The controversy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has sent plenty of folks scurrying back to the history books, to examine what made South Africa give up its bomb-building program. In joining the throng, though, we stumbled upon a curious factoid from the annals—an assertion, in an old (and offline) Foreign Affairs article, that South Africa initially had peaceful reasons for developing nukes:
In 1971 Minister of Mines Carl de Wet approved preliminary nuclear explosives research. These investigations were initially limited to theoretical calculations and introductory studies of ballistics. No serious development was carried out. It was not until three years later that Prime Minister John Vorster approved development of a nuclear explosive capability — limited to peaceful applications, such as mining excavation — and authorized the funding for a testing site.
As it turns out, mining-by-nuke was all the rage in certain circles, at least through the mid 1970s. The Soviets thought nuclear explosions could make mining operations much more cost effective, by eliminating the need for expensive human labor. We had similar ambitions, and proposed that the mining industry share part of the cost burden to conduct large-scale experiments.
But could such mining ever be truly safe? We have our doubts, though we would like to know more about any long-term environmental and health impacts associated with underground testing. Still, when we see language like this in a document, it gives us pause:
Nuclear explosives can be used to break large volumes of oil shale in place at depth, where deposits are thick. The diameter of the region (chimney) of shale broken by a nuclear explosion can be as much as hundreds of feet. The height is at least double the diameter. For example, a 20 kt detonation at a depth of 2,000 ft will break about 800,000 tons. Any problems associated with the radioactivity generated by a nuclear explosion in oil shale are expected to be manageable.
Why do we feel like the use of “manageable” here is sorta like when a doctor tells you the pain will be “moderate”?