Ever heard that problem-solving in mining often starts (and ends) with the use of a bigger hammer or the application of more powder? I have. If there was a miner’s creed, I’d expect it to include “hit it harder or shoot it down.”

Will it take a quarter or a half stick for the rock hung up in a crusher? I’m definitely not the person to answer that. As a kid, I wondered how they knew how much powder to use. I was told that “we just know” and/or “well, there’s a little art to it.” Seemed fair to me. Mining is not known for its precision.

This all came to mind over the weekend as I was researching an unrelated topic and came across this article:

Fracturing Hard Rock with Nuclear Explosives and Extraction of Ore by a Modified Block-caving Method

When I saw this title, I thought: “Well, that’d definitely be WAY too much powder.”

No, I’m not making any of this up. If you don’t believe me, just click on the title. It’ll take you to the entry for the article in a database on NIOSH’s website. Or, click on this link. It’ll take you to the entry for the article in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wirtz Labor Law Library Catalog.

You will find that, in 1970, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the San Francisco Operations Office of the Atomic Energy Commission studied the potential use of nuclear explosives for mining. Dig into it a little more, and you’ll learn that, starting in the late 1950’s, the United States studied and conducted tests to evaluate various uses of peaceful nuclear explosions (“PNE”) for industrial or civil engineering purposes. I assume that this study was a small part of that overall effort.

The abstract or summary of the article helpfully explains that:

Nuclear explosive fracturing has been suggested as a method to make hard rock amenable to extraction by a modified block-caving method. To evaluate this possibility, conventional and nuclear blasting practices are discussed . . . While the direct cost of fracturing the ore in hard rock with a nuclear explosive is less than with conventional explosives, additional costs imposed by the use of nuclear explosives may make their use unattractive for deep mining.

The article itself isn’t on-line, so I’m not sure what the authors included as “additional costs imposed by the use of nuclear explosives.” I’m not a mining engineer or a scientist, but I can think of a few.

I have nothing at all against nuclear power, and we have all benefited enormously from the industrial and civilian use of explosives. That said, I think that the two government institutions responsible for this study reached the right conclusion.