It’s hard to believe that scientists and engineers in the United States once considered using nuclear explosions to build new highways. Then again I look at the amount of blasting that must have been done to carve roads through rocky areas and it’s not that hard to believe that in the early days of the atomic era everyone was looking for a way to use the weapons that had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki to build something beneficial, and the proposal was optimistically named Project Plowshare, from the Biblical book of Isaiah, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares…neither shall they learn war any more,” although the idea was to create a national defense network that would bypass the popular but slow Route 66.
And again all this was first proposed in 1963, eighteen years after the atomic bombs that ended World War II were dropped, and scientists had a pretty good idea by that time that, unlike traditional explosives, nuclear weapons have long-lasting and pretty unpleasant side effects, and they’d be detonating bombs with a total yield about one-hundred and fifteen times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima just eleven miles north of Route 66. While I can’t say exactly how terrible the after-effects would have been I think most of us can agree that they wouldn’t have been good. The lingering contamination from an attempt to make a bypass could have made the whole area impassable. And I say most of us because this a serious plan that would only finally be abandoned in 1975, two years after I-40 would finally unite the California towns of Barstow and Needles. It seems to have only been dropped because of logistics and not because cooler heads prevailed over warheads.
Even though atomic bombs were never used there would be fallout. The town of Amboy, which thrived as a major stop along Route 66 , went into decline. Its major historic attraction, Roy’s Motel and Cafe, has been closed, in spite of attempts to revive it, since 2005.
Several years ago my wife and I passed through Needles as we took I-40 on a trip to California’s coast. A friend from northern California who’d been through there before called it “godawful Needles” but we were struck by the stark beauty of the desert. Something that comes to mind when I read about Project Plowshare is that deserts may look empty but all that barrenness hides complex ecosystems. It’s not just people who would have been affected by a series of nuclear explosions. Maybe we can’t really know just what the extent of the damage would have been and maybe we’re better off not knowing.