Fixing the oil spill, and 7 other REAL plans for using nukes peacefully

Oil's still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, and it's gotten so bad that some people are actually considering nuking the damaged well. Would it work? As iffy as it sounds, Russia actually sealed up ruptured oil wells with nuclear warheads as late as 1981, and it succeeded four times out of five.

Plugging the spill isn't the first scenario ever proposed that involved utilizing nuclear weapons outside of war. Continue reading to see seven other plans that floated the idea of using nukes for… good?

1. Enabling Deep Space Travel
How would you use a nuke to propel a spacecraft? You're probably picturing something like a nuclear rocket. Well, that's not how American mathematician Stanislaw Ulam saw things back in 1947. He thought up "nuclear pulse propulsion," which involves propelling a spaceship by detonating atomic bombs behind it. It went further than just an idea, too, as it's the basis for several serious endeavors, including Project Orion, Daedalus and Longshot.

2. Creating Oil Wells
You already know about the plan to plug up the gushing oil well with a nuke, but how about using a bomb to create one? It's not just some idea on paper, either — America has done it, and more than once. The Atomic Energy Commission (the progenitor to today's Department of Energy) tried three separate times from 1967 to '73 to see if atomic "drilling" was feasible. The AEC set off bombs deep underground near natural gas fields in New Mexico and Colorado — detonating three nuclear devices just for the last test — though radiation worries and expenses rendered the idea untenable, despite the fact that gas was successfully recovered from the wells.

3. Asteroid Defense
Asteroid heading toward Earth? That's a big problem — literally. The closer it gets, the bigger the problem becomes to boot. If you want to destroy it with nukes and the asteroid gets too close to Earth, chunks of the space rock could still be large enough to do some real damage (like, y'know, wiping out cities). The solution? Identify the threat early on, and then give an asteroid a little atomic "nudge," changing its trajectory and saving our little planet.

4. Building Highways
Want to cut a swath through some mountains for a new interstate highway or railway? No problem. All you need is 22 nukes. Yep, you read that right! The California Division of Highways and Santa Fe Railway company propositioned the the aforementioned Atomic Energy Commission to use atomic bombs to clear a path through the Bristol Mountains in Amboy, California. Unsurprisingly, it never made it past the proposal stage. (Up above is the Sedan Test, an actual test to see a nuclear warhead's earth-moving abilities. Guess what? It makes a big crater.)

5. Widening The Panama Canal
We could have all grown up with the Pan-Atomic Canal instead of the Panama Canal we know today. That is, if Operation Plowshare ever took off (the government's term for using nukes in construction, including the highway-blasting idea above and the harbor you're about to read about below). Building the Panama Canal was a long, deadly process. Also many ships are too big to traverse the canal. To make everything easier, why not just nuke it wide open? Well, radioactive fallout was a huge concern, and that fear even scrapped plans to use atomic bombs to create entirely new canals.

6. Artificial Harbors
Another atomic proposal, another ominous name: Operation Chariot. This idea involved instantly creating space for an artificial harbor in 1958. The plan was to set off atomic devices at Cape Thompson, Alaska, though, as you'd imagine, the locals weren't too crazy about the doing so. Add to that the fact that Cape Thompson is virtually on the doorstep of what was then the Soviet Union, and it's pretty easy to see why the U.S. didn't think detonating a nuke there was a good idea.

7. Terraforming The Moon
Not all nuke-as-tool-of-peace ideas come from the last century. Some, such as setting off a small nuke on the moon to kick off a lunar terraforming miracle, are a little more current. Can you imagine looking up and seeing green and blue instead of dusty old gray? The hope is that a nuke detonating on the moon's surface would set off a chain reaction and "scrub" the Moon's whole surface, creating a dense atmosphere at the same time. To really get the gist of the idea, this site has a pretty good — if far-fetched — explanation.

Image credit: Artist James Clyne's vision of a terraformed moon.