Seven great games to play with civilian nukes

Paul Raven @ 14-04-2009

old Russian nuclear bombHey, guess what – nuclear bombs can be used for more than just annihilating entire cities!Wired has an article rounding up a selection of seven proposed civilian deployments of nuclear weapons, most of which (unsurprisingly) leverage their ability to make a very big hole in something. [image by mikelopoulos]

But how’s this for a counterintuitive idea – why not use nuclear weapons to dispose of nuclear waste!

This scheme was originally proposed at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. A hole is bored beneath the waste processing plant, and a nuclear bomb is set off in the hole. Then the radioactive waste is poured into the subterranean cavity so formed, over a 25-year filling period. The wastes heat up through their own activity, boil dry, and eventually melt themselves and some surrounding rock into a glassy ball. The cost is quite uncertain but was judged to be extremely attractive.

If you’re anything at all like me (i.e. not a nuclear scientist), you’re probably thinking that’s a batshit stupid idea. But apparently not:

“For excavation, we put a lot of time and effort and money into developing nuclear explosives which had minimal fissionable material so that you could carry out a 100-kiloton cratering explosion and release the radioactivity equivalent to a 20-ton explosive of fissionable material,” Nordyke said.

But despite the technical success of the Plowshare program, Nordyke doesn’t see nuclear weapons being used for excavation or mining anytime soon because it doesn’t seem politically feasible.

“I think its time came and went,” he said. “I think reconciling it with the enhanced environmental concerns today and the inherent association with weapons is difficult.”

My reaction proves his point, I suppose. Nukes are a Pandora’s Box technology, in that we can’t just pretend we don’t know they exist (which is one of George Dvorsky’s points regarding the risks of nuclear disarmament), but because we’ve been predominantly shown nuclear blasts doing things which are deeply nasty and lethal we have this knee-jerk reaction to the idea of them being used for a more creative purpose.

Then again, there’s a trust issue as well – a government-commissioned experimental mega-engineering project involving not just nuclear waste but nuclear weapons? Even if you could show me the calculations and experimental data that proved it could be done, I’m not sure I’d feel at all confident in the ability of a government – or a corporation, for that matter – not to screw up by cutting corners somewhere.

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One Response to “Seven great games to play with civilian nukes”

  1. freq says:

    there’s a cool book on project plowshare… creating artificial harbours with nukes, anyone? 🙂