Atomic Oaks

We were somewhere in the neighborhood of Carlsbad, New Mexico, at the end of several miles of rough gravel roads. The scenic view consisted of potash mines and oil wells on the horizons and a lot of mesquite in the foreground.

Mixed in with the mesquite were what our guide told us were oak trees. I had trouble believing this, even after he got out of the car and brought back what was unmistakably an oak leaf. These were nothing like any oak trees I had ever seen. Even the bush-sized scrub oaks at least look like trees. These were only knee high.

The supposed oak trees were dwarfed by the four-foot-high concrete marker that we had driven all the way out here to see. It contained a metal plaque commemorating "Project Gnome."

We were standing directly above the site of a nuclear explosion. On December 10, 1961, 1200 feet beneath this spot, scientists detonated a nuclear device at the end of a tunnel that had been excavated from a vertical shaft some 1100 feet away.

This was part of the Plowshare program, an effort in the 1960's to try to find industrial and scientific applications for nuclear power. Several underground explosions were set off in New Mexico and Colorado before the project was ended in the early 1970's, apparently without finding any practical uses for nuclear explosions.

One goal of the Gnome blast was to generate steam. Steam was generated, all right, but some of it got through the seals in the tunnel and leaked out through the shaft. The difficulty in controlling nuclear explosions may have been one of the reasons for ending the Plowshare program.

At the site of the blast nearly 50 years later, there wasn't much to see besides the marker, the mesquite, and the miniature oak trees. Were they some mutant life form, an unforeseen side effect of experimenting with nuclear blasts?

Nope. Not at all. They are Quercus havardii, or shin oak, described to us as part of the largest oak forest in North America. That's "largest" in the sense of geographic area, rather than "largest" in the sense of mighty oaks from little acorns growing. Their size is presumably a result of adapting to a dry, hot climate, and they were midgets long before anyone ever heard of nuclear power.

And the dangers of strolling through the site of an atomic explosion? Well, in May of 1962, scientists visited the cavity created by the Gnome blast and found it "hot" only in temperature. It was 140 degrees down there, but it wasn't radioactive. This site has been tested regularly over the past 50 years, and it doesn't have any more radiation than your average back yard. (If you'd like more information, check out atomictourist.com.)

The only real health risk in visiting Project Gnome today is losing your broad-brimmed hat in the wind and getting sunburned. Unless, of course, you happen to trip over an oak tree.

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