Mad Science #4: Geo-Engineering With Nukes

Nuclear devices, what are they good for?  Almost nothing, it turns out.   They’re close to useless as weapons, since the goal of war is domination, not destruction.  The nuclear powers have been in dozens of wars since 1945, and have never come all that close to using them.   They make too much of a mess and cause too much auxiliary trouble.

So there must be something else that one could do with this expensive tech.   The Soviets sure tried.  They had a huge program called Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy, which did 156 tests between 1965 and 1989.  They tried fracturing rock for oil and gas only to find that it became radioactive.   They tried to create underground caverns for the storage of oil and gas, and for nuclear waste itself, but the caverns were unstable. They used nukes to blow out gas well fires, which actually does work but contaminates the field.

But the most interesting usage was for mega-scale civil engineering, projects that could affect the planet’s balance.   The one that actually got started was the Taiga Project of 1971, an attempt to dig a canal between the Kama and the Pechora rivers.  The result is still there:

The 600 x 400m crater left by the three Taiga Tests.  Photo taken from a paper on its current radioactivity. Click for source

The Pechora flows into the Arctic Ocean, while the Kama joins the Volga and then flows into the Caspian Sea.    There is lots of irrigation around the Volga that could use more water, and the Caspian itself is land-locked, and so in danger of drying up.  The Pechora is a major river, with 1/4 of the discharge of the Mississippi at its mouth, and 1/2 of the volume of the Volga itself.  Rather than waste all that water on the useless Arctic ocean, why not send it south?

Pechora-Kama Canal Map

The land between the rivers is relatively flat, and has long been used as a portage.  A canal had been proposed back in the 1930s, but to move serious amounts of water a really big channel would be needed, and it couldn’t have locks.   The total distance was about 100 km, but the southern 40 km was flat enough that it could be dug by conventional means.  The northernmost 60 km had a range of hills of up to 60 m high, so that’s what needed the nukes.  They would use them to excavate down about 80 m to make a channel with a cross-sectional area of 2000 m2.   That would be 20 m deep and 100 m wide if rectangular, but it would actually be more like a triangle.

A researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Milo Nordyke, did an analysis of the project in 1979: Estimates of the Nuclear Design Requirement for the Pechora-Kama Canal Project.  Nordyke had been involved in the US peaceful nuke program, Operation Plowshare, as in beating swords into.  It showed rather un-American timidity and only set off 27 tests between 1961 and 1973, but was stopped by quite American local opposition.

The canal looked quite feasible to Nordyke, but would need at least 250 devices, of up to 150 kilotons each.   The actual test used three devices of 15 kT each.   They used very small fission igniters, of only 0.3 kT each, to reduce the amount of fission products.  They were set off 150 m underground, also to keep the radiation down.

That failed.  The 2009 study mentioned in the top picture found that the radiation around the lake peaked at almost 1000 times the background.  It included lots of radioactive isotopes like Cesium-137, Cobalt-60, and Americium-241.  The site is surrounded by a fence, but people fish in it anyway.

Great.  Just this small test has contaminated the area, although it appears to be far from any settlements.   It’s not as bad as the Polygon in Kazahkstan, an 18,000 km2 area that was permanently poisoned by 456 Soviet nuclear tests, but it’s still bad.

What really puts this in the Mad category, though, is the overall size of the project – 250 bombs.   This was in 1971, when people already knew quite a lot about contamination.   The water flowing through the canal would have poisoned a good fraction of Russia’s agricultural land via irrigation.   All of the peaceful tests had the same problem – more radiation got out than expected.  Even small tests caused trouble, so setting off hundreds of them was ridiculous.

Yet the project had an unexpectedly positive side-effect – it drove DARPA to start research into climate modeling.   Sharon Weinberger discovered this as part of  her history of DARPA, The Imagineers of War.  She writes about it in Chain Reaction – How a Soviet A-bomb Test Led the US Into Climate Science.  The Soviets had been talking about re-routing rivers for a long time, and then in 1971 they actually started doing it.  The head of DARPA at the time, Stephen Lukasik, had the entirely proper reaction: “Holy shit, this is dangerous!”

If fresh water stops flowing into the Arctic, what effect does that have on global climate?  The planet’s ocean currents are not just driven by temperature differences, but also by density changes due to salinity.  That’s why people are so worried today about fresh meltwater from Greenland shutting down the Gulf Stream.  If the Arctic Ocean becomes more saline, what happens?

No one knew.  Lukasik assigned a young Air Force meteorologist, John Perry, to find out.  He got $4 million to distribute to studies of paleo-climates and computer modeling.  That became a lifeline for the Illiac IV, the first big multi-processor supercomputer, and kicked off lots of climate projects.    In 1976 it was taken over by NOAA and the NSF, and morphed into the current US federal climate program.

So a terrible but typical bit of Soviet hubris prompted a research program into what has become the major environmental issue of the age!  I hope the irradiated fishermen of the Taiga Atomic Lake don’t mind.




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