Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking - Charles Seife (2008)

Chapter 3. PROJECT PLOWSHARE AND THE SUNSHINE UNITS

I’ve felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands to release this energy that fuels the stars. To let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power and it is in some ways responsible for all our troubles—I would say, this, what you might call “technical arrogance” that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.

—FREEMAN DYSON, IN THE DAY AFTER TRINITY

On January 15, 1965, deep inside the Soviet Union, a nuclear rumble shook the earth. The Americans were the first to spot the radioactive cloud as it floated over Japan and toward the Pacific Ocean beyond. The Soviets had detonated a fusion bomb, and the fallout was contaminating the atmosphere over the Japanese mainland. This particular explosion was different from all the other bombs exploded over two decades of nuclear testing. This one had the makings of a major diplomatic incident.

A little more than a year earlier, the United States and the Soviet Union had signed an international agreement to limit the scope of nuclear testing. No longer was it acceptable to detonate a nuclear bomb on the surface of the Earth, in the atmosphere, underwater, or in space. Only underground testing was allowed. Even an underground test was a violation if it caused radioactive debris to float across national borders. The fallout dropping on Japan was clear evidence that the USSR was violating the treaty.

The Americans had few details about the test. At first, their seismic monitors seemed to imply that it was a 150-kiloton bomb that had exploded underground but which had been imperfectly contained, allowing some of the radiation to escape into the atmosphere. Within a few days, American scientists had revised their guess, estimating that the bomb might be as big as a megaton. They also knew roughly where the explosion happened: in Kazakhstan at the Semipalatinsk test site. They knew little else.

On January 21, Secretary of State Dean Rusk demanded an explanation from the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. Dobrynin responded, “An underground explosion was indeed carried out in the Soviet Union . . . deep down underground.” Furthermore, he insisted, the amount of debris that leaked into the atmosphere was “insignificant.” It was a lie.

The explosion, and the resulting fallout, was the beginning of a top-secret Soviet project, Program No. 7. Starting with the mysterious January 1965 explosion and continuing for the next twenty-three years, Program No. 7 would use fusion weapons to dig canals, build underground storage caves, turn on and shut off gas wells, and change the face of the Earth. With the January 1965 explosion, Russian scientists, in a fraction of a second, had carved a major lake and a reservoir, now known as Lake Chagan, out of bedrock.

Program No. 7 was not the only secret government project to harness the power of fusion. An equivalent program was already under way in the United States. A few years earlier, American scientists began work on Project Plowshare and started drawing up plans to use nuclear weapons to create an artificial harbor in Alaska, widen the Panama Canal, and dig a second Suez canal through Israel’s Negev desert.

Project Plowshare and Program No. 7 were crude attempts to harness the power of fusion. Researchers quickly reasoned that if humans could learn to control the power of fusion, it could be the biggest boon that mankind has ever seen. We could visit the outer reaches of the solar system and even visit nearby stars. We would never have to worry again about dwindling energy supplies, oil crises, or global warming.

Of course, it wouldn’t work out quite that nicely.

In the early 1950s, the world seemed on the brink of nuclear war. Mankind had unleashed a force so great that it could destroy entire cities in a fraction of a second. And though the United States had a small lead over the Russians in developing superbombs, soon both sides would be armed with fusion weapons. If nothing was done, said President Eisenhower in 1953, humanity would have to accept the probability of the end of civilization. At the same time, civil defense films, while trying to calm a jittery nation, whipped up an overwhelming fear of nuclear annihilation. The scientists who had unleashed the power of the sun had placed a great burden on humanity.

But they had hopes that their work would save civilization rather than destroy it. With this unimaginable source of energy, they could usher in a golden era. Even as Bert the Turtle implored children to “duck and cover” upon sighting the inevitable flash from a Russian bomb, other films touted the brilliant future revealed by nuclear power. In the 1952 short A is for Atom, a giant glowing golem, arms crossed, represented “the answer to a dream as old as man himself, a giant of limitless power at man’s command.” And Eisenhower, for all his talk of nuclear annihilation, envisioned an earthly utopia if we put the power of the atom “into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.”

The paranoid, anti-Communist Edward Teller was the man who most desperately tried to bring us to the promised land. He and his allies lobbied for more and more money to figure out how to harness the immense power of fusion. Lewis Strauss, the AEC chairman and Teller backer, promised the world a future where the energy of the atom would power cities, cure diseases, and grow foods. Nuclear power would reshape the planet. God willed it. The Almighty had decided that humans should unlock the power of the atom, and He would keep us from self-annihilation. “A Higher Intelligence decided that man was ready to receive it,” Strauss wrote in 1955. “My faith tells me that the Creator did not intend man to evolve through the ages to this stage of civilization only now to devise something that would destroy life on this earth.”20

Unfortunately for Teller and the other fusion aficionados, it wasn’t easy to use fusion for peace. Fission, not fusion, was the obvious choice for nuclear energy. Ever since Enrico Fermi built a nuclear reactor in the Chicago squash courts, scientists have been able to use uranium to generate power. By controlling the rate of the fission in a reactor, engineers could generate as little as half a watt of power, barely enough to light a Christmas light, or as much as a few hundred million watts of power, enough for a small city. Engineers were drafting plans to build nuclear ships, nuclear submarines, nuclear locomotives, and even nuclear airplanes. But the potential of fission seemed microscopic compared to the unlimited power of fusion, and this is what excited Edward Teller so much. Fusion couldn’t just generate energy, it could move mountains. Literally. Teller was going to make it happen. “If your mountain is not in the right place,” he once said at a press conference, “drop us a card.” He meant it. He was hoping for the chance to show what fusion could do.

In 1956, world politics provided just such an opportunity. In July, the Egyptian government nationalized the Suez Canal, sparking an international crisis. Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt, and the situation threatened to spin out of control. Thanks to the intervention of the United Nations, the crisis was resolved, but Western strategists were clearly frightened. The prospect of a crucial waterway in the hands of a nationalist Arab government seemed like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode into a major war. Even though the Suez crisis had been brought under control, the threat of a Suez blockade remained.

Teller and his Livermore colleagues immediately seized upon Suez as an opportunity; they announced that fusion could solve the Egyptian problem. A promising young Livermore scientist, Harold Brown, argued that engineers could use the power of fusion to dig a second canal, eliminating the Suez threat once and for all. Brown—who would later become the secretary of defense in President Jimmy Carter’s administration—figured that if a chain of hydrogen bombs, exploding across Israel’s Negev desert, cut a second channel from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, Egypt would no longer have a monopoly. Fusion energy would build a canal in the territory of a Western-friendly power. Teller realized that a new Suez was just the beginning. Fusion weapons could move great volumes of earth, completely reshaping the world’s topography to benefit mankind. In February 1957, Livermore hosted a conference to develop the idea of peaceful nuclear explosions and to solicit ideas for nuclear engineering projects.

Of course, many scientists were skeptical of the whole concept; the idea of using hydrogen bombs for peaceful purposes seemed patently absurd. Isidor Rabi, who had called the hydrogen bomb an evil thing under any light, huffed incredulously to Brown, “So you want to beat your old atomic bombs into plowshares?” Rabi’s ironic comment harked back to the prophet Isaiah’s bright vision of a coming paradise on earth: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Brown—and Teller—turned Rabi’s irony into pure optimism, and embraced Isaiah’s vision. Project Plowshare was born. Fusion power, even in a vessel as crude as a hydrogen bomb, could make the world a better place. The Livermore scientists quickly set to work figuring out what engineering projects were suitable for nuclear ditch-digging.

The ideas started coming. Build a new Suez. Dig a new Panama Canal. Cut a waterway across Thailand. Excavate a harbor in North Africa or in Alaska. Blow up rapids to make rivers navigable. Cut trenches to help irrigate crops. Straighten the route of the Santa Fe Railroad. Mine coal and rare minerals. Free oil and gas reserves. “We will change the earth’s surface to suit us,” Teller wrote. Mines and trenches were just the obvious applications. Teller also suggested using hydrogen bombs to change the weather, to melt ice to yield fresh water, and to mass-produce diamonds. (Another unconventional suggestion attributed to him was to close off the Strait of Gibraltar, making the Mediterranean a lake suitable for irrigating crops.) Ted Taylor, a bomb designer, argued that nuclear bombs would be able to drive a rocket into deep space, even to other stars.21 Teller even found the idea of bombing the moon incredibly enticing. “One will probably not resist for long the temptation to shoot at the moon . . . to observe what kind of disturbance it might cause,” he wrote.

By 1957, scientists had scads of ideas for peaceful uses of hydrogen bombs. The next step was to figure out whether these grand schemes could possibly work. Could fusion bombs carve canals and harbors, much less turn the Mediterranean into a freshwater lake? They could only find out by running experiments.

In September 1957, the United States performed an underground weapons test: Plumbbob Rainier. A small nuclear bomb, only 1.7 kilotons, was buried under the surface of the Nevada desert. When the device went off, the earth jumped a few inches and then settled. Scientists later saw that the bomb had vaporized rock to make a one-hundred-foot hole underground. From the Plowshare scientists’ point of view, it was a stunning success: nuclear bombs could indeed break up rock and change the landscape, with little release of radiation into the environment. It was time to try to change the Earth.

During the summer of 1958, Edward Teller flew to Alaska to unveil a new “nuclear engineering” project: Project Chariot. Using two large one-megaton bombs and four smaller hundred-kiloton ones, Teller hoped to carve a large harbor on the northwestern coast of Alaska. He pitched the project as an economic boon: the harbor would help Alaskans with fishing and with transporting Alaskan coal by sea. Locals were very skeptical. They had good reason to be.

Despite Teller’s slick sales job, the harbor made little economic sense. It would be icebound for most of the year, no substantial fishing was done nearby that would be helped by a harbor, and the coal would have to be transported by rail to the docks—via a railroad that would cost a staggering $100 million to build. Alaskans were wary of Teller’s grand scheme for another reason, too. Fallout.

Ever since Hiroshima, scientists had known of the deadly aftereffects of nuclear weapons. The atomic bomb had left thousands crippled—burned and blighted by the invisible radiation that streamed from the bomb, harboring cancers and genetic defects that would linger for years after the war had ended.

An exploding nuclear bomb is a veritable treasure trove of radioactive debris: the unfissioned uranium and plutonium from a bomb’s primary as well as lighter radioactive atoms left behind by the uranium and plutonium that did fission. A great burst of neutrons also accompanies a large blast; these neutrons strike surrounding atoms—in the atmosphere, in the dirt, in people—with great force. Occasionally these neutrons stick, changing once-stable atoms into radioactive ones. Neutrons can turn ordinary material into a radioactive mess, a phenomenon known as neutron activation. Neutron-activated material, catapulted high into the air, falls to earth downwind of a nuclear explosion, irradiating anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with this fallout. (Radiation strips electrons from DNA and alters its structure, killing cells and causing cancers.) If a nuclear explosion is powerful enough, it sends radioactive debris so high into the atmosphere that fallout can descend halfway around the globe.

As radioactive as the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs were, the multimegaton blasts of fusion weapons were much worse. The world got a taste of their deadly potential in 1954 with the Castle Bravo nuclear accident.

At 6:45 AM on March 1, 1954, the United States detonated a hydrogen bomb; ground zero was a reef in Bikini atoll. The explosion was much bigger than expected—fifteen megatons, the largest explosion yet—roughly equivalent to one thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs. The fireball pulverized the coral reef, sending pieces flying thousands of feet into the air.

By 8:00 AM, “pinhead-sized white and gritty snow” began to shower the American fleet observing the test. This was highly radioactive fallout. The radiation levels on the ships rose rapidly, and the fleet immediately steamed south to escape, but not before more than twenty sailors received radiation burns, and thousands more had been exposed to fallout. Fifteen minutes later, the snow began to fall on a Japanese fishing vessel, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. The whole crew was exposed. (The captain died shortly thereafter, the first person killed by a fusion weapon.)22 Within hours, the eastward-drifting cloud dropped fallout on the Rongelap atoll and some other nearby, inhabited islands. The navy evacuated more than six hundred people, many of whom developed “raw, weeping lesions” from the radiation.

It was a public relations nightmare. AEC chairman Lewis Strauss tried to reassure the public that the island natives were “well and happy,” but it was hard to hide the truth, and the photographs of burned islanders, from the press. The newspapers had lurid details; they even told of how the ship’s cargo of radioactive fish was put up for sale on the Japanese market. (A New York Times subhead, “Radioactive Fish Sought In Japan,” seemed like something from a B movie. It was hardly good press for American nuclear scientists.)23

The Castle Bravo accident marked a turning point in the perception of nuclear tests. Every time such a test weapon exploded, it spewed radioactive ash into the atmosphere, and scientists noticed that the world was becoming increasingly radioactive as a result. As tests continued, the problem got worse. Scientists were particularly concerned about a radioactive isotope of the metal strontium: strontium-90. Produced by fission in an atomic or hydrogen bomb, strontium-90 is metabolized in a way similar to calcium. It is readily taken up by the body, especially a child’s body, and is deposited in bones, teeth, and mother’s milk. Once it is inside the body, it destroys from within. (Nuclear scientists measured strontium-90 dosages in “sunshine units,” but the cheery name didn’t reassure anybody.) And observers were detecting more and more strontium-90 worldwide.

By the mid-1950s, scientists such as Albert Schweitzer and Linus Pauling were raising the alarm. “Each nuclear bomb test spreads an added burden of radioactive elements over every part of the world,” read a Pauling-drafted petition from 1957. “Each added amount of radiation causes damage to the health of human beings all over the world and causes damage to the pool of human germ plasm such as to lead to an increase in the number of seriously defective children that will be born in future generations.” Thousands signed, but millions began to fear the specter of worldwide radiation. Public opinion was turning against hydrogen bomb testing.24

Teller and his allies insisted that there was nothing to fear from a little extra radiation, even as nuclear tests were strewing fallout around the globe. The AEC’s Willard Libby declared to a university audience in 1956, “It is possible to say unequivocally that nuclear weapons tests as carried out at present do not constitute a health hazard to the human population.” He was lying. One test in 1957 produced “observable fallout on Los Angeles.” And worldwide, strontium-90 levels were indeed rising rapidly. Scientists gathered data from unusual places. A research group in St. Louis pushed for mothers to donate 50,000 baby teeth for analysis. Others sampled the bones of children who died of other causes.25 All the data showed that concentrations of strontium-90 were doubling every two years.

Teller, for his part, also tried consistently to squelch the growing fears about fallout. The radiation from atomic testing is “very small,” he argued. “Radiation from test fallout might be slightly harmful. It might be slightly beneficial.” He ridiculed the public’s concerns. Afraid of the risk of mutations caused by radiation? “Our custom of dressing men in trousers causes at least a hundred times as many mutations as present fallout levels,” he wrote in 1962, “but alarmists who say that continued nuclear testing will affect unborn generations have not allowed their concern to urge men into kilts.” Teller even suggested that the dead captain from the Daigo Fukuryu Maru might have died from hepatitis, not from radiation exposure.26 In his view, the “fallout fear-mongers” were damaging the security of the United States because they were threatening to end his nuclear schemes. In Teller’s view, “insignificant and doubtful medical considerations” about fallout led to an event “which has contributed decisively to our weakness and our danger”: a nuclear testing moratorium.

In March 1958, Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union. Within days, he took the offensive against the United States. “The Administration was bracing itself today for Moscow’s next big propaganda strike,” warned the New York Times on March 29. “It is expected to be a declaration that the Soviet Union would end nuclear testing or production or both.” Two days later, the plan was revealed: a complete moratorium on nuclear testing. On Moscow Radio, Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister, announced the “cessation of tests of all forms of atomic and hydrogen weapons in the Soviet Union.” The world wanted a solution to the growing fallout problem and a stop to the nuclear arms race, and the Soviet Union, unlike the United States, had responded. With the promise to suspend testing, “Russia has beaten us on propaganda all around the world,” declared House Speaker Sam Rayburn.

This immediately posed a problem for U.S. politicians. How should they respond to the USSR’s moratorium on nuclear testing? Should they ignore it and risk losing ground in the propaganda war against their Communist rival, or should the United States also cease testing? Teller was dead set against such a ban. Stopping nuclear testing was tantamount to surrendering America’s nuclear advantage to the Russians. Teller would do almost anything to stop it from happening. At an Atomic Energy Commission meeting in May, Teller argued that the United States needed a combination of underground and surface testing to get necessary data on new weapons systems. He warned that banning even surface explosions, much less following Russia’s lead and banning tests entirely, would prevent the development of antimissile warheads. Then he stressed that a moratorium would damage Project Plowshare, his program for peaceful nuclear bombs.

Despite Teller’s arguments, the pressure was too great for the administration to resist. The United States would follow the Russian lead—it would voluntarily cease testing nuclear weapons right after performing a last (and hastily cobbled together) test series. On November 1, 1958, nuclear fires stopped blazing in the United States.

Teller believed the moratorium was a huge mistake. He felt that with the ban in place the United States was getting weaker and the Soviet Union was getting stronger, and he repeatedly accused the USSR of cheating on the moratorium, of testing weapons underground or in space during the temporary test ban.27 He concluded that U.S. adherence to the test ban had squandered the American nuclear advantage, and that his country was woefully unprepared for a coming “limited war” with the Soviet Union, a limited war that would almost certainly include the use of nuclear weapons. And developing new nuclear weapons required nuclear testing.

The mask had come off. Teller’s opposition to the test ban had little to do with a vision of a fusion utopia. His future was not a future of peace, but of war. He had tried to stop the test ban because he wanted the United States to be prepared for tactical nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He had used the promise of peaceful nuclear explosions as a tool to ensure continued military research—and to make sure that weaponeers had more bombs to design. Teller’s Plowshare was not a vision from the prophet Isaiah, but one from the prophet Joel: “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong.”

As it turns out, the test ban was only a temporary inconvenience to Teller. Throughout the moratorium, he made plans, so he could quickly resume his work when the agreement finally fell apart. Through 1959 and 1960, even as the moratorium held, he pushed Project Chariot—the Alaskan harbor—despite increasing resistance from the locals. When the moratorium ended after a Russian test in August 1961,28 Teller was ready.

Within weeks, the United States was testing again, above and below the ground. The first new test series, Nougat, began on September 15. The seventh shot of Nougat, code-named Gnome, was a Plowshare test of nuclear excavation. A relatively small nuclear bomb, 3.1 kilotons, was placed deep in a shaft in a salt dome. When it went off, it instantly vaporized more than two thousand tons of rock and created a huge spherical cavern about 160 feet across. (It also vented a plume of radioactive smoke and steam, even though the radioactivity was supposed to be entirely contained.) The next Plowshare test came a few months later, in July 1962. It was the first shot of Operation Storax. Code-named Sedan, it used a 100-kiloton warhead buried 600 feet underground. Sedan carved an enormous crater—1,200 feet across and 300 feet deep—into the Nevada landscape. (Sedan, like Gnome, spewed radioactive ash into the air.) It was exactly the sort of test Teller needed: he proved that fusion weapons could move earth on a huge scale.

Unfortunately for Teller, shortly after Sedan the Alaska harbor project slipped out of his grasp. Local opposition was too great for the Atomic Energy Commission to overcome, and in 1962 the plan was scrapped. But that did not stop Plowshare from marching forward. If anything, it gained momentum. In May 1962, even before the Sedan test was complete, President Kennedy ordered the AEC to tackle the problem of building a second Panama canal with fusion devices.

Such plans were becoming increasingly harder to make, though. During the moratorium and after it, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had been negotiating a formal test ban treaty with Khrushchev. The so-called Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963; this was the agreement that banned anything but underground nuclear explosions. It also forbade any tests that allowed radioactivity to leak beyond national borders.

Teller bitterly fought the treaty. He and his allies attempted to undermine it at every turn. He did it directly, warning Congress of “grave consequences for the security of the United States and the free world” should they decide to ratify it: “you will have given away the future safety of our country.” Teller also tried to sink the treaty indirectly, with Plowshare. Throughout the negotiations, the AEC kept trying to build a loophole into the treaty’s language saying that peaceful nuclear explosions—Plowshare—should be exempt. Every American draft of the treaty had that exemption written into it. The Russians were against the exemption; they countered that “peaceful” nuclear bombs were “superfluous and even dangerous.” After years of negotiation, Kennedy gave up on the exemption, and the accord was signed. However, it was only a matter of months before both sides were violating the brand-new agreement.

When, in January 1965, American planes first sniffed the cloud of radiation drifting over Japan, they had little idea that it was the first test of Project No. 7, the Soviet answer to Project Plowshare.29 A Sedan-like explosion, 140 kilotons’ worth, carved the crater that became Lake Chagan.The radiation that was released by the blast violated the new treaty, as did the radiation that vented from the April 1965 Palanquin shot in Nevada. Palanquin was a Plowshare test meant to see how nuclear weapons cratered dry rock, material similar to what would be encountered in digging a second Panama canal. (The radioactive plume from Palanquin rapidly crossed the northern border of the United States into Canada and beyond.) Soon the Americans and Russians were accusing each other of violating the new treaty. Peaceful nuclear explosions were not exactly maintaining the peace.

Despite all the effort and money poured into peaceful fusion explosions, the United States never got any nonmilitary benefit from Project Plowshare. No gigantic earth-moving projects ever materialized; neither the Alaska harbor nor the second Panama canal ever got beyond the planning phase. (President Nixon formally abandoned the latter project in 1970.) Of all the marvelous applications suggested by Teller and his colleagues, only one was actually tested. Three nuclear tests carried out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, code-named Gasbuggy, Rulison, and Rio Blanco, attempted to use nuclear explosions to release natural gas. (The theory was that a big enough explosion would fracture the rocks trapping the gas.) But the three tests were not terribly successful. Rio Blanco failed because the bomb didn’t produce caverns of the expected shape. At first, Gasbuggy and Rulison seemed to work. The nuclear bombs shattered rocks around the test site and natural gas poured out of the wells. Unfortunately, the gas was radioactive, and no utility would buy it. After twelve years of trying and twenty-seven nuclear tests, Project Plowshare sputtered to a halt without ever having proved the usefulness of peaceful nuclear bombs.

Thirty years after Teller first dreamed of liberating the power of the sun upon the Earth, Project Plowshare was dead. Even the discovery of oil in Alaska in the late 1960s didn’t make his proposal of a bomb-carved harbor any more palatable. In his waning years, Teller turned away from peaceful nuclear explosions and back toward using fusion as a tool of war, dreaming up unworkable schemes to defend the United States from a Soviet missile attack. He was behind President Ronald Reagan’s infamous “Star Wars” program, which, in its first incarnation, would have seeded the heavens with fusion bombs. If the Communists launched their missiles, Teller’s orbiting bombs would detonate, shooting out beams of x-rays that would destroy the incoming warheads. The project was abandoned as unworkable after just a few years, another example of Teller’s manic optimism.

Throughout his career, Teller schemed and plotted to prevent any sort of hiatus in his quest for nuclear supremacy. Treaties with the Soviet Union were signs of weakness; detente and peacemaking would just lead to the destruction of America. Project Plowshare was a lie; to Teller, it was not a tool of peace but a means to undermine treaties with the Soviet Union. Teller was a man of swords, not plowshares. “I’ve never seen [Teller] take a position where there was the slightest chance in the interest of peace,” said Isidor Rabi. “I think he is the enemy of humanity.”

Project No. 7 had a little more success than Project Plowshare. After the creation of Lake Chagan, the Soviets briefly experimented with nuclear excavations of lakes and dams, but the results were disappointing. The Russian efforts to turn on gas and oil wells with bombs were more successful than the American tests. Production often increased dramatically. But reports indicate that at least one oil field is contaminated with radioactivity, and its oil is “not acceptable to regional refineries.”

In 1966, the Soviets used a nuclear bomb to shut off a gas well and snuff a runaway fire. They also used nuclear explosives to make underground caverns for storing toxic waste, to break up mineral ores, and to create seismic shockwaves to aid in the exploration for natural resources. Sometimes accidents happened: the Kraton-3 explosion, a seismic experiment, vented so much radioactive steam into the Siberian tundra in 1978 that the Soviets had to declare a two-kilometer exclusion zone around the site.

All in all, Project No. 7 consisted of 122 nuclear explosions between 1965 and 1988. Their results were mixed at best. Hydrogen bombs, it turned out, did not give humanity the power to move mountains or to reshape the landscape to suit its fancy. What they provided was a far cry from a fusion-crafted utopia.

Fusion bombs were just that—bombs. They were swords too crude to be shaped into plowshares, unable to benefit humanity in any tangible way. Scientists would have to come up with entirely new ideas if they wanted to harness the power of the sun without getting burned.