Forty-Five Years Ago, the Government Used Subterranean Nukes to Dig for Natural Gas

Operation Plowshare was all about using nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes—but the program produced few economic benefits and, activists say, polluted Colorado with radiation.

|
Oct 16 2014, 9:00am

The crater left by the "Sedan" nuclear test, part of Operation Plowshare, in 1962. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On the afternoon of September 10, 1969, Chester McQueary laid his belly onto the dirt of rural Rulison, Colorado. A few seconds later, a nuclear bomb two and a half times the size of the one that dropped on Hiroshima exploded less than two miles below him.

As a 33-year-old anti-nuke hippie, McQueary was protesting the blast, an experimental operation attempting to retrieve natural gas from deep below the earth. A five-mile quarantine zone had been set up around the site with the understanding that the blast would not go off if humans remained within the boundary. But the project had experienced repeated delays already, and despite McQueary and his crew setting off smoke flares to announce their presence, the 40-kiloton nuclear device was, in fact, detonated.

The blast was one of several projects carried out under Operation Plowshare, a postwar plan to use nuclear explosions for peacetime purposes. Plowshare's name comes from the Bible—Isaiah 2:5, to be precise: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

In addition to energy production, plans were also in the works to use nuclear explosions to widen the Panama Canal, link underground aquifers in Arizona, and carve rail lines and highways through mountainous regions. But by 1975, hefty expenses, public outcry, and a lack of economic return brought Plowshare to a dismal halt. Of course, that was after 27 bombs had already been detonated.

The first subterranean blast intended to retrieve natural gas was titled Project Gasbuggy. The 29-kiloton bomb was detonated in northern New Mexico in 1967. After waiting a month for radioisotopes to decay, drilling began and scientists working with the Atomic Energy Commission estimated the Gasbuggy well was producing five times the gas of nearby wells drilled with hydraulic fracturing. Though these numbers were disputed by outside investigators, the project was looking like a success. Two additional, and much bigger, blasts would go off in Colorado before anyone realized (or at least acknowledged) that the gas was completely unusable.

While Plowshare was in effect, large swaths of the American public remained skeptical that nuclear weapons could be safely detonated for non-military purposes. After the New Yorker published excerpts from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hiroshima in 1947, and again when further information about the bombings was released in 1951, citizens developed a crazed fear of the Bomb. It would take a lot of convincing before Coloradans would allow it to be detonated in their own backyard, even underground.

Prior to laying his life on the line protesting the bombing in Rulison, Chester McQueary had encountered his first nuclear blast during a high school trip through Nevada in 1953. "There were men in white suits stopping every car by the highway," recalls the 78-year-old McQueary, now retired in Fort Collins, Colorado. He remembers a white-suited man explaining that there had been a nuclear test blast earlier in the day, but he promised, "There is no danger. However, if you proceed, you must not leave your vehicle under any circumstances until you reach Cedar City in Utah. If your vehicle becomes disabled, you will not leave it until help arrives. You will not open your doors or roll down your windows. But there is no danger."

When they eventually stopped in Cedar City, more men in white coats ran Geiger counters over the bus, detected radioactive dust, and declared that they would be awarded "a free car wash." At the time, this nuclear bomb test was named Upshot-Knothole Harry, though history would come to remember it as "Dirty Harry," in light of it being the nuclear test with the highest levels of radioactive fallout in US history. Many children living in nearby St. George, Utah, would eventually be referred to as "downwinders" due to their alarming rates of cancer; so, too, would the cast and crew of the John Wayne movie The Conqueror, who were filming nearby and had large numbers die of cancer in the following years.

These incidents were on McQueary's mind when he first heard about Plowshare's intention of dropping a 40-kiloton bomb into Rulison.

Colorado newspaper editors would go on to vote Project Rulison as the number one story carried on the state's United Press International (UPI) wire service in 1969. Like the men in the white coats who told McQueary "there is no danger," an Atomic Energy Commission report said that the Rulison blast would be "conducted with complete safety, with heat and radioactivity all contained deep within the earth." If Project Rulison explosion was a success, it was estimated that another 1,500 underground nuclear explosions would commence throughout Colorado in the years to come.

Several lawsuits were filed by the ACLU, the Colorado Committee for Environmental Information, and smaller groups in Colorado against the Atomic Energy Commission, the Austral Oil company, and the CER Geonuclear Corporation—the trinity behind Project Rulison. Public hearings were held and editorials were written, and an 11th-hour ruling by the Supreme Court came down on the scheduled day of the blast allowing it to go ahead.

Meanwhile, Chester McQueary brought together a group of 28 protesters to camp out within the blast site's buffer zone, hiding in the mountainside while all the scientists and media were gathered safely below.  

McQueary explained to the young protesters from Denver and Boulder that this would be dangerous, that they didn't know the area well, and to "be prepared to rough it." While they camped, the date of the blast kept getting pushed back due to concerns about high winds potentially blowing fallout outside the quarantine area. McQueary and his crew listened to the news on battery-operated radios, while friends below told anyone who would listen that there were people up there near the detonation site. They'd spent a week of cold nights in drizzly rain and long days with crappy food, and by the time the scientists were ready to hit the trigger, McQueary's crew had dropped down to only 11 brave souls.  

"The week of delays served us well, because it gave us a chance to learn the trails of the area," McQueary tells me. This was important, because just before the group left for Rulison, they consulted with a geologist who told them that if they should end up at the site during the blast, it was important not to position themselves below cliffs or any giant trees that might come whipping across the earth. "We also spoke to a man from the University of Colorado Radiation Department, and he thought we were crazy. But he gave us these radiation badges that could read how much fallout we were exposed to."  

The very moment news arrived in Colorado that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Operation Plowshare, the scientists detonated the bomb.

The geologist that McQueary has spoken to also advised them to "lay down like a spring," in the event of a blast, in a posture similar to a plank pose in yoga. "Lay face down and use your arms and elbows and ankles and knees to move with the shock waves," he advised

Shortly before the blast, McQueary's crew scattered at the site of helicopters. Some of them were caught and ordered at gunpoint onto the aircraft. McQueary and fellow environmentalist Margaret Puhls ran off into uneven terrain where the helicopter couldn't land. He recalls that just as he watched the chopper pull away, one of the soldiers flashed him a peace sign.

Clutching their portable radio, the two of them laid prostrate on the ground and listened to the countdown.

"There was this great rumble, and we were lifted about six or seven inches off the ground," he recalls. "There were a whole bunch of tremors reverberating through the ground. People down below described seeing ripples flow through the earth, like a rock that had been tossed in a pond."

Following the blast, gravity caused the chimney of the well to collapse. Once drilling could safely begin to open it in 1970 and '71, the well produced far less gas than had been estimated. Worse, the gas they could retrieve was so contaminated with radioactive material that none of it was deemed safe enough for use in the average household.

"It's amazing that in 1969 we sent people to the moon, and yet we were using these archaic, ugly methods to extract energy," says Shane Davis, an anti-fracking advocate. Over the last few years Davis has been touring Colorado, giving speeches and setting up screenings of his documentary Dear Governor Hickenlooper, a collection of short films criticizing the state's powerful natural gas industry.

"There is still radioactivity spreading out from the blast area," he tells me. "When you have rain and snow seeping down into the moving groundwater plumes, that radioactive material is moving outside of the blast area, spreading into other wildlife areas and waterways."

Operation Plowshare wasn't officially abandoned until 1975. One failed experiment after another resulted in either environmental damage, contaminated gas, or both. With each project being more disastrous than the one before it, neither the public nor Congress were pleased.

In 1973, Operation Plowshare birthed its most destructively ambitious scheme yet. Only 75 miles from Rulison, the blast site of Rio Blanco absorbed three separate 33-kiloton bombs, each buried a mile beneath the earth. Ralph Nader, Senator Floyd Haskell, the State Board of Health, and others were critical of the project, but the optimism among Atomic Energy Commission scientists that a blast six times the size of Hiroshima would get the job done overcame the public outcry.

Rio Blanco ran into the same tainted-gas conundrum as the Rulison and Gasbuggy tests that came before it. In each case, a large pond of radioactive fluid collected at the bottom of the wells, which was then sealed over with concrete. At this point, the US Department of Energy (DOE) says it does "not plan to remove radioactive contamination in or around the test cavity in the deep subsurface because no feasible technology for removal currently exists," according to a fact-sheet on the Rulison test provided by the agency. The statement says that these are well below aquifers for drinking water in the area, and that tests show "no Rulison-related isotopes have been observed in any sample... No adverse findings are made." Which is to say they dispute Davis's assertions that the experiments have harmed residents in the area.

"By 1974, approximately 82 million dollars had been invested in the nuclear gas stimulation technology program," reads a report from the DOE's Office of Scientific and Technical Information. "It was estimated that even after 25 years of gas production, of all the natural gas deemed recoverable, that only 15 to 40 percent of the investment could be recovered. At the same time, alternative, non-nuclear technologies were being developed, such as hydrofracturing. Consequently, under the pressure of economic and environmental concerns, the Plowshare Program was discontinued at the end of 1975."

Hydraulic fracking, on the other hand, remains an economic powerhouse and source of contentious public debate in Colorado and other states to this day. While plugging a nuclear bomb into the earth might seem like a prehistoric approach to extracting natural gas, Colorado University physics professor Jerry Peterson says that when it comes to atomic blasting and modern fracking, "the ideas are basically the same."

"There are two ways to fracture rock," he tells me. "One is to blast it with explosives and shock waves, which was the old way to break up rock with dynamite, and was amplified with the nuclear fission bombs. Modern fracking is a much more subtle process, which squirts water down in there, and instead of a sudden shock, it keeps applying pressure, making the rock crack instead of using a bang. But they apply the same principles."

Peterson adds that the old and new methods also differ in that the Operation Plowshare's gas wells only went straight down, and today's wells go down and then turn 90 degrees, shooting off in all different directions. Activists like Shane Davis have been voicing concern about the inevitability that some number of these new wells are subject to damage, which could then leak harmful fracking fluid into groundwater.

Professor Peterson says that since the wells have been properly sealed—and the harmful substance, tritium, buried within those wells has a half-life of just 12 years—Project Rulison and Rio Blanco were mostly just a waste of money, and have yet to harm the environment or Coloradans living in the area.

Davis does not share his optimism.

"It is naïve to assert that radioactive materials from Project Rulison or any other nuclear detonation underground would never reach environments that could cause harm," he says. "Man cannot control nature and eventually, someday, somewhere, some community will experience the harmful effects of heavy industry and their ignorant radioactive processes."

Follow Josiah M. Hesse on Twitter.

More VICE
VICE Channels