Bombs for Peace
Plowshare can help mankind reshape the earth into a Garden of Eden by
overcoming the forces of nature.
Glenn Seaborg, Man and Atom (1971)
The first suggestion that nuclear bombs could be used as peaceful nuclear explosives (PNEs) came from John Von Neumann, a brilliant mathematician working on the World War II Manhattan Project. Since atomic (or fission) bombs produce deadly radioactive fallout, U.S. scientists ignored the idea until 1949, when the Soviet Union claimed their bombs were made for peaceful purposes, not war. At least theoretically, the Soviets had invented nuclear dynamite—using fission bombs for “razing mountains, irrigating deserts, cutting through the jungle, and spreading life, happiness, prosperity, and welfare.”1 American scientists found the Soviet statements unbelievable—but they did look into the feasibility of “moving mountains with nuclear explosions” and found it “an impractical idea.”2
The first successful U.S. thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb test, at Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, obliterated Elugelab Island and dramatically demonstrated that nuclear fusion explosions had the power to excavate land. This lent credence to Soviet claims and suggested possible peaceful uses for nuclear explosions, capturing the imaginations of former Manhattan Project physicist Edward Teller (“father of the H-bomb”) and Glenn Seaborg, head of the now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).3 The heavy hydrogen for bomb fuel would be cheaper and easier to produce than atomic bomb fuel, they thought, and fusion bomb explosions would yield lower radioactivity. Fusion bombs were going to be the highly touted “clean bombs.”
Teller and Seaborg, the chief Plowshare proponents, could foresee no limitation on warhead sizes. They marketed all the positive features in Washington and oversaw the 1957 birth of Project Plowshare. A 1958 moratorium on nuclear testing, negotiated by the Eisenhower administration, put off the Plowshare program’s start until 1961. The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), which prohibited radioactive “debris” releases beyond the borders of a testing nation, further circumscribed Plowshare—at least, in theory. Such obstructive developments climaxed in the