using nuclear bombs to build highways -- 10/17/17

Today's selection -- from Divided Highways by Tom Lewis. In 1963, the U.S. government seriously contemplated using nuclear bombs in the construction of federal highways:

"[The] Interstate [Highway System] ... reflected some­thing ... about mid-twentieth-century American thinking: engineering hubris. Engineers knew they had the ability to put a highway anywhere, including places where automobiles had never been, and many reveled in the sheer joy of building without attention to the consequences. Forget following the contours of the natural landscape, just pound the road through. Should a mountain prove too high, just blast the top off or tunnel through. Should a ravine prove too deep, just fill it with stone and dirt. No river, lake, or arm of the ocean should be too wide or too deep for a bridge or causeway. For many engineers the structure itself was the goal rather than the structure in relation to the land. Engineers found they were not alone, for many progressive planners regarded the highway, speed, and efficiency to be of primary importance.

"There is, perhaps, no greater example of engineering hubris than one that, thankfully, did not take place in the Bristol Mountains about mid­way between Barstow and Needles, California. In 1963, the Santa Fe Rail­road was seeking a way to shorten its route across the Mojave Desert, and the highway department was looking for a route for Interstate 40. Both the railroad and the highway were hindered by the mountains that rise sharply and suddenly about twelve hundred feet from the desert floor. In mid-1963, engineers decided to consider what they delicately called 'the nuclear option.' The engineers' plan was simple: Bury twenty-two atomic bombs beneath the surface of the mountains and vaporize them. 'Our main focus was on whether it was feasible and practical and what savings might be realized in building the Interstate,' Robert Austin, the engineer for the project, recalled. Perhaps because the United States had tested nuclear weapons in the desert before­ though not in this area -- Austin paid little attention to the effects the bombs would have had on the environment.

Looking west toward the Bristol Mountains.

"Since President Kennedy had recently proposed 'Operation Plow­share,' an extension of Dwight Eisenhower's 'Atoms for Peace' pro­gram 'to harness the atom for the benefit of mankind,' the Atomic Energy Commission was looking for ways to use nuclear weapons peace­fully. It was enthusiastic about the idea. Yes, the twenty-two bombs with their combined force of 1.73 million tons of TNT (133 times greater than the force of the two bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki) would produce a dust cloud that would take several days to dissipate. But engineers were more taken with the idea of moving sixty­-eight million tons of earth and rock with a single blast, almost instantly cutting a channel 325 feet wide and nearly 11,000 feet long. While it would have saved $8 million in construction costs, the explosion also would have contaminated much of the Southwest, especially Kingman, Flagstaff, and Phoenix, Arizona directly east of the site. Knowing that the nuclear explosions would evoke some public interest, Austin scouted out a place for a reviewing stand for the press and VIPs on a ridge about ten miles away from the blast site.

"Fortunately, the plan had posed one question that scientists could not answer: How long would it take for the radiation levels at the immediate blast site to return to a safe level for humans? No one could predict how many weeks or months would elapse after the explosion before it would be safe for workers to build the highway. Unable to get an answer, Austin and the California Highway Department finally abandoned the plan in 1965 and decided to build the Bristol Mountains section of Interstate 40 with conventional blasting for about $20 million. The road opened in 1973. 'Given what we know today about radiation, it's a good thing we didn't do it,' said Robert Ramey, a civil engineer who worked on the project, adding wistfully, 'I am kind of disappointed we couldn't have seen how an experiment of this type would have worked.'"


author:

Tom Lewis

title:

Divided Highways

publisher:

Copyright 2013 by Tom Lewis

date:

Copyright 2013 by Tom Lewis

pages:

169-171

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