July 2014


Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America (Scott Kaufman)

Project Plowshare by Scott Kaufman

Read this book!

Back in 1998, when I was working feverishly on my Master’s Thesis, I often wondered how many people would ever actually read my thesis.

There is that oft told story about the master’s student who stuck a $20 bill in the library copy of his thesis and then leaves town. Ten or twenty years later, he returns, goes to the library, opens up the thesis, and takes out the $20 bill.

In my case, the thesis has been cracked – at least a copy somewhere has been read because it’s cited in Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America, by Scott Kaufman.

The book came to my attention in early June when one of my friends posted a picture of it on her FB stream – and I asked her if I was cited in it. She said yes, and I hit Amazon.

As a refresher (or for those of you new to me), Project Plowshare was an attempt by the US Government to find peaceful uses for nuclear bombs (or as Scott puts it in the title, “nuclear explosives”).

My work is cited toward the back of the book – as Project Plowshare started to wind down as it lost political support. But I read the whole thing because I was curious to know more about the overall topic.

Some of the ideas included blasting out harbors in remote Alaska (and Australia), digging a new (sea-level) canal across Central America – maybe in Mexico, Costa Rica, or even Panama), or, and what I studied, to stimulate the production of natural gas in tight sandstone formations by using nuclear bombs to fracture the rocks. To name a few – there were other ideas that Scott goes over, including creating a cave under Pennsylvania to store natural gas.

While the harbor and canal ideas never really got off the ground, the idea to stimulate natural gas production through nuclear explosions, did. (“Off the ground” is entirely the wrong expression – more like “under the ground”.) Experiments were carried out in New Mexico and Colorado – with mixed results.

What I wrote my Thesis about was Wagon Wheel – specifically how the citizens of Sublette County, Wyoming, reacted to the proposal to explode five nuclear bombs under their county.

Honestly, the contribution to the realm of academic knowledge in political science is underwhelming, at best.

What I was proud of was my bibliography: of the 80 pages, the bibliography took up 9 pages – a result of having spent at least 100 hours reading old newspapers on microfilm (and if you don’t know what microfilm is, be grateful). I was also quite proud of the fact that in doing my research I was able to convince the members of the Wagon Wheel Information Committee to donate their old papers to the University of Wyoming’s archives, the American Heritage Center.

Reading Scott’s book made the hours that I spent in the basement of Coe Library worthwhile – seeing my name listed in his endnotes, plus in his bibliography is thrilling.

Of course this makes me a biased observer – but I hope you trust me when I say that the book is excellent – a worthwhile read if you’re interested in nuclear explosions, public policy, or environmental politics – to name a few areas. It’s also a primer on the efforts put forth by the American government to beat the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

His work goes far beyond the narrow focus of my research – broadening the field out and examining the larger picture of how Project Plowshare fit into the larger world and how it might be used to benefit peoples not just in the USA, but also Australia. And how it was used as a tool to keep Panama, with its canal, in line. These are aspects of which I was only vaguely, if at all, aware.

More: My Wagon Wheel Pages / Visiting Pinedale on Vacation

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