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Nukes Are the Answer for Mt. Etna

Column by Matthew H. Hersch

Opinion Editor

Okay, Techies. Here's a question for you:

The most active volcano in Europe has recently spewed 120 million cubic yards of lava, much of which is now oozing towards the small Sicilian village of Zafferana Etna. Using all technological means currently available and Stokes' Theorem, find a way to stop or divert the lava flow. Show all work.

Answer: Nuke it.

Earlier this week, a joint Italian-American contingent attempted to divert the lava flow from Mt. Etna, Europe's largest volcano, by blasting the channel in which the lava flowed and dropping concrete barriers in front of the stream. The effort earned high marks for ingenuity -- Italian air force pilots and U.S. Marines from an amphibious assault vessel offshore carefully hoisted the concrete blocks using helicopters -- but still, the volcano threatens to flamb the quaint village of 7,000 lying below.

Plugging up a volcano is no small affair, but surprisingly, the technology for doing it has existed for years, unrecognized, in the most unusual of places -- the neutron bomb.

Relax. Let me explain.

Several years ago, a great deal of concern surrounded the possibility that a rapid Soviet tank assault through Germany could completely overtake Western Europe. The United States believed it lacked the conventional forces to halt such an advance, so it began working on a way to employ nuclear weapons on the battlefield. These efforts ran into problems, though, because any potential battlefield in Western Germany was so close to civilian population centers (also known as towns) that nuclear weapons detonated to kill tanks crews would also take out the village barber, plumber, and dog groomer.

To solve this problem, defense planners developed the enhanced radiation weapon, dubbed the neutron bomb. This device, a modified midget H-bomb, had the nifty quality of emitting most of its detonation energy as blast and prompt radiation, with very little of the radioactive fallout that tends to linger after the explosion. In battle, you could drop one on a column of tanks -- immediate neutron radiation would kill most of the tank crews almost instantly, but the meager blast and minimal fallout would keep local structures (also known as buildings) intact, allowing American forces to move into the area very quickly. Dubbed a "capitalist" weapon for its ability to kill people but leave buildings standing, the neutron bomb became held up in political squabbles in the early 1980s. For stopping lava flows in 1992, though, they may be perfect.

This is not the first time anyone has suggested using nukes for peaceful purposes -- many have talked about using them to dig out harbors and canals. To stop a lava flow, one could utilize nuclear weapons to dig craters in low-lying areas, providing reservoirs for lava flowing down a mountain. Nuclear weapons positioned a couple of miles from populated areas or detonated partially underground could hollow out tremendous caverns to contain molten rock flows. To try such an operation, though, one must use nuclear weapons that not only leave nearby towns intact, but minimize radiation damage to the environment.

Ten years ago, scientists realized that ERWs weren't very effective at killing people, because the prompt radiation they emit falls off exponentially as you move away from the blast. This problem put serious accuracy requirements on the missiles meant to carry the neutron bomb -- but it turns out to make ERWs useful for geological purposes. Several low-yield neutron bombs could dig diversion trenches for the lava flow, and though radiation near the blast would be extreme, communities a few miles away would suffer minimal exposure. The blast would release minimal heat, and fallout would be minor, especially considering that lava flowing into the blast craters would bury any fission products remaining after detonation.

In our drive to end environmentally destructive nuclear testing, we should not forget that nuclear devices may hold a promising future as instruments of geology and civil engineering. And in our drive to pull the world from the brink of nuclear war, we should not abandon potentially useful nuclear energy research projects. Against volcanos, even the "capitalist" bomb may be able to do some good after all.