Wyoming’s Nuclear Response to Project Plowshare

Vice President Richard Nixon delivered these words in October 1960 to a Toledo, Ohio, fraternity group: “Our plan to develop peaceful constructive uses of nuclear explosives has been given the name of Project Plowshare, because it is literally an attempt to convert the most destructive weapon in history into a tool for human betterment. Through Project Plowshare, we now have a great opportunity to turn our atomic armory into a tool for peace.”[1]

Between 1957 and 1974, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) spent millions of dollars studying the feasibility of using nuclear devices for construction ventures under a program called “Project Plowshare.” One proposed use was to stimulate natural gas production in tight underground reservoir formations. Nonporous shale formations in the sparsely populated Rocky Mountain West seemed a prime target to test the idea. Shale fields in this region are rich in natural gas; however, unlocking those riches had been a continuing dilemma.

Four nuclear stimulation projects were proposed during the Plowshare years, three of which were detonated. The first, Project Gasbuggy in rural New Mexico near Dulce, was detonated on December 10, 1967; the next on September 10, 1969, was Project Rulison near Rulison, Colorado, and another, Project Rio Blanco near Rifle, Colorado, was detonated on May 17, 1973. The AEC partnered with the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory as well as corporate entities that included El Paso Natural Gas Company for Gasbuggy, CER Geonuclear Corporation and Austral Oil Company for Rulison, and CER Geonuclear for Rio Blanco. Each test employed greater intensity of nuclear power in an attempt to unlock stores of natural gas. However, due to safety concerns, public goodwill went in the opposite direction, to the point that after the Rio Blanco test, Colorado voters amended the state’s constitution to require that any project to detonate a nuclear device in the state must first pass a statewide vote.[2]

Photograph of Project Rulison test site taken June 16, 2012, Wikipedia.org.

Two Plowshare projects were on the horizon for Wyoming, one of which, Project Wagon Wheel, was to be the most ambitious nuclear gas stimulation project to date. The planned host site was Sublette County, a section of southwestern Wyoming with several small communities, the largest being Pinedale with a population of about 950. The blast site was within the Pinedale Unit, an area of about 90,000 acres of land owned by the U.S. and Wyoming governments, El Paso Natural Gas, and two other gas companies. El Paso Natural Gas had been interested in the area for many years before nuclear stimulation was considered. In 1954, the company had drilled six wells into the low permeability sandstone formation and used available technology to fracture the rock, but with little results.[3] They held on to the property and, when Gasbuggy proved promising, signed a contract in 1968 with AEC and the U.S. Department of the Interior Department to do a commercial feasibility study.[4]

Map of the Wagon Wheel Site from Environmental Statement: Wagon Wheel Gas Stimulation Project, Sublette County, Wyoming, 1972.
Box 53, folder 16, Teno Roncalio papers, Collection No. 2160, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The scope of the nuclear detonations for Wagon Wheel was on a previously unimagined scale. Five 100-kiloton nuclear devices stacked vertically between 9,220 and 11,570 feet underground would collectively create a blast 25 times greater than the bomb that almost destroyed Hiroshima. Theoretically, sequential firing from bottom up in a single well would triple gas production over firing a single nuclear device, although these plans were made before poor results from Project Rio Blanco cast doubt on this theory.[5] The experiment was planned for fiscal year 1974.

Sublette County residents became aware of the possibility of an experiment in their area as early as 1967. An article in the local newspaper, Pinedale Roundup, dated October 26, 1967, mentions the proposed detonation of Project Gasbuggy, noting that such methods would be needed to recover natural gas in El Paso NG’s Pinedale Unit Area located near the town of Pinedale. The article also quotes encouragingly from a Gasbuggy report that the estimated cash value of Pinedale Unit gas was 65 million dollars.[6]

In May 1969 El Paso formally introduced the project and began open public meetings to discuss plans for nuclear stimulation tests in the area.[7] The company’s announcement, which did a good job of relaying scientific information in laymen terms, reassured local residents that “Radioactivity would not be expected to be a problem in any experiment that might result from the study, since Project Gasbuggy and more than 250 other subsurface nuclear explosions have demonstrated that all radioactivity can be contained completely underground” and that “No experiment will be proposed unless [various tests] show it to be both worthwhile and safe.”[8] The company invited three members of the Wyoming Department of Economic Planning and Development to the detonation of Project Rulison to further reassure Wyoming citizens of the complete safety of nuclear stimulation efforts.[9] That same month, Wyoming Governor Stanley Hathaway offered further reassurances at an annual meeting of the Federation of Rocky Mountain States where he expressed confidence in the AEC and its industry partners who were preparing similar tests in his state.[10]

Sublette County residents and media appeared largely dispassionate, although questioning, of the planned experiment in their backyard. During a meeting between U.S. Department of the Interior personnel, Wyoming state legislators, and Sublette County residents on April 6, 1970, the only concern raised was possible damage to water supply in the northern Green River Basin.[11] However, the next month at least one increasingly concerned citizen began the process of gathering more information. In records held at the American Heritage Center, a synopsis exists of a Laramie-based symposium sponsored by a University of Wyoming ecology committee in which the nuclear stimulation project was discussed. With the synopsis are a quantity of handwritten notes by Pinedale resident C. L. Rawlins, who would soon take action against Project Wagon Wheel.[12]

In the summer of 1971, Wyoming’s lone U.S. Representative Teno Roncalio quizzed El Paso about specific details of Project Wagon Wheel. He received a lengthy and detailed reply from the company in July 1971, which was subsequently published in its entirety in three issues of the Pinedale Roundup.[13] The reply spurred C. L. Rawlins and other Sublette County citizens to form a small grassroots group named the “Wagon Wheel Information Committee” (WWIC) based in Pinedale. The committee’s purpose was to “give the Public a chance to ingest all it can about the various opinions and problems of such an experiment, and the attending advantages and disadvantages.”[14]

An alarming prediction for the WWIC was, if the Project Wagon Wheel blast was successful, El Paso NG projected more than one hundred nuclear-stimulated wells in the scenic Green River Basin. Also, the company claim that, by the 1980s, field development and operation could support a local population of about fifteen to twenty thousand people, several times the population to date. Adding to the alarm was a letter to the Pinedale Roundup editor that appeared in the newspaper’s September 23, 1971, issue. California geologist Robert P. Barnes wrote that, if Project Wagon Wheel was detonated, “Sublette County can justly claim to be the earthquake capital of the world.”[15] Other major concerns included ground motion from the blast, radioactivity from the process of flaring, and disposal of radioactive drilling mud. One Sublette County stockman wrote to Wyoming Senator Clifford Hansen of his entirely pragmatic concern that “…no rancher in this entire area…could afford to buy feed for 325 days of flaring.”[16]

Green River Lakes and Square Top Mountain, near the headwaters of the Green River. Courtesy Pinedale Online.

WWIC quickly began the use of meetings, petitions, flyers, school surveys, fund raising “blasts,” straw votes, and letter writing campaigns at the local and national level to prevent the testing. Despite low population numbers in Sublette County, meetings about Project Wagon Wheel were well-attended by at least 600 local citizens and invited guests such as scientific experts and industry personnel.[17] Quite a few residents felt they were being disregarded, even exploited, in the search for gas to fill the nation’s growing needs.[18]

Not everyone in Sublette County was against the project. El Paso NG promised direct employment for 1,500 to 2,000 as the nuclear stimulation of gas wells continued to progress. Some felt this was more important than unsubstantiated environmental concerns from “well-meaning, but usually misinformed Prophets of Doom” who predicted dire consequences if Wagon Wheel was detonated.[19] AEC scientist Edward Teller chipped in his advice during a September 1972 speech in Sheridan: “If you have something others need, you just might make – please excuse the dirty words – but you just might make some money,” adding, “…Wyoming is quite rich in energy resources. One way to use them to your advantage would be to pursue the Pinedale experiment. Then with appropriately-placed explosions over the years, you can utilize the resources found in these tight gas formations – where Wyoming now has fully one-half of all such resources in the United States.”[20]

Wyoming’s congressional delegation had a mixed response to Wagon Wheel. In March 1971, U.S. Senator Clifford Hansen testified, “We are too reliant on foreign sources of oil…The plowshare program…offers one of the quickest and surest solutions to our gas and energy shortage problems.”[21] Hansen would later change his stance with the project’s increasing unpopularity. U.S. Senator Gale McGee was initially non-committal but would later join in the opposition. U.S. Representative Teno Roncalio was against the project from the start and became  the most prominent advocate for Sublette County residents in Washington, D. C. He saw nuclear gas stimulation as environmentally harmful and a waste of natural gas, which he saw as “a unique and extremely important chemical resource, and that by burning more than 97 percent of our production each year, we are literally throwing away a vital resource, a resource that once it is gone, can never be replaced.”[22] He attempted to cut congressional funding for Project Wagon Wheel in mid-1972. When that failed, he sought and won membership the next year on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy to give uranium-rich Wyoming a voice in atomic energy development.[23] 

Roncalio’s failure to kill Plowshare gave the program’s defenders some hope they might yet save it and Wagon Wheel. Among them was Edward Teller. During his Sheridan speech, he attacked Wagon Wheel’s opponents, focusing his vituperation not against Roncalio but his Democratic colleague McGee: “By exploiting this scare, and behaving like a Democrat, McGee makes it difficult for us to go ahead with it.” Teller implied that the Wyoming lawmaker was anti-progress, for Wagon Wheel was “underground mining, without the miners going underground.” He then pulled out his well-worn Cold War card, asserting that the Soviets had progressed much further than the United States in their peaceful-use program. “The Russians don’t let their Senator McGees write idiotic letters,” he declared. “I don’t like Sen. McGee, but I vastly prefer him to the USSR.”[24]

El Paso NG also went on the offensive. In August it announced that it had hired two scientists, Keith Schiager, a radiation ecologist from Colorado State University, and H.G. Fisser, a plant scientist from the University of Wyoming, to gather data to augment the final environmental impact statement and prove Wagon Wheel’s harmlessness. Also, El Paso’s director Philip Randolph, in a show to prove his company had locals’ interests in mind, promised that if the people living nearby did not want Wagon Wheel, his company would not pursue it.[25]

List of panelists discussing Project Wagon Wheel at the annual meeting of the Green River Valley Cattlemen’s Association, April 29, 1972. Box 53, folder 12, Teno Roncalio papers, Collection No. 2160, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The effort to change minds had little effect. Teller’s comments angered Sylvia Freeman, the chairperson of Sheridan County’s Democratic Central Committee, who described the physicist’s remarks “particularly disturbing, coming from someone who is supposed to be motivated by the standards of scientific objectivity…Teller’s position seems to be that since he, personally, is in favor of Wagon Wheel, no one should question it.” The two scientists hired by El Paso had previously spoken in favor of Wagon Wheel, the High Country News pointed out. “With men like Schiager and Fisser, why even have a study? It’s like having Lyndon Johnson do an independent evaluation of our involvement in the Vietnam War.”[26]

The tension between the two sides increased in November 1972 when the WWIC held a straw poll for Sublette County residents on election day. Of the 1,230 who participated, an overwhelming 71 percent expressed opposition. El Paso NG rejected the results with Randolph charging that the WWIC “distributed large amounts of misleading and erroneous information even before the current studies [were] concluded.” Calling the survey “premature,” he added, “Under these conditions we do not feel the poll accurately reflects the feeling that the citizens of Sublette County will have after consideration of factual and unbiased information.” When reminded that El Paso had promised not to conduct Wagon Wheel if locals did not want it, Randolph remained unmoved. He stated that the company had not yet made up its mind on whether to conduct the blast; only if El Paso decided to proceed would public opinion matter.[27]

Randolph’s remarks left the WWIC indignant. Recently reelected U.S. Senator Cliff Hansen met with WWIC members a few days later and accepted a suggestion that he set up a meeting in Washington between Wyoming’s congressional delegation, AEC Chairman James Schlesinger, El Paso representatives, and the WWIC. Paying either out of pocket or with the help of donations, eleven WWIC delegates went to the nation’s capital in February 1973, where they held discussions with Roncalio, McGee, Hansen, and representatives of the AEC, EPA, and El Paso. WWIC’s Floyd Bousman also took the opportunity to appear on NBC’s Today show, where he used the forum to express his group’s opposition to Wagon Wheel. By the time they left, whatever goodwill existed between the WWIC and its allies on the one hand and the AEC and EPNG on the other was gone. The WWIC delegates had assumed Schlesinger would meet them only to have someone else from the AEC do so. Meanwhile officials from El Paso, recalled Bousman, “did a lot of quibbling over semantics.” He explained, “The attitude of the AEC and El Paso officials at this February 7 meeting in Washington destroyed for us what little credibility they had left.”[28]

McGee, himself incensed, sent a formal letter of protest in February 1973 to recently appointed AEC Chairperson Dr. Dixy Lee Ray hoping to find a more receptive ear.[29] On April 19, 1973, the Dr. Ray sent the WWIC a statement explaining that there were “no funds in the fiscal year 1974 budget presented to Congress by the President…for the Wagon Wheel Project or any preparatory development and testing of explosives capable of sequential detonation.” She did not exclude the possibility of the AEC pursuing funding for fiscal year 1975 but if that happened, “the Wagon Wheel Project could not be scheduled until late 1977 – at the earliest.”[30] The next year, in April 1974, the AEC’s Acting Director of the Division of Applied Technology Edward Fleming assured WWIC member Doris Burzlander that, even if funds were made available in 1976, the AEC “could not do a project such as Wagon Wheel before fiscal year 1979.”[31] With the exception of a handful of follow-up studies, Plowshare was quietly defunded entirely in 1974.[32]

Mostly likely if Project Rulison and Project Rio Blanco had worked as the AEC and its industrial partners anticipated, projects such as Wagon Wheel would have been detonated and possibly expanded, particularly as the energy crises became grimmer in the 1970s. Sparsely populated areas of the country such as western Colorado and southwestern Wyoming may not have been able to fight off the brunt of success. A Washington official made the comment to Congressman Roncalio that “Wyoming has everything needed for energy. Why not move the mere 300,000 residents and make the whole state one big excavation?”[33] The WWIC could not by itself stop Project Wagon Wheel, but it did accomplish something just as powerful. The group raised serious concerns and delayed the project long enough to reveal poor results of similar but smaller scale projects. In Rio Blanco, the detonation of three 30-kiloton nuclear devices did not produce the desired effects to extract gas and was, by-and-large, considered a failure. By 1975, the idea of nuclear blasting for natural gas production was at an end. But it was only when the AEC and government officials saw the financial writing on the wall with the pullout of industrial partners and the inadequate return on investment did the nuclear gas stimulation program finally die. What would have happened if Rulison and Rio Blanco had succeeded? We may still be dealing with the effects of that success today.

The American Heritage Center has a number of collections related to Project Wagon including the papers of Teno Roncalio, Gale McGee, Clifford Hansen, the records of the Wagon Wheel Information Committee, and the Project Wagon Wheel records. There are also many digitized materials ready for research,

Post submitted by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.


[1] Richard M. Nixon. “Excerpt of a Speech by Richard Nixon, the Vice President of the United States, Prepared for Delivery before Meeting of Sigma Delta Chi, Toledo, Ohio (October 26, 1960),” The American Presidency Project.

[2] Yates, Scott C. “The Day They Bombed Colorado.” Westword, February 26, 1998, p. 27.

[3] Owen, Frank, “Only Way to Get It Out,” Casper Star Tribune (Casper, WY), May 9, 1972.

[4] El Paso Natural Gas Company; U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Project Wagon Wheel: Technical Studies Report; a compilation of technical studies performed prior to design of the Wagon Wheel experiment (El Paso, TX: El Paso Natural Gas Company, 1971), p. ii.

[5] Kreith, Frank and Catherine B. Wrenn. The Nuclear Impact: A Case Study of the Plowshare Program to Produce Gas by Underground Nuclear Stimulation in the Rocky Mountains. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1976, p. 17.

[6] Pinedale Roundup (Pinedale, WY), “Pinedale Area has over $650 Million Stored Gas, October 26, 1967.

[7] El Paso Natural Gas public meeting flyer, May 1969, Wagon Wheel Information Committee [WWIC] Records, Collection No. 10428, Box 1, Folders 2 and 5, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Pinedale Roundup. “Jim Greenwood to be a Guest at Rulison, Colo., Atomic Stimulation Explosion,” September 4, 1969.

[10] United Press International (Casper, WY), “Fuel Reserves Vital: Love Defends Rulison Project,” Denver Post, September 12, 1969.

[11] Memo from F.W. Stead of U.S. Dept of the Interior Geological Survey, Denver to Project Wagon Wheel file regarding surveillance of producing water wells and springs, April 9, 1970. Wagon Wheel Project, Collection No. 10739, Box 1, unlabeled folder. American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

[12] Notes and releases from symposium sponsored by the Environmental Action Group, Laramie, Wyoming, May 12, 1970, WWIC Records, Box 1, Folder 15.

[13] Pinedale Roundup, “Does Pinedale Want 20,000 People?” July 15, 22, 29, 1971.

[14] Letter from Phyllis Birr, WWIC member, to Dr. Philip L. Randolph, Manager, Nuclear Group, El Paso Natural Gas Company, March 24, 1972, WWIC Records, Box 5, Folder 18.

[15] Robert P. Barnes, letter to the editor, Pinedale Roundup, September 23, 1971.

[16] Letter from Mary Ann Steele, WWIC member to U.S. Senator Clifford Hansen, March 30, 1972, WWIC Records, Box 1, Folder 46.

[17] Ibid.

[18] League of Women Voters, “Laramie League News & Views” newsletter, Vol. 16, No. 7 (April 1972), WWIC Records, Box 2, Folder 4.

[19] Judson Whitman, letter to the editor, The Riverton Ranger, March 22, 1972.

[20] Gillette News Record, “’Make money’ Teller advises Wyomingites,” September 21, 1972.

[21] U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, AEC Authorizing Legislation Fiscal Year 1972, p. 2307.

[22] Congressional Record, 92nd Congress, 2nd session, 1972, 118, pt. 16; “Roncalio Loses Fight to Stop Wagon Wheel,” Casper Star-Tribune, June 10, 1972.

[23] Wyoming Eagle (Cheyenne, WY), “Teno Appointed,” January 27, 1973.

[24] Kaufman, Scott. Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012, p. 219-220. Kaufman quotes from: Judy Skalla, “Dr. Edward Teller Defends Wagon Wheel,” Casper Star-Tribune, September 17, 1972.

[25] Kaufman, Project Plowshare, p. 220. Kaufman cites Lederer, “Project Wagon Wheel,” 30-31; “Press Conference, Nov. 30, 1972 with Dr. Philip Randolph, EPNG, during Wyoming Association of Soil Conservation Districts State Meeting at the Hitching Post in Cheyenne, WY,” Project Wagon Wheel Correspondence, Box 54, Teno Roncalio papers.

[26] Kaufman, Project Plowshare, 220. Kaufman cites “Democrats are Irked by Physicist’s Talk,” Casper Star-Tribune, Sept. 26, 1972, and “This Week’s Offering!,” High Country News (Paonia, Colo.), Sept. 29, 1972.

[27] Kaufman, Project Plowshare, 220. Kaufman cites Lederer, “Project Wagon Wheel,” 32; “Press Conference, Nov. 30, 1972 with Dr. Philip Randolph, EPNG, during Wyoming Association of Soil Conservation Districts State Meeting at the Hitching Post in Cheyenne, WY,” Project Wagon Wheel Correspondence, Box 54, Teno Roncalio papers.

[28] Kaufman, Project Plowshare, 220-221. Kaufman’s cites “Tape transcription of a Meeting with Senator Hansen and the Wagon Wheel Information Committee—on Saturday, December 2, 1972, at 7:00 p.m. in the Sublette County Library, Pinedale, Wyoming” and “Monday—February 5, 1973,” Chronological File, Wagon Wheel, Box 3, WWIC records; Statement by H.F. Steen, Feb. 7, 1973, Correspondence: Corporations, Box 5, WWIC records; “KK Notes from Wagon Wheel Meeting, Feb. 7, 1973,” and “Transcript of Wagon Wheel Information Committee/AEC Meeting,” Feb. 7, 1973, Wagon Wheel meetings—Pinedale, Box 54, Roncalio papers; interview with Bousman; U.S. Congress, Nuclear Stimulation of Natural Gas, 40-41; interview with Steele; Lederer, “Project Wagon Wheel,” 32.

[29] Kaufman, Project Plowshare, 221.

[30] Letter from Edward H. Fleming, AEC Assistant Director to Sally H. Mackey, Chairwoman of WWIC, April 19, 1973. WWIC Records, Box 4, folder 14.

[31] Letter from Edward H. Fleming, Acting Director, Division of Applied Technology, AEC to Doris Burzlander, WWIC member, April 5, 1974, WWIC Records, Box 4, folder 49.

[32] Kirsch, Scott. Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005, p. 204.

[33] Summary of Wagon Wheel Information Committee Efforts, 1974, WWIC Records, Box 5, folder 7.

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