Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Nukes for Shale

October 21st, 2009 · 13 Comments

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”?


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13 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    Moderate pain, kind of like Sri Lankan Brides advertised as “Medium Complected”?

    I remember a rumor that someone proposed building an alternative to the Panama Canal (perhaps even at sea level) using nuclear explosives. Did you find any evidence of that in your research?

    I would think Iran would really really want nukes. Just looking at the other “Axis of Evil” countries, the one that didn’t get invaded had them, while the one that didn’t (Iraq) got invaded. Obviously they make a great deterrent to invaders, and with the US Army on two borders Iran has some big motivation to increase their deterrence.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Will post about the canal project tomorrow. Your memory serves you well.

    I have no doubt that Iran wants to–and will–develop nuclear weapons. We can certainly delay that development by a couple of years, but not forever–the tech just isn’t that complicated, and a committed regime will def. make it work.

    At this very moment, I’m sure there are very smart people in Foggy Bottom gameplanning on how to deter a nuclear Iran. I actually think it can be done–in part, of course, because of Israel, which has tons of nukes pointed directly at Tehran.

  • Jordan

    Yeah, civil engineering projects were definitely on the minds of the early nuclear weapons scientists. There was also the not-so-brilliant idea to launch space ships by essentially lobbing nuclear bombs out the back end and riding the shock waves. Even discounting the issue of atmospheric fallout, the idea makes about as much sense as propelling ships by dropping depth charges off the stern and surfing the resulting waves.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    There were probably lots of scientists out there looking to capitalize on expertise they built in government bomb-building projects. Just so much money sloshing around the military in the ’50s, which created tons of folks with extremely specialized skills. And they were all keen to find new applications for nuclear tech, in order to provide themselves with job opportunities.

    Hadn’t heard the spaceship one before, but that’s particularly nutty. I wonder what else was thrown on the ash heap…

  • Captured Shadow

    Not bomb powered, but a reactor powered aircraft was another idea I have heard. The flying version of the nuclear sub, it could stay aloft for months, or at least that was the plan….

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Well, I guess the whole reactor thing works for subs. Though it’s very unlikely that a sub will fall out of the sky and crash into someone’s home…

  • A Shortcut for a Shortcut

    […] response to yesterday’s post on the onetime vogue for mining-by-nuke, a treasured commenter asked: I remember a rumor that someone proposed building an alternative to […]

  • Jordan

    @Captured Shadow

    There was also an idea for a nuclear powered car. Run off the pile until the fuel was expended and then swap in another mini-power plant. People were just so gosh durn excited about these kinds of ideas.


  • jackal

    The nuclear-explosion spacecraft thing is rather was actually studied and proposed in some detail: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion)

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @jackal: Thanks for the Project Orion info. Interesting tidbit in the “Potential problems” section of the article:

    “Freeman Dyson, group leader on the project, estimated back in the ’60s that with conventional nuclear weapons, that each launch would cause on average between 0.1 and 1 fatal cancers from the fallout.”

    I’m curious about how this calculation was made. Anyone out there read “Disturbing the Universe” (the book cited in the Wiki footnotes)?

  • jackal

    Np. A friend of mine did read that book, and I remember discussing some of the details of the whole program — in retrospect it does sound pretty insane, but at the time not so much.

    I’m guessing Dyson did a quick back-of-the-envelope model of radiation dispersion and used some 1960s medical prediction of cancer rates from increased exposure over a time period.

    I’m over at the Stanford physics dept. so I could probably find someone who knows about this 😉 Heck, there might even be someone here who helped with that project..

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @jackal: Thanks a mil for the reply. The reason I ask is because of the report that just came out re: A-bomb tests being responsible for more cancer than previously thought:


    I’m just curious as to how outdated Dyson’s cancer figures were–and what sort of epidemiological data they’re based on.

    Too bad I won’t be around Stanford much longer–we could have met for beers at The Treehouse. Next time…

  • Lessons from Vela

    […] As previously discussed on Microkhan, South Africa’s situation differed from Iran’s in several key aspects. Not only was South Africa not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty during its development heyday, but it also had some curious notions about using nukes for peace—specifically for large-scale mining operations. […]