After expending massive manpower and resources into developing a nuclear bomb to end World War II, the US was pretty proud of the scientific breakthrough. But once the war was over, what could we do with this amazing ability besides killing people and flattening cities? The sunk cost was way too much to abandon. So how could we harness nuclear energy for something good?
What has to be the most spectacularly violent infrastructure proposal in American history came out of the federal government’s Project Plowshare, conceived in 1951 as a way of, well, “beating atomic arms into plowshares.” It was our exploration of constructive uses for nuclear weaponry. Bombs detonated underground, officials theorized, could make for cheap ways of moving large volumes of earth—be it for mining, hollowing out caverns to store natural gas, or prepping for other kinds of infrastructure. Dams and reservoirs could be created with single bombs, while dozens-long chains of detonations could carve new canals or even entire harbors.
Project Plowshare was running alongside another massive federal effort in the 1950s and ’60s: the birth and rapid expansion of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Really, it was a matter of time before the those twin ambitious would collide. And collide they did, in a rugged stretch of the Bristol Mountains in southeast California through which highway planners hoped to route the yet-to-be-completed I-40 as one of America’s major east-west corridors and a replacement for dinky old Route 66.
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