The 4 Plowshare Conferences And The Lost Nuclear Future of The Silver Age, 1958-68

A guest article by Joseph Friedlander
When I was a young boy, reading comics, I ran across the DC Comics universe and the concept of the various ‘ages’ of Superman– The Golden Age of the 30s and 40s, and the Silver Age of the 50s and 60s. 

Summarized very briefly, the publisher rewrote the character and his  comic universe to fit the times and fan base. My favorite has always been the Silver Age superman, which basically is synonymous with the beginnings of the Space Age.   It was a very science fiction-y time in real life, with a huge tech backlog from the World Wars and the Cold War being implemented into real life nearly month by month. 

In terms of Superman, the science fiction atmosphere rubbed off on all DC comics. From about 1959-63 Batman was in serious danger of encountering an alien criminal every few months. Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s pal, would be eating dinner in his dining room and a noise from the back room would not be a mouse but a time-traveling alien burglar from the 31st Century out to steal his historic Superman trophy collection. (Yes, that was an actual story.)  Gardner Fox and Edmond Hamilton and and Otto Binder wrote many science fiction comics and amazing as the stories were, the science of real life kept interacting and making the older stories  look almost quaint.  Ray guns?  Lasers! Atomic power on Krypton? 1964 Fusion reactor in NewYork! (Very probably visited by the DC editorial staff) Exploding planets? Exploding stars! And (it was thought) exploding galaxies  You just couldn’t keep up, but the editors and writers and artists tried.
  I find it hard to believe that an amazing amount of geeks, tech personnel and scientists did not grow up reading those stories and being influenced by them.  Weisinger and Siegel were two loci of change at DC comics  but there were so many others. I can remember to this day the floating, mono-railed future cities of Carmine_Infantino whose haunting artwork of the future especially of the Silver Age Flash comics was one of the great features of the DC comic universe.But the writers of those classic comics were just holding a distorted super-mirror to the real life wonders of the era between Sputnik and the Moon landings,  the zeitgeist of which is strangely well captured in the animated movie The Incredibles, which manages to touch on superheroes, James Bond like plots, monorails, and the Mission Impossible like atmosphere of  the Silver Age.
Here is a previous post about that amazing time during which future was rushing at us like the air into the nose of a dog hanging out a car window. It was an era in which the lost future space tech of the movie 2001 seemed no more amazing from 1968 then the moonship of December 1968 would have seemed from 1935– just as much time separated those two eras.   We could have done some amazing things in space 
and nuclear technology (this article) as well as great civil works
but society (or its’ political leaders) decided not to, more passively than actively. Pipe Canada’s water over the Rockies to the deserts of Mexico?  We can’t even get routine approval to build a routine oil  pipeline nowadays.
 The Interstate Highway system was declared done enough and they stalled out. 
this was claimed the final section of Interstate Highway to open, at the time this section was dedicated there were still missing interchanges elsewhere in the system, making some Interstate Highways not contiguous.
Muscle cars are dead, they don’t fly to the Moon anymore, there is no nuclear powered base in Antarctica, no nuclear merchant ship,  and you could probably list equivalencies in dozens of fields. There have been stunning technical achievements in other fields. But…the future was supposed to hold even more. Heinlein famously believed the changes between 1900 and 1950 would be dwarfed eightfold by the differences between 1950 and 2000. For the first twenty years or so he was right but he was quite disappointed toward the end of his life (he died in 1988),.
They didn’t let the future in the door when it knocked hard in dozens of fields and eventually the future got tired of being spurned and went to live in Japan and China instead.  

When I try to explain to someone younger an example of how the future was once  different,  it usually goes quickly to either the projected nuclear or space futures (not to mention projected household  income of the future) just because the world we live in is so impoverished in those areas compared to how it could have  been that a common reaction is ‘what happened?’

Where’s my flying car?  Basically, there was no market so it was never built. It was never built because it would never have passed the new regulations (and the new levels of regulatory hurdles, some literally unbelievable to the 60s mentality–a very mild example is the concept cars that people love but which can never be legally built despite the demand because they don’t meet various standards) and because your income isn’t high to pay what a flying car would cost. 
In 1965 the income now–in 2015 50 years later!– was projected to be about 10 times higher in real terms. Electronics aside unless you are the exception your parents could afford a house and car(s) combination better than you can.  That missing wealth is the elephant in the room about why don’t we have this or that deployed great technology. 
Its not just the hidden taxes everywhere and the mandatory expenses and fees (health care, other insurance, hidden inflation, currency games such as the expenses of failed banks, QE and other emissions of virtual currency that sap your spending power) by which quite legally your prospective increase in spending money has been siphoned off to a thousand places but also the regulatory framework and default-no atmosphere that restricts many possible moves AND that missing wealth.

The industries that never were born, the taxes never paid, the savings never accumulated, so the flying car purchase could never be financed,  and there being no market, no regulatory approval and no infrastructure supporting it,  there will be no mass flying car.

But let’s focus on just the one area of the lost nuclear future, and one sub area of that, peaceful nuclear explosions. Today we have (an amazing capability, I am not complaining) non-nuclear frac’ing  (fracking, pressure fracturing and sand propping to enhance gas flow.

 In the last 15 years the ability has emerged not merely to tap gas deposits but actual source rocks themselves, coal-bed methane, shale bed methane, to the extend that gas which was supposedly running out in the 70s is potentially available for up to 2000 years of fuel supply according to some very generous estimates, to the point where some people are labeling it as unburnable fuel reserves.

Climate change and Destiny Studies: Creating our near and far futures
Robert Socolow
 Hans-Holger Rogner, who may be the most prominent of them, estimates that 80,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide would be created by burning all of the world’s oil, natural gas, and coal resources, both conventional and unconventional (Rogner et al., 2000). To put this immense number into perspective, we are producing about 40 billion tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions by burning fossil fuels today, and so his estimate means that there are 2,000 years of emissions at today’s rate. His estimate is also more than 25 times larger than the 3,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere right now.
About 30,000 billion of Rogner’s 80,000 billion ton estimate comes from conventional and unconventional oil, gas, and coal—about two-thirds coal and one-third oil and gas. 
The 1,600 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted so far will bring 1 degree of warming, and budgets of 3,200 and 4,800 billion tons of carbon dioxide of total emissions (past and future) will bring two and three degrees of warming, respectively. The future emissions of the two-degree budget are 2 percent of Rogner’s 80,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide; for three degrees, these emissions are 4 percent.
To appreciate “carbon abundance,” some background on fossil fuels is helpful.
For a few years about a decade ago, a narrow hypothesis, called “Peak Oil,” was promoted by academics who asserted that nearly half of the world’s conventional oil had already been produced and that a slow, steady decline in production inevitably lay ahead. The proponents of Peak Oil had taken little notice of “unconventional” oil, and they hadn’t mentioned coal one way or the other. Nonetheless, a public hungry for reassuring news about climate change inferred that the end was near for all fossil fuel, and that the world would be rescued from climate change by physical depletion.
The recent commercialization of shale gas and shale oil has brought this wishful thinking to a close. Fuel extracted from these sources represents an entirely new category. Nearly all conventional oil and gas comes from hydrocarbons that leaked upward over geological times, out of a “source rock” where it was generated and into a “host rock” where it was trapped beneath an impermeable cap—in other words, conventional oil and gas are the leaks that didn’t find their way to the surface. By contrast, shale oil and shale gas hardly moved. They are being extracted from their source rock. The resource is huge.
The lesson here is that commercially attractive fossil fuels are abundant, rather than scarce. As a result, to address climate change the world will need to make a conscious choice and deliberately leave most of these hydrocarbons underground.
What will be left behind is now being called “unburnable.” 
 This is an absolutely unexpected and amazing achievement in terms of assured fuel supply assuming the government doesnt ban using it) , much better in fact than nuclear stimulation of natural gas wells was supposed to do. 
What is the history of the Plowshare Program
Once upon a time in 1956,  the Egyptian leader Nasser  closed the Suez canal.  This lead to a number of nuclear scientists thinking about digging a new inter-oceanic canal through friendly territory quickly in the wartime manner using hydrogen bombs as trenching charges. These discussions  and the many other ideas percolating around at that time. eventually got extensive enough to want a formal forum, which  led to the Plowshare Conference of 1958.

Declassified version of the report from the 1st Symposium on the Industrial Uses of Nuclear Explosives, held at the Univ. of California Radiation Lab, Livermore, California in 1957.  First report of the “Plowshare Series”.  Not copyrighted.
There was a second conference in San Francisco in 1959 which unfortunately does not have fully downloadable  online PDFs to share. Here, however are the titles of the proceedings. There are also links to leaf through them online

The fourth and final Plowshare symposium was in Las Vegas, at the Dunes Hotel. January 14-16, 1970. Given that by 1975-77 the bottom fell out of this particular future and the program closed, it was the last hurrah although at the time there was so much hope for what an equivalent conference might unveil in say 10 years time.  The hypothetical Fifth Plowshare Symposium of say 1980– what techniologies might it have unveiled?

Defense Tech information Center has pdf copies*&btnG=Google+search
[PDF] Symposium on Engineering With Nuclear Explosives January 14-16, 1970, Las Vegas, Nevada. Volume 1

… CONF-700101 (Vol.1) NUCLEAR EXPLOSIONS-PEACEFUL … This symposium
on “Engineering with Nuclear Explosives” reports to the … VOLUME 2 … – 2560k – 1970-05-01 – Text Version – Citation

[PDF] Symposium on Engineering With Nuclear Explosives January 14-16, 1970 Las Vegas, Nevada. Volume 2

… Page 3. CONF-700101 (Vol.2) … Symposium On ENGINEERING WITH NUCLEAR
EXPLOSIVES January 14-16, 1970 Las Vegas, Nevada … VOLUME 2 … – 2560k – 1970-05-01 – Text Version – Citation

And of course, the minimum cost was not the actual program cost. These were experimental one of a kind advice and their cost soared accordingly.

What killed Project Plowshare? Lack of political tolerance pulled the plug, but had the money been forthcoming there were still serious technical obstacles.  Three things, in my opinion killed Project Plowshare on a technical level..  Trace radiation, cost of the devices/emplacement, and earth shocks. Let’s run through those.

 Fear of trace radiation–for example, Krypton 85 and tritium in natural gas, isotopes in leached copper etc. Each megaton of fusion is said to put out 1.5 kg of byproduct tritium and there are ways to finesse but not eliminate the issue.

What might have stopped this fear?  It was long thought that near fission free nuclear devices would be available in just a few years. They never appeared, though I have an article in the works about such a device.
Even if the fission trigger were totally absent, neutron activation of the bomb parts themselves and the surrounding medium would according to one estimate (see the 1970 volume 1) be the equivalent of 200 tons of fission.  According to another worker, it was possible by boron shielding to cut the surrounding activation nearly by a factor of 1000.  Simply put, a lot of ideas looked promising but never got a trial. In the future, if totally aneutronic nuclear energy release is achieved, they may return to become a major part of our industrial landscape.

The other thing that killed Plowshare was the fact that  the devices had a certain minimum cost. To make them pay, as I wrote here, you want the largest thermonuclear pure fusion yield you can use.  But that leads to massive earth shocks– earthquake equivalents.  In isolated applications, like blasting subsea mountain peaks for eliminating navigation hazards at sea, great. But near a city, huge rocking explosions will lead to massive damage claims.

This post I wrote as part of the Wang Bullet series a few years ago tells the cost  of thermonuclear power

29.3 gJ/ton coal at $80 ton gives $2.73 a gigajoule coal
So, 1 megaton device– $10 million–4184000 gigajoules per megaton
$2.39 per giajoule– about the same price as coal

10 megaton device– $10 million–41840000 gigajoules per megaton
0.239 per giajoule 1/10th the cost of coal

So, 100 megaton device– $10 million–418400000 gigajoules per megaton = ~1/100th the cost of coal
If the devices were free, the deuterium being the only cost, the price would be 1/1891 that of coal at $80 ton (given Deuterium at $500/kilogram) calcs for that here

All this is only if you can use the energy with equal efficiency to coal, otherwise discount by the wastage factor.

The takeaway is anything much below a megaton device is very expensive relative to the larger sizes.

But if the device cost is 10,000 vs 10 million dollars all of a sudden a 100KT device is the equivalent of   ~1/100th the cost of coal and you can blow a 300 meter harbor for $10000.   You could use airbursts to fuse the surface of a field to stop erosion.  If it were legally OK (And can you imagine a -no permit- nuclear world?!) and there was absolutely no radiation hazard at all the number of devices used a year might be quite staggering.  But I seriously don’t see casual use by farmers and fishermen akin to dynamite use in say the 1930s.

If you could reduce the cost of a nuclear device to under $10000 (possible with a different engineering model)  and totally eliminate radiation Plowshare would return as if by magic. A million dollar device needs a megaton yield to be economical. 10,000 dollars, 10 KT is similarly economical.   But near cities megaton range explosions wouldn’t work and 50-100 kilotons would probably be the upper limit.

But 50 years ago our society was probably mature enough and calm enough to contemplate $10,000 100 kiloton devices. (Although even then Herman Kahn had concerns about gangsters using them for extortion) (written in 1961)

 Diffusion of nuclear weapons to irresponsible private organizations. To the extent that these advanced weapons or their components are treated as articles of commerce, perhaps for peaceful uses as in the Plowshare program, their cost would be well within the resources available to many large private organizations. In fact, if prices are lowered to $100,000 or so and this is not all implausible they are in some sense available to vast numbers of individuals. (Almost any dedicated or fanatic member of the middle class of any advanced nation could save up all or an appreciable fraction of this sum.)….
Even if nuclear weapons and their delivery systems do not become articles of commerce, almost all of their components will have peaceable “relatives” and therefore may become generally available. Only a few special parts or assemblies would have to be specially manufactured by organizations or individuals who wish to obtain actual nuclear weapons’ capability.

In another context, Kahn wrote of nuclear ‘six gun’ technology  We may any day see a spectacular and revolutionary weapons development, which really makes all nations equal in potential for violence in much the same way that the six-gun became the great equalizer in the American West. Differences in skill, morality, nerve and recklessness might then be decisive, and physical size or wealth might then become either irrelevant or a handicap.
In another context, Khan wrote of what would happen if there were a gradual diffusion of nuclear capability and some unspoken threat manifestation that made many nations ‘go nuclear’ overnight:

As a result, sometime in the 1980’s or 1990’s, an incident might occur that would result in a number of nations suddenly procuring the then easily available weapons within a very short period of time, possibly only a year or two. We might thus experience an explosive diffusion of nuclear weapons to fifty or sixty inexperienced and “uneducated” nations. Such a diffusion could present a far greater danger, a far greater potential for disaster, than the gradual adaptation of international and national societies to these devices.

More Herman Kahn on thermonuclear strategy and concerns in general

 In summary, if we had tomorrow $10,000 absolutely clean 100 Kiloton devices they would probably be banned if they were presented by aliens on a silver platter as a free technology.  It is like the Saturn V– in 1961 they had the will to use it but not the capability; in 1973 they had the capability but no longer the will to use it. Society as a whole as well as individuals can have attitudes and moods  that preclude capability and productivity.

What were some of the ideas of Project Plowshare?

  1. Canals blasted down to sea level.  None of this nonsense about locks or tidal gates. Got an isthmus? Get a canal!  And the coolest name was the PANATOMIC canal (Panama–Atomic– get it? One version IIRC was for 250 devices yielding over 120 megatons. One route called for a single 35-40 megaton device to crater out a mountain peak.) Here is a pdf showing a plan to blast a canal across Israel with 520 x  2 megaton devices– over a gigaton– with some local digging around cities to avoid massive seismic damage- although listed as 1963 this must be similar to the thoughts circulating after the 1956 Suez crisis. –
  2. Orion  was not strictly Plowshare but it was a sample peaceful application of nuclear explosives (1964 document in pdf and of course the Wang Bullet system Brian thought up and I have worked out some ideas on
  3. Hurricane disruption. It was an idea, okay? H-bombing a hurricane;view=1up;seq=92
  4. Generating diamonds through nuclear blasts or radiation
  5. Superdeep  waste disposal caverns accessed by drill pipe then created by explosions, possibly sealed to glassy tightness with a smaller second explosion, then pumped full of nuclear waste, toxic waste, anything you dont want on the surface for a million years or so.
  6. Similar  moderately deep storage caverns to store fresh water, oil, natural gas, chemicals, etc. Huge huge volumes hidden and secure deep underground.
  7. Similar  moderately deep storage caverns to catch storm or sewer runoff, as silt dumps to extend the lives of dams and reservoirs for thousands of years, etc
  8. Similar  moderately deep storage caverns for nuclear desalination  Prof. George C. Kennedy’s supercritical water idea;view=1up;seq=9
  9. Similar  moderately deep storage caverns for nuclear power generation. Project Pacer  
  10.  Use of thermonuclear fuel in explosions to retort or heat massive amounts of stuff underground. CO2 from carbonates, steam from water, molten salt, molten rock, heating copper ore with chemicals to leach it. In a typical explosion 70 metric tons per kiloton of yield vaporized by the shock wave, shock-melted rock is estimated to be 350 metric tons per kiloton of yield
  11. Retarcs-– (crater spelled backwards) are heaped up mounds caused by shallow nuclear detonations under the right conditions. Small islands ( a few hundred meters) on demand in fairly shallow water with the right strata and the right yield.  If the strength of materials and geological facts were greatly different, you could make a nice Grenada size island with a few gigatons. But the facts are what they are and you can’t.
  12.  Retarcs used for quarry piles (just for the gravel, dear). Other forms of atomic quarries are possible, including huge throwout fan ejecta curtains. Here is a you tube video of the Schooner event (1968)
  13. Nuclear quarries, excavations, and trenching row charges.  You could theoretically throw enough debris over a river to dam it.  How did the narration of the 1951 Superman TV series go? “Can change the course of mighty rivers”  

In a strange way, atomic power in the 1950s was sometimes mentally regarded as a kind of super-power given to humans perhaps unable to wield it correctly, for good or evil.  But many who had sworn an oath  were determined to use it to defend truth, justice and the American Way. Shield Strategic Air Command.png
Look, up in the sky !    — I guess you had to be there. 

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