A month after Robert Oppenheimer’s team witnessed the destructive force of the A-bomb, two were dropped on Japan. The collateral damage is legendary. A mere three months after the awesome initial detonation in the New Mexican desert, word of the bomb had spread across the globe and, like all technological breakthroughs, it stimulated the imaginations of men who thought its power could be put to use in ways other than wholesale destruction.
The 1950s was a hubristic decade, an age when too many people thought technological innovation could solve any problem. A grand example of this attitude was provided by Dr. Manley Natland, a palaeontologist working for the Richfield Oil Company of California. Manley proposed to his bosses that an underground nuclear blast in the nine-kiloton range might be just the thing to release all that hard-to-get-at oil in the Albertan tar sands. Natland theorized that the force of the gigantic explosion would blow a monstrous cavity in the underground rock. As the cavity was being created, pitched Natland, the pressure and tremendous heat from the blast would simultaneously cause the oil to be freed from the sticky tar and boil out of the ground.
You might expect that the eager palaeontologist’s proposal would lead his bosses to the conclusion that he had fallen victim to reefer madness, or something worse. For one thing, the bomb was to be blown up in another country. Apparently the U.S. oil company, with holdings in the province of Alberta, was familiar with Canada’s propensity for selling off its natural resources at bargain basement prices, so their neighbour’s compliance was not regarded as a big obstacle.
Instead of derision, Natland received a big pat on the back for his cockamamy notion. His bosses took the proposal to Washington D.C. where they persuaded their federal government of its efficacy and persuaded them to sell the Richfield Oil Co. an atomic bomb for $350,000 bucks.
When the Canadian government of the day, controlled by the Liberal Party headed by its 12th Prime Minister, Louis St. Laurent, heard of the proposed escapades of the bomb-wielding Californian oil company, the reaction ranged from disbelief to doubt to those who thought it a good idea. The debate continued through the administrations of John Diefenbaker to the 1960s when the issue of nuclear testing was a hot item on the floor of the House of Commons.
At this point, Richfield, frustrated after sitting on their hands for over a decade, shelved “Project Oil Sands,” and switched their attention to Alaska. What they did with their bomb is a research project for some eager historian.
It turns out that Manly Natland wasn’t the only person with an alternate use for the newly developed giant leap forward in weaponry. On the 10th of September, 1945, the Vancouver Sun reported that, following consultations, “noted scientist, Dr. Gerald Wendt, the Pacific Northwest Trade Association approved the appointment of a committee to collaborate with its fisheries committee in consultation with the University of Washington scientists and others on the advisability of the atom bomb to blast out Ripple Rock, navigation hazard on the Canadian Route to Alaska.”
Once again the plan originated stateside, again demonstrating an all too common disregard our mighty neighbours have for our country. What they were proposing, essentially, was to detonate an atomic bomb a few kilometres away from Courtenay, Campbell River, and a number of small coastal towns, with all the fallout attending that event, so that a shipping lane to Alaska would be made easier for U.S. shipping. Insert Seymour Narrows into Google Maps, for a more vivid illustration of the incredible arrogance and stupidity of this idea.
Still, the idea acquired legs way back in 1945. Those opposed pointed to the massive destruction of marine life as well as the potential loss of human life. Other opponents pointed out that there had been more than a few significant earthquakes off British Columbia’s west coast, and that seismologists were perennially warning of an event of epic proportions along the major fault lines near us. Would an atomic blast trigger that earthquake? Nobody could say for sure.
There’s no doubt that the zany A-bomb idea gave a boost to the alternative plan, namely to remove the top of ripple rock with conventional explosives. For three years, shifts of 75 men laboured on a vertical shaft of 150 metres from Maud Island. That done, they tunnelled 720 metres to the base of Ripple Rock. Ripple Rock had twin peaks. Shafts were drilled up those and 1,270 metric tonnes of explosives were placed in these shafts, an amount estimated to be ten times that needed for a similar explosion above water.
At 9:31 on the fifth of April 1958, Lindy and I walked across her field toward the woods, as thousands watched CBC’s first nationwide broadcast of the largest non-nuclear explosion in history, one that displaced 635,000 tonnes of rock and water and sent debris 300 metres into the air.
“What d’ya wanna do?” asked Lindy.
“I dunno. What do you wanna do?” I asked.
… to be continued…