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Scientist: Hurricanes Can Be Nuked

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    It seems as though every time a major hurricane threatens, the idea pops up: Why not nuke it?
    And, just as predictably, the idea of dropping a nuclear bomb on a hurricane to weaken it, or disrupt its path, is dismissed as crazy.
    "It's just wacky," said Robert Nelson, a Princeton University physicist who studies nuclear weapons.
    But in a little-known episode of nuclear history, a nuclear weapon scientist took a serious look at the question. His conclusion: It just might work.
    "The physics of this scheme has never been seriously questioned," said Jack Reed, a retired Sandia National Laboratories scientist who pioneered the idea.
    Reed's idea was straightforward: detonate a large nuclear weapon in the eye of a hurricane, where it would loft the storm's central engine into the upper atmosphere, essentially ripping its heart out.
    The time was the early 1960s, and a U.S. government program— Project Plowshare— was looking at ways to turn the power of nuclear weapons to peaceful use.
    The project's name came from the biblical entreaty— "They shall beat their swords into plowshares."
    The ideas were all over the map— using nukes to carve out new harbors, rail or highway routes through the mountains, even a new seaway across the Isthmus of Panama.
    In December 1961, the first Plowshare nuclear test was conducted in an underground salt bed, near Carlsbad. Weapons scientists wanted to see if usable energy could be extracted from the heat of an underground blast.
    New Mexico's second Plowshare test, Gasbuggy, was conducted in December 1967 near Farmington. It was an underground blast to see if a nuclear blast could help boost natural gas production.
    Before Plowshares ended in the early 1970s, 27 explosive tests were conducted aimed at finding non-military uses for nuclear weapons. None of the ideas were ever pursued beyond testing, and nuclear weapons' role today remains entirely military.
    It was in the context of Project Plowshare that Reed, a meteorologist working on the U.S. nuclear test program, conceived the idea that a nuclear weapon could be used to disrupt a hurricane.
    Reed was studying the atmospheric effects of a nuclear test called "Mike" conducted in the South Pacific in October 1952.
    Mike, the first H-bomb ever detonated, created a massive blast equivalent to 15 million tons of TNT, roughly a thousand times bigger than the blast that destroyed Hiroshima.
    Reed had been interested in cyclones— hurricanes and their kin— since his days as an Air Force meteorologist when he saw the destructive power of the storms up close. In 1946, he was on the Philippines-based crew of a B-29 that flew eight missions through cyclones' eyes.
    "When I got in the bomb business, I remained interested," recalled Reed, who still lives in Albuquerque.
    When in the early 1950s he began studying the meteorology of the Mike test, he saw a connection. Mike had lofted a massive central column of air more than 20 miles into the sky.
    A slightly larger blast detonated in the eye of a hurricane could loft most of the relatively warm air in the hurricane's eye— its central engine— high above the storm, Reed figured.
    The warm air would be replaced by colder, denser air, weakening the storm, according to Reed.
    Critics, Princeton's Nelson among them, complain that the power of a nuclear weapon, large as it is, is dwarfed by the awesome force of a hurricane, and that even the largest nuclear blast would therefore have a negligible effect.
    Reed's response is that the critics do not understand the mechanism he is suggesting— a strategic hit at the storm's heart, rather than an attempt to destroy the whole thing.
    To a second criticism— the problem of radioactive fallout— Reed argued that the bomb, because it derives most of its power from nuclear fusion, would only create "trivial" amounts of fallout.
    In the end, the argument was academic.
    Reed made several presentations of his work in the 1960s— one at a Project Plowshare conference, and a second at an American Meteorological Society conference on tropical weather.
    But no one was willing to pursue the idea. The notion of such a use of a nuclear weapon, Reed said, was deemed "politically incorrect."