As reports emerge of secret British Government plans to deploy 1000 troops on the ground in Libya, to take on the growing threat of ISIS fighters, created by the coalition attack to remove President Gadaffi in October 2011(http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3544716/UK-deploy-1-000-troops-Libya-bid-fight-growing-ISIS-threat-migrant-smuggling-crisis.html), here is a story from an earlier age concerning the Western Saharan desert, when scientists planned to use megatonnescale (“peaceful”) nuclear explosions to excavate a huge canal or ‘seaway’ to open up huge lakes in the Tunisian/Libyan desert
The notion emerged as part of the prevailing idea of the time that atomic explosions could be used for civil engineering purposes under the rubric of “Project Plowshares”, driven by the US, but also undertaken by Soviet scientists to move mountains in Siberia.
The authors of the paper open by conceding “One of the difficulties confronted in advancing explosives-engineering is that experimentation is both hazardous and expensive. This is particularly true of engineering experiments employing nuclear explosives, because there is a possibility that personnel located many miles from the center of the atomic blast may suffer from fallout or the migration of radioactivity through groundwater to public sources of drinking water.”
The paper emerged from a report submitted by a student team in the course of Engineering with Nuclear Explosives at Georgia Tech in the summer of 1968. The academic overseeing it observed it includes an “ expression of deliberate concern for the betterment of mankind.”
The students named the study "Project Pecos Bill" after an American folklore
character, a mythical super cowboy who invented roping and other cowboy
skills. During a very dry spell, Pecos Bill is said to have used a pointed
stick to dig the Rio Grande River and bring water from the Gulf of Mexico.
The poignant results of his work can be seen in the agricultural splendor
that is the Rio Grande Valley.
After the US Atomic Energy Commission established the Plowshare Program
in 1957 to investigate and develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosives, several
possible applications were considered that were primarily large scale excavations
of a magnitude greater than was economically feasible with conventional
explosives. This led to experimental blasts in several different media and depths, two
of which included the gas-sands ‘shot’ at Rulison, Colorado and the deep
blast in the igneous rock of the Aleutian Islands. Until early in 1969 it
was hoped that it might be possible to make a real excavation for a harbor on
the west coast of Australia to aid in the shipping of newly proven deposits of
The author ruefully observed: “Unfortunately, that development was postponed rather indefinitely.”
The area chosen for this study was the chott region in central Tunisia and Algeria, North Africa, a region is characterized by the series of so-called dry lakes or "chotts" which stretch across a considerable section of the northern Sahara desert region from the Gulf of Gabes in Tunisia on the east to the eastern borderlands of Morocco on the West.
The immediate benefits of such an excavation were identified as several:
1) A plentiful water supply could turn this arid land into a more
useful agricultural area. New developments in arid-agriculture
in Israel have shown that the problematic sand dunes can be a
blessing in disguise when combined with irrigation from salt
water sources such as seawater.
2) Tunisia has about one-third of the world's phosphate deposits.
The proposed canal would provide a sea route to within 25 miles
of those deposits and could conceivably make them more economical
to mine and market.
3) Such a canal would provide ready access to vast petroleum deposits
in east-central Algeria At present the petroleum produced
in this area must be moved via pipeline over the Atlas
mountains to the coastal cities of northern Algeria.
Potential changes in humidity, the authors argue “could enhance rainfall probabilities not only in Tunisia and Algeria but possibly in other countries such as Libya and Egypt.
Salt farming, for centuries the prerogative of legendary Timbuctu, could take
place in various locations across north Africa with better production methods
and products. Indeed, cave paintings found in the southern Sahara suggest that
well established agriculture and much game (now restricted to savannah country
far to the south) once existed here. Obviously, the economic potentials could
be as great as there are imaginative minds and ambitious capital to bring them
In such a project, it is desirable to conduct pre-shot and post-shot
environmental surveys, the authors set out.
Of the two, the pre-shot survey is more likely to be time consuming and
expensive, for it must set the stage for the post-shot survey. Such an
environmental study must include such topics as a qualitative and quantitative radioactive analysis of typical surface soils, plants and animals to determine
the various routes taken by radionuclides into the food
chains. This should include all elements possible that might be produced in
the nuclear reaction (at least as groups) even though they have not been
established as necessary constituents of the nutritional (micro- or macro-)
requirements of living things.
The proposed canal would form an inland embayment from the Mediterranean
Sea from what is now the Chott Djerid and possibly sections of Chott Djerid.
The micro-organisms most likely to be involved in concentration of radioactive
traces of various nutritional elements are the phytoplankton. These
simple plants, characteristic of all aquatic environments, serve as food to
almost all levels of fish and other aquatic life. After they have died or
been killed by some environmental change, their organic and inorganic remains
serve as nutrients for other sea plants and bottom feeders.
They asserted:” The radioactive materials produced by the nuclear explosions probably
will not present any hazard to the workmen concerned with construction of the
canal. However, once the seaway has water in it, the radioactive nuclides will
have the opportunity to diffuse into the aquatic environment. Since fish tend
to concentrate the ferrous metals, zinc and manganese, it would be advantageous
to minimize the content of these materials in the explosive devices. Use of
borated materials in the explosive devices might also help reduce the development
of induced activity in soil minerals. A continuous survey on the economically
important fish species for about one year after introduction of water
into the area would be imperative.”
It continued: “ The fraction of radionuclides formed that would escape from
the crater would be small; nonetheless surveillance of the plant consumption
in the area should be maintained to minimize the possibility of radionuclides
reaching the food chain of man.
Complete quarantine for human and animal consumption of any vegetation until the completion of the project (2-5 years) would be an expensive and probably unnecessary
restriction to avoid contamination.”
On a long term basis, they concluded, the advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages. With the seaway would come shipping, development of industries along the waterway and general development of harbor areas. Resort areas could be made widely
available and a great expansion of the olive and citrus groves that thrive on
the near-shore night humidity could be undertaken. Fishing in the relatively
shallow basins that were the chotts could become as rich an industry as that in
the Caspian, Black, or Tiberian Seas.
The optimum yield for the devices, optimum depth of burial, and row spacing were calculated The proposed canal route covered about 107.5 miles in Tunisia from north of Gabes to the Chott Djerid and consisted of five straight-line segments. With the exception of the village of El Hamma, the [planned detonation areas] were, they judged, “well removed from population centers” and thus “the proposed route might have to be evacuated for a few weeks.”
For the most of the proposed route, the minimum device yield required would be on the order of 150 kilotons. Therefore, the required spacing of several 150 kiloton devices iT a row charge such that a smooth channel will be formed is approximately 715 feet. Under such presumptions, a minimum of 790 devices with a total yield of 119 uiegatons would be required to cut the desired 107-mile long channel
The authors observed “radiation levels resulting from the larger devices are not
substantially greater than that from the 150 kiloton devices, since activity
release is produced primarily from the fission "trigger" and not from the
energy-producing portion of the nuclear interaction. The fission trigger is
relatively constant in size and relatively similar amounts of activity are
released for dissimilar yields.”
Based on these and other considerations, a device yield of two megatons
was chosen for the canal construction. This decision was made primarily
because a two megaton device is not so unduly large as to complicate handling
and (according to published AEC specifications) is capable of being emplaced
in a 30 inch diameter hole. In addition, the depth of burial for cratering applications of a device of this size is approximately 1500 feet ... a reasonable depth for drilling at a remote location, and certainly for one which is
near well developed oil fields.
Each row of five devices would “ excavate 1.4 miles of canal. The detonation
order would be in alternate blocks of five devices returning to detonate
the remaining blocks after a short period allowed for activity decay.”
The concluded that: ”The cost of such a project is, of course, enormous from the layman's point of view, but an overall project cost of the order of one billion dollars does not seem so great when measured against the financial gain this will
represent as an investment. “
The concluding summary of the 1970 Las Vegas conference on the peaceful use of nuclear explosions stated: “…This country is dedicated to a positive program for improving the quality of our air and water. These are right and proper goals and should be carefully
analyzed and systematically approached, but I think we need a yardstick, a
measure of pollution. "Why not use the ratio of the pollutant to natural background?
The pre-man level? By that yardstick, the nuclear energy industry has a very proud record indeed. Improving the quality of our air and water will be very costly.. but the way for that improvement is through technology. If we have the foresight to set aside emotional irrationalities, we can move forward using nuclear energy and nuclear explosions to improve our environment. The papers presented at this symposium have recognized the importance of the environment. If smog can be reduced, if mining dumps can be avoided, if waste can be disposed, and if non fossil fuel energy can be tapped, indeed, Plowshare will have made a most important positive contribution to cleaning up the environment.”
I wonder if the citizens of Libya and Tunisia would have agreed.
* AN INTERIOR SEAWAY FOR NORTHERN AFRICA
J. B. F. Champlin*
Westinghouse Electric Corporation
J. W. Poston, J. A. Lake
Georgia Institute of Technology
** AMERICAN NUCLEAR SOCIETY-ATCMIC ENERGY COMMISSION
SPONSORED SYMPOSIUM ON
"ENGINEERING WITH NUCLEAR EXPLOSIVES"
. DUNES HOTEL, LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
JANUARY 16, 1970