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Sea Level Canal Studies 1964-1970

Determining the feasibility of building a new sea-level canal to accommodate the increasing number of ships desiring to use such a waterway was the task of the Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal Study Commission. On 22 September 1964 Public Law 88-609 was signed by the President "to provide for an investigation and study to determine a site for the construction of a sea-level canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans," and authorized establishment of a Commission to carry out provisions of the Act. This agency was authorized to undertake a four year study of the feasibility of a sea-level Isthmian canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal Study Commission was established on April 18, 1965, to study sites for construction and methods of construction. Studies included the feasibility of excavating a sea-level canal with nuclear explosives.

During 1964 Congressional hearings had reported preliminary cost estimates ranging from $620 million for a cana1 through San Blas, Panama, excavated by nuclear methods to $13 billion for one at Tehuantepec, Mexico, using conventional digging operations. According to the Atomic Energy Commission, the nuclear approach probably could not be used under the present test ban treaty limitations.

By 1969, determining the feasibility of building a new sea-level canal to accommodate the increasing number and size of ships using the waterway was the task of the Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal Study Commission. The Department of the Army represented the Department of Defense on this presidential commission, with the Deputy Under Secretary of the Army for International Affairs chairing the National Defense Study Group and providing membership on the Foreign Policy, Shipping, and Finance Study Groups. The Army's Chief of Engineers acted as the engineering agent for the commission and directed the engineering feasibility portion of the commission's study. The engineer work was performed in co-ordination with the Atomic Energy Commission; the Environmental Science Services Administration; the Panama Canal Company; elements of the US Forces, Southern Command; and other federal agencies.

Five alternative routes were under consideration, two for construction by conventional methods and three by a combination of conventional and nuclear excavation. During 1969 the data collection effort for the engineering feasibility study was completed. All field facilities used in this data collection effort were turned over to the host country. The government of Colombia operated the Alto Curiche weather station and six of the hydrology stations on Route 25 and furnished all collected data to the United States, contributing to a broader base of knowledge of the weather conditions in that area.

The United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), now the Department of Energy (DOE), established the Plowshare Program as a research and development activity to explore the technical and economic feasibility of using nuclear explosives for industrial applications. The AEC foresaw some problems with this program because weapons design characteristics for peaceful-use devices and those for weapons use were very similar, and declassification of this information was not possible. On June 6, 1958, the Atomic Energy Commission publicly announced the establishment of the Plowshare Program, named for the biblical injunction to ensure peace by beating swords into plowshares. "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

More than any other Plowshare program, the construction of a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama fired the imagination of AEC officials, scientists, and engineers. In support of this vision, the AEC proposed a number of nuclear harbor-building projects as preliminary experiments. In 1956, Luke Vortman wrote one of the first proposals for using nuclear explosives to build a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Vortman's report on Panama explored 9 of the 30 possible routes for a new sea-level canal initially proposed by the Governor of Panama in 1947. Also in 1956, LLNL scientist [and later Secretary of Defense] Harold Brown considered using nuclear explosives to construct a sea-level canal through Israel to replace the Suez Canal.

However, in 1958, due in part to growing international concerns over radioactive fallout, the US entered into a test moratorium with the USSR. All nuclear engineering and nuclear weapons tests were put on hold. From 1958 to 1961, the nuclear test moratorium agreement between the US and the USSR put a damper on proposed Plowshare experiments for Panama Canal projects. Nevertheless, plans for nuclear-constructed harbors and canals proceeded on paper. Edward Teller, a father of the atom bomb and Associate Director of the University of California's Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Livermore, California, was a vociferous proponent. To Teller and his colleagues, nuclear energy represented a virtually inexhaustible, relatively cheap, and highly effective source of power that could be used for a wide variety of engineering purposes. On 01 September 1961 the Soviet Union "broke out" of the moratorium.

In March 1962 the first nuclear cratering experiment was conducted in basalt at the Nevada Test Site - Project Danny Boy, involving only a 0.5 kiloton device. On 06 July 1962, the second and largest Plowshare nuclear experiment, code-named Sedan, detonated 100 kilotons of nuclear explosives at NTS. Sedan was the first in a series of experiments designed to perfect the techniques of nuclear excavation. The Sedan explosion occurred 635-feet below ground. The desert floor formed a dome 290-feet, moving 12-million tons of rock and leaving behind a crater 1,200-feet across and 320-feet deep. On January 26, 1968, the AEC detonated Cabriolet, the fourth nuclear excavation in the Plowshare series; the test was designed to study cratering effects in hard rock and the air-born dispersion of radionuclides. Cabriolet furnished information on nuclear excavation techniques to be used in the proposed Panama Canal project. The Cabriolet experiment conducted at NTS formed a crater 125-feet deep and 400-feet in diameter.

The October 1963 Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Underwater [the the Limited Test Ban Treaty - LTBT] permits all underground nuclear explosions, except those which cause "radioactive debris to be present outside the territorial limits of the state under whose jurisdiction or control the explosion is conducted.". Accordingly, the treaty presented no obstacle to contained underground nuclear tests, which are designed to fully contain the radioactivity [though sometimes they did accidentally vent]. It did present a potential obstacle to underground nuclear explosions for excavation experiments and projects such as the sealevel canal where a very small amount of radioactivity must be released to the atmosphere. A restrictive interpretation of the treaty would foreclose these excavation experiments and projects. There has been a tendency on the part of some in the United States Government to interpret "radioactive debris to be present" if it is detectable with the most sensitive means available to modern science.

The USSR had not followed such a narrow interpretation of the treaty in the conduct of its underground nuclear explosion programs. Narrowly interpreted, the Soviets could be said to have caused "radioactive debris to be present" outside Soviet territory about 25 times between the time the treaty came into effect and 1969. Most radiation protection guides at that time, including those of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Commission on Radiation Protection, the USSR, and the US, contain definitions of concentrations of radioactivity below which the radioactivity is considered to be "not present" insofar as such guides are concerned.

The PLOWSHARE program had conducted six cratering nuclear explosions which contributed information. On 12 March 1968 the Project Buggy test - the first nuclear row charge experiment - was conducted. The explosion, which involved the simultaneous detonation of five explosives (each detonation yielded 1.08 kt) placed 150 feet (45.7 meters) apart at a depth of 135 feet (41.1 meters), created a ditch 855 feet (261 meters) long, 254 feet (77.4 meters) wide, and 65 feet (19.8 meters) deep. Evaluation of the nuclear aspects of the study were aided by the Atomic Energy Commission's successful detonation of the 30-35-kiloton SCHOONER shot on 08 December 1968 at the Nevada Test Site that produced a crater approximately 850 feet in diameter and 200 feet deep.

Plowshare performed no major atomic experiments pertaining to nuclear excavations after the Project Schooner blast in December 1968. Two more nuclear tests -- STURTEVANT and YAWL -- of a program of four tests were essential to determine feasibility of constructing the transisthmian canal. One interpretation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty that equated a violation with the ability to detect any radioactivity at all at the border. These additional tests would have required amendment of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty [LTBT], which would have taken years to negotiate. The LTBT prohibition was on "radioactive debris present outside the territorial limits of the State", and by 1969 laboratory equipment could detect "one atom in a room" or one ten-thousandth of a picocurie whereas in 1963 instruments could detect only 100 times that amount of radioactivity. By this interpretation, the LTBT phrase, "radioactive debris," or the Russian translation of this phrase, "radioactive fallout," implied more than an insignificant detectable amount at the border.

The feasibility of nuclear excavation had not been established because the inability to conduct nuclear cratering tests up into the megaton range has left too many uncertainties. The timetable for conducting such tests could not be predicted. If nuclear excavation were feasible and could be accomplished as its proponents believed, Route 25 in northwestern Colombia, which was estimated at slightly over $2 billion, might be the preferred route. Most of this expense is for the conventionally excavated section of the route. All-nuclear routes investigated were not considered possible because of safety costs or unsuitable geologic conditions. The nuclear explosion method was cheaper by a half-billion dollars.

The AEC stated that by conducting only two more key experiments, one of which would be Project Sturtevant, it could resolve the major technical uncertainties relating to Route 25, the only potentially viable route outside of Panama. Ultimately the STURTEVANT and YAWL shots were not conducted, because of political concerns about public reactions to the radiation that would have been released. It was noted that in an atmosphere of heightened public concern over activities that affect the environment, even these two PLOWSHARE shots might draw down the already limited level of public tolerance for the entire testing program--both weapons and peaceful. Seeking a Treaty amendment at this time would undoubtedly encounter strong pressure to link this issue with a comprehensive test ban treaty, and with progress by the nuclear powers in other disarmament areas such as SALT and the NPT.

Field operations were terminated in July 1969, but data evaluation continued until June 1970. The engineering feasibility study was presented to the study commission in August 1970. This commission terminated its five-year study and forwarded its report to the President on November 30, 1970 [dated December 1, 1970]. The 1970 final report recommended, in part, that no current U.S. canal policy should be made on the basis that nuclear excavation technology will be available for canal construction. Concerns included the formidable problem of removing existing populations in the canal zone, and the possible damage to the environment from nuclear explosives.

The report stated: "...although we are confident that someday nuclear explosions will be used in a wide variety of massive earth-moving projects, no current decision on U.S. canal policy should be made in the expectation that nuclear excavation technology will be available for canal construction..." It was recommended that "...the U.S. pursue development of the nuclear excavation technology, but not postpone Isthmian Canal policy decisions because of the possible establishment of feasibility of nuclear excavation at some later date."

The Anderson Study, completed in 1970, concluded that a sea-level canal was not economically justifiable.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:55:01 ZULU