How the AEC Sold America on Building with Nuclear Bombs

The absurd simplicity of the whole idea — Fuck shovels and dynamite, let’s use nukes — hearkens back to the techno-optimism of the 50s.

Nov 2 2012, 12:00am

“To bring water and food where there is only parched earth. And people where there is desolation. To bring freedom of movement where there are imposing barriers, and commerce where nature has decreed there will be isolation. To bring forth a wealth of materials where there are vast untapped resources and a wealth of knowledge where there is uncertainty. To perform a multitude of peaceful tasks for the betterment of mankind, man is exploring a source of enormous, potentially useful energy: the nuclear explosion.”

So begins this 1961 Atomic Energy Commission film on Project Plowshare, which was an attempt to use nuclear bombs for civil engineering projects that saw two decades of experiments without much success. A few months ago I wrote a lengthy piece on Plowshare and Project Chariot, which was to be the first Plowshare experiment. Chariot was to build a new harbor in rural Alaska by detonating a series of nuclear devices just offshore. But 30 miles from the Chariot site lies Point Hope, an Inuit town, that surely would have been decimated by fallout, although the AEC said things would be a-okay in the late 50s as it prepared the site.

It’s of supreme interest that this pro-nuclear engineering doc came from the AEC in 1961. That’s the year the residents of Point Hope wrote a scathing letter to President Kennedy, a letter that received a ton of popular recognition and that eventually caused the AEC to give up on Chariot, despite trying to woo the public with the promises italicized above. Of course, Plowshare continued on until the 70s, with a couple dozen experiments actually carried out.

The absurd simplicity of the whole idea — Fuck shovels and dynamite, let’s use nukes — hearkens back to the techno-optimism of the 50s. Looking back, the Jetsons future seems ridiculous; rather than faith in technology and science in solving all ills while getting banana sundaes in pill form, we’re worried about manufacturing injustices, climate change, and big pharma.

Part two of the film

Then, the power of the atom was something we trusted those eggheads in lab coats to sort out for the betterment of all. These days, our lives are much more intimately entwined with technology. Our relationships with our phones, computers, the Internet, and whatever else is cause for frustration and paranoia and stress just as much as we marvel at how much they make our lives easier. Scientists and engineers are no longer the valiant minds who built the bomb, sent us to the Moon, and who will solve everything else in due time. They’re the people stuck defending themselves against absurd political attacks and people scared of numbers and data. They’re the people we don’t have money for anymore.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Plowshare and other similar AEC experiments were fueled by the unchecked monomania of egomaniacs like Edward Teller just as much as they were designed to welcome in a nuclear future that we now know is naive. And it looks like people today are starting to pull their heads out of the sand again. Plus, our current age of techno-skepticism has got one big upside: We’ve stopped burying “peaceful” nuclear bombs just to see what they do.

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Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.