Bombs for Peace | History Today - 5 minutes read

Lee A. Merlin is crowned Miss Atomic Bomb, Las Vegas, 1950. Prismatic Pictures/Bridgeman Images
Lee A. Merlin is crowned Miss Atomic Bomb, Las Vegas, 1950. Prismatic Pictures/Bridgeman Images

In 1969, North Yorkshire was unknowingly under siege. The market towns of Pickering and Whitby faced a looming existential threat: a nuclear bomb. Due to be detonated in North York Moors National Park, roughly ten kilometres away, the bomb was expected to be larger than the one dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, resulting in a 25 kiloton explosion. Couched within this perilous scheme, however, were two further twists: firstly, that it had been initiated by the British government and secondly, that it was supposedly well intentioned. It was a bomb for ‘peaceful purposes’. 

Bombs and peace are seemingly paradoxical concepts and yet it was once believed that nuclear bombs could play a positive role by facilitating infrastructure projects. Disclosed in recently released National Archive documents, unearthed by the researcher and journalist Tom Scott, the plan was to detonate the bomb 2,000ft beneath the national park in order to create high-pressure gas storage facilities. Such a method would avoid mechanical digging, which was time consuming and labour intensive. In other words, it was seen as easier to create holes through demolition rather than construction. Locals, for their inconvenience, were to be financially compensated, but this only accounted for the short-term disruptions – a minor earthquake and subsequent building damage – rather than the radiation, which would be difficult to clean from the natural gas let alone expunge from these communities. 

The project never came to fruition and North Yorkshire, as it had also done in 1953, when it was proposed as a site for nuclear weapons testing, unwittingly avoided a near catastrophe. 

The motivations behind Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (PNEs) were both ideological and economic. They were a tool to diversify the uses of nuclear technology as well as its reputation. During the Cold War, the UK contemplated fielding its own PNEs, but most research was conducted by the US and the USSR. As far as America was concerned, their initiative, Project Plowshare, focused on using nuclear explosions to excavate harbours and stimulate the flow of petroleum. The USSR’s programme, named Program 7, functioned in a very similar way, with its 128 PNEs being used predominantly to create cavities in salt for gas storage, but also in closing runaway gas wells, for use in block cave mining, reservoir extraction and toxic waste disposal. The irony is that these programmes generated their own toxicity and their legacy is still being felt today in the radioactive contamination of Carson National Forest in New Mexico, the pollution of the Caspian Sea and the degradation of Yakut-Sakha in Siberia. 

PNEs have not only been denounced for being environmentally corrosive, but also because they were motivated by insincerity. In 1976, PNEs were banned as part of a bilateral agreement, on the basis of concerns that they were merely a front for nuclear testing. However, the USSR and the US were not only attempting to reform the offensive associations of nuclear weapons in each other’s eyes, they also tried to influence public perception. As the historian Jacob Hamblin put it: ‘The idea was to offer some new vision for the world to make the US seem like a peace-loving country when it was planning to do [a] major upscaling of its military arsenal.’ 

PNEs were one part of this broader rebranding of the atom bomb in the US in the wake of Nagasaki, spearheaded by Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ agenda in 1953. What followed was a plethora of strange cultural events and products, including the development of the film Our Friend the Atom by Disney, the emergence of Miss Atomic beauty pageants and a wave of atom-themed fashion designs, most notably in the works of Issey Miyake. A similar cultural shift happened in the UK. The image of nuclear technology was being rehabilitated by similarly niche initiatives, such as atomic-themed textiles, championed by crystallographer Helen Megaw, and the Atomic Gardening Society. 

Defence technologies are expensive and associated with brutality, which is why they are often justified in terms of their commercial uses. We can still see today how the negative connotations of nuclear technology are alleviated by its everyday applications, whether that be in medicine (radiotherapy), in agriculture (irradiation in food preservation) or in supplying energy. Reflecting on the history of PNEs, they provide a cautionary tale in crudely characterising the same technology in terms of non-violent and violent uses. PNEs, akin to violent nuclear explosions, were still environmentally treacherous, hazardous to people and inordinately expensive. In fact, a large factor in the termination of Project Plowshare was public pushback at its outlandish funding ($770 million).

In some ways, the Atomic Age is behind us; the atom is no longer a subject of cultural ubiquity and the appetite to find positive uses for nuclear technology has seemingly waned. At the same time, nuclear energy is being proffered as the solution to environmental problems and the looming threat of nuclear war remains on the horizon. 

Dolly Church is an editor and freelance writer.

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