183. Memorandum From the Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (Warnke) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Report for the Soviets on U.S. PNE Experience

As you know, when Gromyko came here in September, the President told him that we would provide the Soviet Government with an account of U.S. experience regarding the economic utility of peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs).2

Immediately thereafter, we began in Washington to prepare such a report. In Geneva, Gerry Johnson, who ran our PNE program for sev[Page 432]eral years and is now my deputy on the CTB Delegation, gave Morokhov an oral rundown of our PNE experience.

With the Brezhnev initiative of November 2,3 we decided to hold off on delivery of our paper while waiting for a clearer picture of the implications of the new Soviet PNE moratorium proposal. Subsequently, Morokhov has taken the view that the Soviet Government continues to see great importance in PNEs. I therefore believe we should now send a copy of our report to Gromyko. In addition to getting our views on the very limited economic value of PNEs to the Soviet leadership, it would demonstrate our willingness to engage them in a continuing and serious dialogue on the PNE issue.

With your concurrence, I will give Dobrynin a copy of the attached package, which contains our PNE report and a cover note from Cy Vance to Gromyko.4 DOE, DOD, JCS, and State concur in forwarding the report. The cover note has been worked out with State.

Paul C. Warnke


Paper Prepared in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency 5

Summary: US Perspectives on Peaceful Nuclear Explosions

The US opposition to permitting PNEs under a CTB reflects our conclusion that the potential economic benefits of PNEs are not sufficient to override serious verification and non-proliferation problems that would be associated with their use. Our PNE verification and non-proliferation concerns have been made clear in the CTB negotiations; this paper presents a review of the economic utility of PNEs based on experience gained in the US PNE program.

PNE applications were studied by the US over a period of twenty years, and in selected areas field tests were conducted using nuclear explosives. US industry was directly involved, and was relied upon to identify promising applications of PNEs. The ultimate determination of the economic value of PNEs was made largely by industry. PNEs were [Page 433] investigated for use in excavation, natural gas stimulation, shale oil recovery, copper mining, and underground storage cavities. Field testing using nuclear explosives was conducted for the excavation and natural gas stimulation applications.

Each of these potential areas of application involved its own difficult technical problems as well as the general problems associated with any PNEs (such as safety, environmental impact, treaty obligations, and public acceptance). One of the most publicized PNE applications, earth excavation, was found to present the most serious difficulties. A sea-level canal to supplement the Panama Canal was long regarded as a promising application for PNEs, but a massive study of alternative approaches concluded for technical, economic, and political reasons that a route using conventional explosives was preferable. In addition, PNE excavation would be difficult or impossible to carry out in compliance with the LTBT.

Even for deep underground applications where radioactivity can in general be contained, technical and societal problems remain. Moreover, the anticipated costs would largely eliminate any economic advantage of PNEs. Continuing development of alternative methods generally do not involve the great uncertainties or potential legal problems of PNEs.

The scale of the efforts in some projected PNE applications would have presented unique security problems. Natural gas stimulation, for example, could have involved an effort of perhaps 1,000 PNEs annually to achieve a 5 per cent increase in US natural gas production. Significant problems could arise in handling and security of PNE devices in such numbers in the US. These problems would be compounded—and there would be cause for serious concern about terrorist actions—if other countries sought PNE services on even a fraction of this scale.

The US PNE program was undertaken to assess technical feasibility and economic utility of eventual commercial use of nuclear explosives by US industry. As costs and problems associated with the experimental program increased, industry reassessed the total costs involved in projected commercial applications. Ultimately, it became evident that even if PNE technology promised some possible economic advantages over competing technologies, these advantages could well be lost when the costs of other factors were taken into account. In these circumstances, there was little incentive for participating contractors to continue to pursue PNE technology, and their decision to withdraw from the PNE program was, ultimately, an economic decision—in the broad sense of the term.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Agency File, Box 1, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency: 8/77–2/78. Confidential.
  2. See Document 168.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 176.
  4. The cover note from Vance is not attached.
  5. No classification marking.