I present, for your reading pleasure, further excerpts from the stranger side of atomic history.
What: A top-secret proposal by the US Air Force to drop an atomic bomb on the moon – specifically, a 1.7-kiloton W25 warhead. Allegedly, the regolith thrown up by the blast would provide insights into lunar geology, but mostly the Air Force wanted to do something to respond to the Sputnik launch and show the US wasn't going to be left behind in the Space Race.
When: May 1958 through January 1959.
How Far: A119 never left paper, although most of the components for the project were being developed anyway for other programs.
Why Not: At some point, someone realized that while nuking the moon is impressive, it's not necessarily the sort of impression you want to make.
How It Could Happen: It probably couldn't, but if for some reason the US government suffered a fit of collective insanity, it would certainly be technically feasible by the early 60's at the latest. Alternatively, if you're willing to take a somewhat broader view, the Plowshare program did briefly investigate using underground nuclear explosions to extract water from the lunar regolith, as Project MOSES.
Further Reading: US planned one big nuclear blast for mankind.
Nuclear Hurricane Steering
What: Detonating twenty-megaton hydrogen-bombs in the eyes of hurricanes, so that the heat would loft air into the upper atmosphere, reducing the hurricane's power. Yes, really. Preliminary calculations by Dr. Jack W. Reed of Sandia Laboratory suggested that one bomb could slow a 150-knot hurricane to 120 knots, and a 100-knot hurricane to 50 knots.
How Far: Some very low-level theoretical work was done, but no real work on hardware.
Why Not: Even in the 1950s, modifying the weather with hydrogen bombs was a little too Buck Rogers-ish to be taken seriously.
How It Could Happen: It's not clear if this would actually work (although as of 2004 Dr. Reed still believed it would). But a world that had already embraced the other Plowshare programs for nuclear earth-moving and resource extraction might give this a go as well.
Further Reading: Nuking Hurricanes.
The X-12 Atomic Locomotive
What: A nuclear-powered locomotive. The X-12 was a class project for a group of nuclear physicists at the University of Utah, under the instruction of Prof. Lyle Borst, a Manhattan Project alum. It would be powered by a 6 MWe aqueous homogenous reactor, running on weapons-grade uranium and producing 7,000 horsepower, and would need a separate radiator car to dispose of waste heat. Massing 720,000 lbs., at the time it would have been the fifth biggest locomotive ever built, and the third most powerful.
How Far: Borst took out a patent for the proposal in 1955, and claimed Babcock & Wilcox were interested in developing the concept, but it never seems to have gone any further.
Why Not: The class's economic analysis claimed that a nuclear-powered locomotive could be competitive with diesels, but pretty much no one else agreed with them. A more plausible estimate by a railway engineer, Bruce Gunnel, in 1955, concluded an atomic engine would be about two and a half times as expensive as a diesel to operate, even without taking into account safety and liability issues – even the engineers of the 1950's were uncomfortable with the thought of nuclear trains cruising the railways of Middle America.
How It Could Happen: The atomic locomotive is most cost-effective over very long routes, preferably through barren regions. It also helps if diesel fuel is very, very expensive. That's a mix that's not likely to happen historically, but might in a post-apocalyptic future or an alternate world. Alternatively, in 1955 Senator John Butler proposed that the Atomic Energy Commission build a nuclear-powered “freedom train” as a public relations exercise, a locomotive equivalent of the NS Savannah nuclear-powered merchant ship; that's unlikely to lead to widespread use of the technology, but it might conceivably be built as a one-off demonstration.
Further Reading: To Peoria by Atom.
The Nuclear-Powered Swimsuit
What: It's technically not nuclear-powered, nor a swimsuit, but that sounds better than a “radiothermally heated wetsuit”. The suit had a network of small tubes woven through it, connected to a small capsule worn on the diver's back. Ocean water would be heated by the radioactive decay of a small charge of plutonium-238 – this is not the stuff in bombs, it's the material that powers the Mars rovers – and then circulated by a small pump through the tubes, keeping the diver warm even in the briny deeps.
How Far: A full prototype was built and tested.
Why Not: It didn't work. Specifically, it didn't produce enough heat to keep the diver warm. That problem could probably be overcome with a larger Pu-238 charge, but that stuff is expensive.
How It Could Happen: We decide to spend the money. A Pu-238 wetsuit heater will never be cheap, but if the military wants it badly enough, it could happen and the price of Pu-238 could probably be brought down if we decided to produce it in quantity.
Further Reading: The Nuclear-Powered Swimsuit.
What: See those little things hanging off the wings? Those are fighter jets. It's a nuclear-powered flying aircraft carrier.
A typical mission would see a CL-1201-1 escorting seven CL-1201-3's – a troop transport version of the monster plane – to conduct combat operations in areas far removed from US bases or aircraft carriers. The “-3” suggests there were other types proposed as well, but unfortunately the original study has been lost.
How Far: Paper only.
Why Not: Do I really need to explain?
How It Could Happen: If the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program was successful...and if that lead to the construction of gigantic super-planes due to economies of scale...and if the US Navy, for whatever reason, lost a whole lot of budget battles to the Air Force...maybe, maybe then.
Extinguishing Gas Well Fires with Hydrogen Bombs
What: In 1963, a team of Russian gas drillers lost control of well number 11 in the Urtabulak gas field in southern Uzbekistan. By lost control I mean it created a blaze so massive they were unable to extinguish it.
When: The first was in 1966, the last in 1981.
How Far: All the way.
Why Not: Unfortunately, English-language information on the program is pretty scanty. The Russian version of the Plowshare project continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union, so it wasn't that. The final shot, PYRITE, apparently failed to stop the leak, and that may have been the reason why they stopped doing it.
How It Could Happen: It did.
Further Viewing: An Atomic Bomb will stop the Gulf Oil Leak, LOOK!
What: A network of tunnels excavated in the northern Greenland icecap, covering 52,000 square miles – about the size of Alabama. 600 Iceman ballistic missiles would shuttle through the complex on mobile launch vehicles, controlled from sixty nuclear-powered control centers. Since the Soviet Union would not be able to detect the missiles through the ice, they wouldn't be able to destroy them.
How Far: Two paper studies were done. In addition, although this may not have been directly related to ICEWORM, the military operated an underground camp in the ice sheet, Camp Century, for several years, to develop techniques for living and working under the ice.
Why Not: One of the things the Army discovered at Camp Century is that the ice is not actually stable. It shifts. A lot. The tunnels would have to be continuously re-excavated to keep them from pinching shut, which made the whole project impractical.
How It Could Happen: It couldn't. Even if the ice didn't keep moving, the Danes would never agree to basing hundreds of nuclear missiles on their territory. However, while ICEWORM is impossible, a modified version of the idea using tunnels dug in rock is quite feasible, though expensive. It was one of the ideas proposed for basing the MX Peacekeeper in the late 70s and early 80s, and with some change in circumstances might well happen.
Further Reading: Nukes on Ice: ICEWORM and the Army's Quest for Strategic Nuclear Weapons.
The Schoharie Valley Townsite
What: Dubbed “A Protected Community for the Nuclear Age”, the Schoharie Valley Townsite was a project by a class of graduate architecture students to design a factory town that could maintain war production while under nuclear attack. The town was not designed to withstand a direct hit, but would (they hoped) be able to keep the production lines running after a detonation by a 20-megaton hydrogen-bomb at a three mile distance. The community of 9,000 would feature a network of underground shelters linked by a “seatway” network, an electronics factory dug into a limestone cave, and, of course, a nuclear reactor for power.
When: The class itself was in 1959. The professor teaching the class, F. W. Edmondson, presented it at conferences into at least 1961.
How Far: They made some models and diagrams.
Why Not: Schoharie Valley was always just a class project. Besides that, though, the concept occupies an uncomfortable position between being too hardened to be cheap, but not enough to survive a direct attack.
How It Could Happen: Something like Schoharie Valley could easily happen if the US was more interested in civil defense – it would be a considerable piece of engineering, but not on the Olympian scale of the Manhattan Shelter Study. Perhaps if Nelson Rockefeller, who was a strong supporter of civil defense, was elected president we might see projects like this happen.
What: Undersea bases built by digging a vertical shaft into the sea floor, installing an airlock in the shaft, and then keeping on digging down. Powered by small nuclear reactors, ROCKSITE installations would provide one-atmosphere shirt-sleeve environments under thousands of feet of water. Proposed uses included petroleum and mineral mining, submarine resupply depots, scientific laboratories, and sonar and weapon installations.
How Far: Paper studies only.
Why Not: There's still enough ore deposits on land that we don't need to mine underwater. I'm not sure why the scientific and military applications weren't pursued, unfortunately. I've found one statement that an undersea base project was dropped after a review by outside researchers concluded that they were radically underestimating the cost (which was compared unfavorably to the Apollo project), but I'm not sure if that is referring to ROCKSITE. A simpler explanation may just be that nobody wanted an undersea base badly enough to build one.
How It Could Happen: While undersea mining is currently too expensive to bother with, that may not be true forever. Once oceanic mining becomes cost-effective, ROCKSITE might be a viable approach.
What: An X-ray laser for shooting down incoming Soviet missiles. Specifically, an X-ray laser deriving its energy from an exploding hydrogen-bomb.
The details of the project are still deeply, deeply classified. What we know is that a nuclear explosive, either pre-placed in orbit or launched on quick-reaction ballistic missiles, would be used to “pump” a cluster of X-ray lasing rods. Each EXCALIBUR bomb would, in theory, be able to shoot down multiple incoming warheads – possibly as many as fifty.
When: The 1980s, with the project shut down in 1992.
How Far: There were at least ten underground nuclear tests.
Why Not: It's not entirely clear to me why the project was abandoned. A popular explanation is that it didn't actually work, and that may well be true – there are good reasons to be skeptical of whether the system could even theoretically do what its backers claimed, but the end of the program also coincides with the US moratorium on nuclear testing, and that may be the real reason it was shut down.
How It Could Happen: It depends on if it could actually work or not. If it could, all we need is for the Cold War to go on a bit longer. An ABM system that is even partially effective against a massive missile barrage would be irresistible to either side.
That's all for now. I hope you've enjoyed this tour through atompunk history, and remember: the atom is your friend.
* * *
Mark J. Appleton blogs on atompunk history at Atomic Skies.