As long as the United States has had nuclear weapons, it’s wanted to nuke things. The list has included—but is not limited to—cities, beer bottles, salt mines, hurricanes, the moon. Yesterday, Axios reported that President Trump suggested using a nuke to stop a hurricane. Trump later denied the story on Twitter, but it’s not the most outlandish plan Trump’s ever denied putting forth. Nuking a hurricane is a terrible idea, but it’s one that America has been toying with for decades.
The raw power of a hurricane is several orders of magnitude greater than that of a nuclear weapon and launching a missile into a tropical storm will probably just create a radioactive hurricane. It’s a question the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration gets so often, it has created a page explaining why it’s a terrible idea.
But the idea of nuking hurricanes is part of a long tradition of American scientists desperately trying to find peaceful uses for nuclear weapons. Meteorologist Jack Reed first pitched nuking hurricanes in 1956, but no one would listen to him. He found a better audience in 1959 when he presented his ideas as part of Project Plowshare—an attempt by America’s scientists to find peaceful and scientific ways to use nuclear explosions.
Project Plowshare was a smorgasbord of mad scientist nuclear weapons schemes “concerning scientific applications...the possibilities of using nuclear explosions as generators of seismic energy, and the effects that nuclear explosives can produce in the atmosphere and outer space,” according to a report about the event.
The schemes weren’t just theoretical. The United States detonated 27 nukes in Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado between 1961 and 1973 as part of Project Plowshare. The first was Project Gnome. The US Atomic Energy Commission detonated a 3.1kt bomb in a salt mine to “study the possibility of converting the heat produced by a nuclear explosion into steam for the production of electric power,” according to a 1983 report on the project.
It didn’t work out, and neither did the other Project Plowshares plans, most of which involved using controlled nuclear explosions to excavate large portions of earth. At the height of the dream, scientists thought they’d use nukes to widen the Panama Canal. But, by the early 1960s, Americans were falling out of love with nuclear power and the fallout from the explosions was too great to be a feasible earthmover.
With the Cold War heating up and Sputnik flying through space, America looked to other unconventional uses of nuclear weapons. To stress its power to the Soviets, and unable to put a person on the moon just yet, America once considered nuking the moon. The Pentagon called it Project A119, and the idea was to create a mushroom cloud in space visible from Earth. The Pentagon cancelled the project when it realized it would scare as many Americans as it would Soviets.
For some, the dream of a peaceful deployment of nukes never died. Reed, the scientist obsessed with nuking hurricanes, continued to tell everyone it was a good idea until his death in 2007. "The physics of this scheme has never been seriously questioned,” Reed told The Albuquerque Journal in 2004. At the time, Reed said no one wanted to nuke hurricanes because using nuclear weapons had become “politically incorrect.”
To be clear, there’s plenty of science that says it’s a terrible idea and nukes aren’t just politically incorrect, they’re dangerous follies that may one day kills us all.