Peaceful nuclear explosions
From the 1960s to the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union and the United States in particular pursued the notion of “Peaceful Nuclear Explosions” (PNE's) for economic reasons, with mixed results. Of the nearly 2,050 nuclear explosions detonated in the world between 1945 and 1996, over 150 or approximately 7 % were for peaceful purposes. PNE's are qualitatively no different from weapons tests in terms of their adverse effects on health and the environment. Also the explosive device itself has the same technical characteristics.
In a nutshell:
•The Soviet Union carried out the most extensive PNE programme. Out of its total of 715 nuclear explosions, as many as 124, or 17 %, were conducted for peaceful purposes. PNE’s were conducted between 1965 and 1988: 80 in Russia, 39 in Kazakhstan, and five altogether in Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
•The United States carried out 27 PNE's between 1961 and 1973: four altogether in Colorado and New Mexico, and 23 at the National Test Site in Nevada.
•Other countries, such as China, France, and the United Kingdom have not to public knowledge conducted PNE’s. China, however, initially proposed that PNE’s would be permitted under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty
The Soviet Union carried out the most extensive programme on peaceful nuclear explosions. 124 PNE’s were conducted between 1965 and 1988.
USSR’s nuclear explosions for the national economy
The Soviet Union conducted the most vigorous PNE programme with over 120 nuclear explosions detonated between 1965 and 1988 under the auspices of its “Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy” programmes. These PNE’s had a variety of objectives: deep seismic sounding; creating underground storage cavities; helping to extract gas and oil; extinguishing burning gas or oil wells; creating reservoirs and helping to construct a canal.
United States’ Operation Plowshare
Not to be confused with the anti-nuclear Plowshares Movement, Operation Plowshare was the term for the United States’ portion of the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions project. Twenty-seven nuclear tests for peaceful purposes were conducted between 1961 and 1973. One of the first proposals that came close to being carried out was Project Chariot, which would have used several hydrogen bombs to create an artificial harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska. It never came to fruition due to concerns for the native populations and the fact that potential uses for the harbor were inadequate to justify the risks and expense involved. There was also talk of using nuclear explosions to excavate a second Panama Canal.
PNE’s had a variety of objectives: deep seismic sounding; creating underground storage cavities; helping to extract gas and oil; extinguishing burning gas or oil wells; creating reservoirs and helping to construct a canal.
The largest excavation experiment took place in 1962 at the Nevada Test Site. The Sedan nuclear test carried out as part of Operation Storax displaced 12 million tons of earth, creating the largest man-made crater in the world. It also generated a large amount of fallout that drifted beyond Nevada and over Utah. Other nuclear explosions in oil and gas fields did indeed stimulate production, but in some cases also made the fuel so radioactive that it could not be used. After spending more than US$ 770 million, funding for Operation Plowshare ended in 1977. No nuclear explosion has been used for a commercial purpose in the United States to date.
Provisions banning PNE's
The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty banned PNE’s in the atmosphere, outer space and under water.
The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (Article V) urged States Parties to ensure that “potential benefits from any peaceful applications of nuclear explosions … be made available to non-nuclear weapon States Parties … on a non-discriminatory basis”, at modest cost and possibly on a bilateral basis.
The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty prohibits all nuclear explosions, regardless of whether they are peaceful or not.
The 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, negotiated and signed by the USSR and the United States in May 1976, limited the yield of individual nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes to 150 kilotons. It also provided for information exchange, verification by national technical means, and test site access. Although both countries signed the Treaty in 1976 and announced their intention to observe the testing limitations, ratification was still years away and did not, in fact, occur until 1990.
The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty prohibits all nuclear explosions, regardless of whether they are peaceful or not. In the course of the three-year long negotiations and after careful consideration, all delegations ultimately accepted the inclusion of the phrase "or any other nuclear explosion" in Article I of the Treaty, recognizing that PNE’s would be prohibited under the terms of the Treaty.
China, which had at the outset advocated permitting PNEs, asserted that the ban on PNEs should only be temporary and reviewed after ten years. In the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the States Parties agreed that Article V of the NPT is to be interpreted in light of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear explosions, including PNEs.