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Project Rulison – A Blast from the Past – Another Project Plowshares Debacle. Four Protesters and a documentary Film Crew Return to the Scene of the Crime.

September 16, 2019

Protesters at the Rulison nuclear blast site, Ground Zero, along with the documentary film makers from Project Boom. They are making a documentary about Project Plowshares and Rulison in particular. Nancy Fey in white sweatshirt with flowers. On her right Melinda Dell Fitting. Front and center in light long sleeve shirt, Chester McQueary and to his right in the read t-shirt, yours truly, Rob Prince.

Today, in 2019, the world has entered a new nuclear weapons arms race. In many ways it is far more dangerous than the one which unfolded during the Cold War. The United States has invested some $1.4 trillion over a ten year period to modernize the entire nuclear weapons arsenal. None of its competitors is spending anything near that, be it China, Russia or the other nuclear weapons countries. 

In the nuclear arms race that unfolded during the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union – in response to worldwide rejection of nuclear weapons’ testing and the revelations of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – tried to sugar coat nuclear weapons, put makeup on the corpse that is nuclear annihilation by arguing they could also be used for peaceful development and construction purposes. 

Remembering Rulison is not just a exercise in what happened fifty years ago, but a warning for what is happening today. 


Chester McQueary, Project Rulison organizer, preparing the meeting room for the 50th anniversary memorial

September 10, 2019.


A group of fifty or so people, almost all from the surrounding area of Battlement Mesa, Parachute, Rifle Colorado gathered at the Battlement Mesa Recreation Center located on 1-70 between Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction in the Colorado Rockies. Battlement Mesa sits in a valley between the Roan Plateau to the north and Grand Mesa to the south. It was supposed to “Ground Zero” for Colorado’s mega-oil shale development program that, thankfully, never got off the ground.

The area is “Ground Zero” for another federal boondoggle that did get off the ground, or more accurately was triggered under the ground. The Battlement Mesa audience came to hear the recollections and comments of four people who, fifty years to the day, on September 10, 1969, had protested the detonation of an underground nuclear blast at nearby Rulison, set off by the Atomic Energy Commission in conjunction with the Austral Oil Company and the GeoNuclear Corporation.

At the time, the protest organizers, and those who joined them at the blast site, were under the illusion that if enough of people were protesting near the blast site – we were a few miles from Ground Zero – that the Atomic Energy Commission would not detonate the bomb. They were mistaken about that. The organizers had hoped to bring several hundred people from the Front Range to protest, but as it turned out, fewer people were willing, able to participate. Still, no small thing to protest a 43 kiloton blast 8400 feet below the surface a few miles from Ground Zero

“Project Rulison” was a part of a larger program that resulted in 27 underground nuclear blasts using 31 nuclear weapons known as “Project Plowshares’ – an Edward Teller production. Teller, like Donald Trump today had limitless energy to propose stupid ideas. “Plowshares” was an attempt to give a face lift to nuclear weapons suggesting that besides being weapons of mass destruction, that weapons could also be used for mass construction projects, building harbors, canals, tunnels through mountains. There were even plans on the drawing board – never activated – to use nuclear weapons for weather modification. (1)

In the last decade of Project Plowshares a number of underground atomic blasts were conducted in conjunction with private oil and gas concerns to retrieve natural gas locked deep beneath the earth in cavities formed by the blast that could then be sucked out to the surface. The natural gas retrieval portions of Plowshares included three detonations using five nuclear weapons (that some refer to as “devices”).

Besides Project Rulison there was Project Gasbuggy (1967 in Northern New Mexico) and Project Rio Blanco (1973 between Rifle and Meeker in Colorado). Had they been deemed successful which they weren’t, these three blasts would have led to Project Wagon Wheel for which hundreds of underground nukes would have been detonated in S. Wyoming and Northern Colorado.

Despite government claims that all were “successful,” none were. All at some points leaked radioactive contaminants into the air. At Rulison the clean up at the site went on until 1998 – not exactly a success story. None of the blasts resulted in a cubic foot of gas sold commercially and the private energy companies that invested heavily in them all lost big bucks.

The audience at the Battlement Mesa memorial event on Project Rulison


Chester McQueary tells two “post Rulison Blast” stories about the 25th anniversary of the blast that are even more relevant at this time when the 50th anniversary of the underground atomic bomb blast is marked. He approached both a local Western Slope editor and an academic at the Colorado School of Mines about any new information they might have on the Rulison blast. But the editor had moved on, there was a new one now and the academic had died and been replaced. In both cases, these “professionals” denied that Project Rulison had even taken place, suggesting McQueary was some kind of scam artist.

Actually, at the time, September 1969 along with months prior and afterwards, Project Rulison was all over the news. There was broad based opposition that included a future governor, a motion submitted to the US Supreme Court to cancel the blast. It was rejected. City councils in Aspen, Glenwood Springs passed resolutions opposed. A few years later, the citizens of Colorado passed a “citizens’ initiative” making it illegal for the federal government to detonate nuclear weapons in the state without a vote of the people. Finally the underground nuclear blasts in Colorado at Rulison and Rio Blanco fueled a statewide movement to reject the 1976 Olympics in the state.

But by 1994, a major Western Slope newspaper – that had previously taken a stand against the Rulison Blast now denied that even happened a few miles down the road and the head of the oil and gas department a university at a world class mining preparation educational institution, likewise was adamant in denying that Rulison had taken place.

Two examples of how fragile is historic memory, even within our lifetimes.

But such local ignorance and denial aside, Project Rulison did take place and a group of us – along with a documentary film crew calling themselves “Project Boom” returned to Rulison to mark the blast’s fiftieth anniversary. We spent time at ground zero where memories of the protest and detonation were triggered and we stayed several hours the awful truth of what had happened at what today is a stunning and peaceful mountain site.

Granted, it was a small reunion – four of us of the original 28 protesters who, fifty years ago, in early September 1969, went to a small clearing on Dog Head Mountain to oppose the detonation of an atomic bomb close to 8500′ below the earth’s surface. The last of the group to commemorate the event were Chester McQueary, at the time, an organizer for the American Friends Service Committee, Dr. Melinda Dell Fitting of Maryland, Nancy Ellen Fey, a recently retired nurse and myself.

Two of us- McQueary and Fitting – were “on sight” when the blast took place on the morning of September 10, 1969. At the time most of us were young, many from Colorado’s Front Range – Denver and Boulder and perhaps, didn’t appreciate the risks involved. Fey and Prince had been a part of the protest contingent but had left prior to the detonation which had been an off-again, on again affair. Both McQueary and Margaret Puls – another key Project Rulison organizer – were working class youth who grew up in the Colorado Rockies, McQueary at Granby, Puls from Salida.

Later on in the early evening on September 10, there was a community meeting at the Battlement Mesa Recreation Center. The four of us shared both our memories of Project Rulison as well as putting that particular blast into the broader perspective of the Cold War nuclear arms race. In the end, Project Rulison was essentially an experiment in fracking with nuclear weapons, “nuclear fracking.” Although the resulting levels of nuclear contamination were small, they did exist and as there were no clear standards of what are the safe amounts of low level radiation, commercializing the products of the blast, the natural gas, was commercially unmarketable.

The breathtaking region near the blast site which is just up the road about a mile.


End Notes

1. As Hurricane Dorian approached the U.S. east coast, President Trump made an offhanded remark that maybe nuclear weapons should be use to change the hurricane’s direction. A trial balloon for a new version of “Project Plowshares?”




6 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Moore permalink
    September 16, 2019 9:34 pm

    Thanks! Good reminder


  2. Phil Jones permalink
    September 17, 2019 8:08 am

    Why was this particular site chosen? For oil or gas or??? If so, did the oil or gas or ??? industries pick the site or did the AEC? Or the military?

    • September 17, 2019 8:20 am

      There is a considerable, if not enormous amount of natural gas (and oil shale) locked in the Colorado-Wyoming Rockies. Energy industry wanted to get at it. Beautiful but remote area in terms of population… Hydraulic fracking was at its infancy…so the A.E.C. tried nukes. Later they were even more bizarre and monumental plans to get at the oil shale in the area around Rulison – if I am not mistaken, Phil, one of Project Plowshares tests was to nuke oil shale, see if it dissolved into some usable form (but it didn’t). Even processing oil shale by non-nuclear methods – at least the stuff in Colorado, proved to be uneconomical although billions were spent try to commercialize it.

      The federal government in the 1980s had plans to move half a million people into the area near Rulison (Battlement Mesa, Parachute), set up thirteen power plants in the valley between the Roan Plateau and Grand Mesa and construct what would have been one of the world’s largest energy complexes…this was all a decade after Rulison. Project failed because it wasn’t cost effective (among other reasons). But, an Olympic-quality recreation center was built in anticipation for the boom. Great place – that is where we had our Rulison panel discussion…

      • Phil Jones permalink
        September 17, 2019 1:11 pm

        Rec centers are good things. As for the rest of those plans…..dear god, you and Nancy would have had to move back to Nebraska just to get away from the effect of it all….P
        PS. Just had lunch in a restaurant owned by a nice Italian guy originally from La Goulette.


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