bristol Mountains in California's Mojave Desert, shortening the path for the new Interstate 40 and the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe rail line. (There's a remarkably detailed review of the plan on the Atomic Skies history blog.)
But a sea-level canal was the ultimate megaproject. Teller’s team considered a couple of dozen routes through Panama, Colombia, and Nicaragua. They would blast all the way down to sea level with "250 devices in 27 separate detonations of from one to eleven megatons," according to one scenario. At the low end of that range, each detonation would be more than 60 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And they’d do it, they figured, for (in today’s dollars) less than it took to build the new San Francisco Bay Bridge.
If the Plowshare visionaries had their way, thermonuclear devices would be busy everywhere, as one promotional film described it, "reshaping the geography of the land in dimensions never before possible, to meet the needs of man."
Listen to elements that have never been heard before now, from Craig Miller's 1999 interview with Edward Teller.
"It was still very much a spectacle," explains Scott Kirsch, a University of North Carolina geologist and author of "Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving."
"There’s a kind of excitement, even as there’s a fear of apocalypse, there’s a kind of technological spectacle associated with the bomb."
He means that literally. In the early 1950s, Las Vegas residents would gather in their yards to watch distant mushroom clouds from detonations at the Nevada Test Site, 90 miles north of town.
Teller, who died in 2003, went to his grave convinced that nuclear geo-engineering was a missed opportunity.
"Fear," he cited as the reason in an interview with me at his Stanford office, shortly before his death in 2003. "Unjustified fear of radiation."
Others begged to differ.
"It was biological insanity," the late John Gofman told me in a 1995 interview. Gofman (1918-2007) was associate director for biology and medicine at the lab in the early 1960s.
"They’d say, ‘Look, there’ll be some radioactivity here but not to worry. It’s below the threshold of any harm.'" Gofman, who was in many respects Teller's polar opposite, devoted much of his career to proving that there was no known "safe" threshold for radiation exposure.
At the height of the Atomic Age frenzy, it wasn't always easy to speak out against the projects, many of which would defy common sense by today's standards.
"Common sense was a little bit in short supply at the high levels," Gofman recalled. "Washington was backing it. The five atomic energy commissioners were backing it. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and Senate and House were backing it. This whole crazy idea was getting good backing at all levels of government and science."
But why? Gofman and others saw Plowshare essentially as PR for the nuclear weapons program.
"It was absolutely thought of as a way to legitimize the weapons program," he told me.
If that's the case, it was a strategy that might have backfired.
"Plowshare tests were blasting radioactive dirt over Utah, Nevada and nearby places," Kirsch recalls. "So, in other words, these were giving the weapons program a bad name."
Filtered through current-day sensibilities, the whole idea seems like a dusty relic of the early Atomic Age -- but as late as 1973, a major conference in Las Vegas was devoted to ideas for nuclear excavation. In the 1990s, Chinese government scientists were mulling over the prospects for major civil engineering projects.
But will anyone actually pull the trigger on nuclear excavation?
"In the U.S., my answer would be no," says Kirsch, although as writer Ed Regis noted in a 2015 post for Slate:
"Elon Musk, of the rocket firm SpaceX, has recently proposed nuking the Martian polar ice caps to warm up the Red Planet—a Project Plowshare for the new millennium."
"It would be great to know what other countries are doing," Kirsch ventures. "I think most would evaluate the hazards as far greater than the possible virtues."
But not Edward Teller, who as far as can be known, died with his vision intact.
"Everything that can be done will be done, tenfold over," Teller declared in our Stanford interview. My worry is it will not be done in the United States."
Indeed, most of Project Plowshare never got off the drawing board.
They did accomplish numerous tests, or "shots," at one point blasting out a crater in southern Nevada, a quarter-mile across and deep enough to bury a 30-story building. But by the early 1960’s, growing public anxiety over radiation and nuclear test ban treaties made it virtually impossible to gather the data needed to continue.
The Soviet Union dabbled in it -- once to snuff out a runaway gas well fire -- but for practical purposes, the dream of atomic earthmoving remains just that.
Get the best of KQED’s science coverage in your inbox weekly.