Skip to content

A Blast from the Past – September 10, 1969 – Project Rulison Fifty Years On – A Series on Project Plowshares – Nuclear Fracking Colorado – Edward Teller’s Defense of Project Plowshares: “We’re Going To Make Miracles”.

August 20, 2019

Rulison Poster

“Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth


The fiftieth anniversary of Project Rulison, an underground nuclear blast to produce commercially grade natural gas – a kind of nuclear fracking – will take place on September 10, 2019. Some of us involved in protesting the blast will return to Rulison as a part of an effort to make a documentary film on the event. What was Project Rulison and what broader program was it a part of? It was an important moment in the state and nation’s history but so few know anything about it. What follows are a series of articles on flawed attempt to use nuclear bombs for peaceful purposes, of which Project Rulison was an integral episode.


Project Rulison was an integral part of a much broader program, called “Project Plowshares.” Initiated by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957, a number of far-reaching plans for the so-called peaceful uses of nuclear energy were then sketched out. They included, among other things, widening the Panama Canal using underground nuclear blasts, mining for copper, building and enlarging harbors in Alaska, extracting oil from shale, and creating cavities into which natural gas would flow that then be sold commercially.

Not one of these projects, thankfully, got off the ground. In all of them the danger of long-term radiation contamination were enough to essentially kill each project and eventually, in 1977, Project Plowshares itself was finally formally killed. All three tests involving natural gas extraction (Project Gasbuggy, Project Rulison, Project Rio Blanco) were failures, after first being called successes. In the case of Rulison, done on September 10, 2019, the site clean up did not end until 1998, that is close to thirty years after the blast.

The public in the United States in the late 1950s – as elsewhere – was becoming increasingly weary of the consequences of nuclear blasts and becoming more and more suspect that the assurances that nuclear energy could be safely used were unsubstantiated happy talk. An international social movement to end the nuclear arms race, known as the Stockholm Peace Appeal first initiated by the World Peace Council, had struck a chord worldwide despite the fact having been branded as “a propaganda trick in the spurious ‘peace offensive’ of the Soviet Union.”

It enshrined three principles: (1) a total ban on nuclear weapons; (2) the establishment of a control mechanism for the application of the prohibition; and (3) a mandate that all States refrain from launching a first strike, which is a crime against humanity.above ground testing of nuclear weapons.

But the “propaganda” charge failed to stick given the luminaries who signed it. Among them were Leonard Bernstein, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, Dashiell Hammett, Herbert Aptheker, and Rockwell Kent. Also signing were Marc Chagall, Maurice Chevalier, Frederic Joliet Curie, Thomas Mann, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Yves Montand, Pablo Neruda, George Bernard Shaw and Urho Kekkonen (Finnish Prime Minister).

By the late 1950s the opposition to the nuclear arms race – and the use of nuclear weapons – had grown into a worldwide movement including here in the United States. One of the key rationales for the creation of Project Plowshares was, specifically, to soften that opposition, by claiming that nuclear weapons could be used for peaceful “development” purposes. The 27 underground nuclear tests that employed 31 nuclear warheads detonated between December 10, 1961 to the end of 1977 never resulted in any successful project. They all failed; the actual radiation produced, or the fear in the public that such tests triggered, resulted in the program’s failure.

The article that follows was written by Edward Teller, one of the key scientists who engineered the H-Bomb. It was an attempt to sell Project Plowshares to the public and appeared in what was a popular magazine of the time, Popular Mechanics in its March 1960 issue. To read it now, fifty years after the Rulison blast and nearly sixty years after it was originally printed is somewhat of a surreal experience. Not one of the suggestions that Teller et al tried to institute ever came to fruition. The article reads more like the babblings of an ideologically-infected fool who had drunk the cool aid of the imminent Soviet threat rather than the careful consideration of an eminent scientist, as Shakespeare’s famous quote put it “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Popular Mechanics…
Vol. 113 NO. 3 – March 1960

We’re Going to Work Miracles

The atom’s power is ready to unlock a treasure chest of arctic oil, dig open an 4/aslcan harbor,
open the spigot for Colorado’s shale . . .

By Dr. Edward Teller

WHEN YOU LOOK AT A MAP of Alaska, you will observe Point Hope, at the northwest cor-
ner, projecting out into the Arctic Ocean. Above Point Hope the shore is exposed to the polar ice
pack — which even in summer is never far offshore. Ships can travel north of this point only one month in twelve.

But below Point Hope, the shore swings to the southeast and the sea is free of ice three months of
the year. Nearby are coal deposits and, somewhat farther, oil that might attract commerce except for one vital lack: There is no harbor, no good anchor- age for seagoing ships.

If all goes well we expect to make an artificial model harbor on this bleak coast in the spring of
1%1, It will he a small harbor, and yet it will be an experiment of great hope for the future. The harbor will be excavated in an instant – in a matter of milliseconds – by the explosion of five nuclear bombs having approximately as much power as 500,000 tons of TNT..

In a matter of milliseconds five nuclear bombs will blast open a new harbor in Alaska. The channel will be 1800 feet long and 750 Feet wide; the inner harbor, about a half mile long and a quarter mile wide

Deep-buried bombs fling only surface material into air. Radioactive substances stay near the sero paint

In that tiny interval of time this energy will move 20 million tons of earth and rock. It will blast out a channel 1800 feet long and 750 feet wide and at the same time create an inner harbor a quarter of a mile wide and half a mile long. The minimum water depth will be around 30 feet.

The site is 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, below- Point Hope and Cape Thompson. at the mouth of Ogotoruk Creek.

Project Chariot, as the harbor is called, may become very worthwhile in the years to come, but it is intended mainly as a demonstration that will usher in the age of peaceful uses of atomic explosions, We expect to show- that this new kind of power can perform large earth-moving jobs with proper safety and at less cost than conventional methods.

The remote site was chosen deliberately to allay any fears of radioactive contamination, However, there will be very little contamination. To accomplish this, we will use a trick to prevent the possible escape of fission products.

If the nuclear devices were to be exploded at shallow depths, almost all radioactive particles would be thrown up into the atmosphere. So we will bury the bombs deep — about 400 feet below the surface for the small ones and possibly 700 feet for the larger ones. Each blast will transmit its energy to the rock above it. flinging only the surface materials into the air.

We expect that all except 10 or 20 percent of the radioactive byproduct will be trapped at the deep zero points and we hope that it will remain practically immobilized in the fused rock. It is possible that we shall succeed even better and that all but a very small percentage of the radioactivity will be safely contained underground. In a short time, possibly two weeks, it will be possible for people to work safely in the immediate vicinity of the explosion.

The mechanics of this are based on several underground test shots that have been made at our Nevada test site. The bombs ranged from one tenth of a kiloton to 23 kilotons in power and were detonated at different depths below the surface. From these experimental shots, we learned a great deal about underground blasts and how much fallout to expect.

Preparations for building the Alaskan harbor are under way now. Last summer 140 people from the Atomic Energy Commission, other government organizations and several universities started surveys in the area. They are studying the geology and making biological surveys of the plant and animal life. They are investigating the food “chains” and the habits of the few’ local Eskimos, their food sources and their hunting and fishing areas.

Similar surveys will be made at some future date after the creation of the harbor. Thus we will learn whether any local conditions were changed by the blasts. This is indicative of the care and caution with which we are approaching this first large demonstration,

I believe that the dangers from fallout in the weapons-testing program have been greatly exaggerated; nevertheless, this worry exists and so we are trying to develop “clean” bombs. Within a few years, we may be able to produce explosives that are completely clean, with no radioactive fallout and no local residual contamination.

Project Chariot is part of the AEC’s Plowshare program for exploring constructive, peaceful uses of nuclear explosives. Studies have been going on for several years and the whole Plowshare subject is now declassified with the exception of the black box that contains the nuclear explosive itself and which we might call Hamlet, as it is the main actor in the drama. Our present necessary secrecy requires that Hamlet shall not appear on the stage for the time being.

If Chariot is successful, we will have the knowledge and experience for creating a harbor wherever one is needed. Its size and shape can be tailored to the local requirements, Several future locations have been considered, as has the possibility of sea-level canals that would be dug in roughly the same fashion as Chariot’s entrance channel.

With similar techniques, we can remove the overburden from large bodies of low-grade ore and at the same time shatter the ore so that it can be mined by ordinary means or by one of the suggested leaching processes. Deep ore bodies that are too expensive to mine today may also yield to nuclear mining.

The AEC has established estimated charges for nuclear explosives, including their emplacement by the commission. Estimates range from a half million dollars for a few-kiloton yield to a million dollars for a megaton bomb. Larger ones would cost only a little more. Future developments might decrease the charges. For the kinds of work we have in mind, we believe nuclear explosives are cheaper than conventional explosives and in some cases can do work that is quite impractical by any other means.

People talk about putting the cart before the horse, and in this absurd age this is not so unusual; all of us have seen horses carried along in trailers. In a somewhat similar way. we may be able to use nuclear energy to make available more of the old conventional fuel which nuclear energy is supposed to replace. In particular we might use nuclear explosions in oil production.

Why should anyone do that? Because a nuclear reactor emits dangerous radiations and so needs heavy shielding, which makes it clumsy as a motor for a small vehicle. Furthermore, an accident to any moving vehicle driven by a reactor might get us into real trouble. If fission products stored up in the reactor get loose, there will be enough concentrated radioactivity in the neighborhood to constitute a serious hazard. For the purpose of transportation, the light and compact energy package that is gasoline or oil remains better than anything else known or expected. Yet our inexpensive oil stocks are nearing the point where their decline can be foreseen.

It might be possible to extract more petroleum from deposits that are regarded as depleted by exploding nuclear devices in the formations, shattering the oil sands and perhaps also providing the heat so that the oil may flow more freely.

In the Athabaska River region of northwest Canada there exists a tar sand that contains as much petroleum as all the oil of Arabia. On a hot day the tar drips from the exposed banks, yet no cheap way of extracting it has been found.

A proposal that is being studied by the Canadian Government and the Richfield Oil Company is to explode a 10-kiloton charge at the bottom of a 1200-foot hole in the Athabaska tar sands. From what was learned at the underground test shots in Nevada, we would expect the explosion to create a huge bubble in the earth which almost at once would fill up with shattered rock falling from above. We hope that the radioactive products of the explosion will be trapped in the bubble’s glassy lining. If the rock in and above this bubble is sufficiently broken up. and if the material does not get compacted and does not re-solidify too rapidly, we have opened a passage for a heating fluid to the tar sands and we can thaw out the petroleum. In fact, the heat of the explosion itself might be used.

We’re Going to Work Miracles

Ordinarily oil wells would then be drilled into the shattered area to pump the liquefied tar to the surface where it could be refined into various petroleum products.

An even more difficult and ambitious problem, one that might be called only a dream, is to extract the hydrocarbons that are trapped in the oil shales of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. An experiment is be ing considered for performing an explosion in this area. In this case much more heat is required to liberate the oily substance from the shale* The heat of “the nuclear explosion will not suffice. Actually the explosion is considered only for the purpose of breaking the shale. Once this is done, one might start an underground fire in the shale. The heat of the fire would then drive out some of the valuable hydrocarbons.

Experience Needed

But this is all speculation; we have had no experience in shattering or heating or modifying an underground petroleum deposit. At best the first attempts will not be perfect. The probability that either project will succeed may not be very high, yet success would increase the world’s available
supply of oil by billions of barrels. It is worth the venture when the reward can be so great. What we should like to do is to perform exploratory explosions in a really safe manner and observe the results. The results may be surprising and all surprises need not be disappointments.

If producing oil may be called a dream, we might be excused if we call the next possibility a real pipe dream. This has to do with producing heat underground and then mining the heat and changing it to electricity. We can create the heat cheaply — that we know. The question remains whether a pipe or system of pipes can be installed in the hot area cheaply enough and whether the pipes will stand many consecutive explosions, or that we can draw off the heat at an economical cost.

Project Gnome will tell us a great deal about this method of producing electricity. The plan is to explode a 10-kiloton device in a thick bed of natural salt 1200 feet below the surface near Carlsbad, N. Mex. The salt is very dry, hence very little steam will be created that could dissipate the heat. We hope that the blast will melt considerably more than 1000 tons of material, creating a pool of molten salt having a minimum temperature of around 1500 degrees. Air or carbon dioxide would then be bubbled through this reservoir of heat and the resulting super-heated air or steam would be piped to the surface to operate an ordinary electrical power plant. Project Gnome is an very small scale experiment; for economic power production thermonuclear devices in the megaton range could b used to create vast underground deposits of heat. When this will become possible and whether it will ever become important, we certainly do not know.

We believe we will be able to produce new things underground that we can later mine. We can make isotopes underground, and some of these isotopes will be valuable. We might be able to produce diamonds, not of gen-stone quality but as a fine powder which has industrial uses.

There is enormous potential in using nuclear energy underground to create the heat and pressure needed to carry out strange chemical reactions that produce entirely new types of materials never seen on the face of the earth. The problems are: to produce them from materials which are already present in the underground location, to mine them cheaply – for instance, in the form of a fluid – but more than anything else to recognize which ware the really interesting materials once can obtain this way.

Water Important

A fluid that is even more important than oil is ordinary water, and it has been proposed that we regulate the flow of water on the surface or underground by means of nuclear explosions. One suggestion is to shatter a formation so that a subsurface flow of water would be trapped in the shattered area, from which it could be pumped. There is a chance that the water would leach out some radioactive products and carry these with it. Our present experience indicates that any leaching would be so slow that the radioactive products would have decayed to a safe state by the time they have moved a significant distance. However, this is one more reason why we must strive to produce clean explosives, and until we have clean explosives, we must proceed with the greatest caution.

Nuclear explosions could be sued to produce cheap earth-fill dams, to deflect rivers and to decrease the cost of hydroelectric projects.

There are suggestions that we could bomb a hurricane out of existence. This seems extremely difficult. The energy in a hurricane is too great. Another proposal has been to use a nuclear explosion as a trigger that would modify climate or weather. The late mathematician Jon von Neumann suggested that a nuclear explosion could throw up dust of the right particle size. The particles should be bigger than the wavelength of sunlight so they would shut out the sunshiny but they should be smaller than the heat radiation emitted by the earth. Thus the usual balance between incoming and outgoing radiation would be changed in the region where the explosion has produced dust. In this way, we could govern much bigger energies than that of the explosion itself. There is just a chance that we really could influence weather.

For the time being, we are not planning anything along these lines. Weather modification is mentioned only as an example of the possibilities that might arise in the distant future.

Plowshare is still a very new and untried enterprise. It cannot prosper without two necessary ingredients—careful thought and careful experiment. So far we have tried to give the problems careful thought, but we are woefully short on actual experience. The field is full of new possibilities. It may well be that the main application of nuclear energy will be along lines of which no one has yet thought.

* * *

3 Comments leave one →
  1. John Buttny permalink
    August 20, 2019 11:17 pm

    hi rob, don’t know whether or not this will reach you, but i wanted to tell you how much i enjoy following your blog. i’m living with my wife and other family members on an acre in the santa ynez valley, about 30 miles north of santa barbara. spinal stenosis and parkinsons have slowed me down, but i am still able to read and write, so life goes on. i am halfway through my 82nd year…i never imagined that i would be around this long. i have had the good fortune to watch my 5 grand children grow up. the youngest is 14 and the oldest is twenty seven, and all but one live nearby and visit often.

    i hope this finds you well, my friend.

    take care,



    • August 20, 2019 11:32 pm

      John glad you are still here. Just became a grandpa myself; didn’t expect it. Will write you a longer note soon. Thanks for kind words- Rob


  1. A Blast from the Past – Project Rulison Fifty Years On – A Series on Project Plowshares – Part One. | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: