The US had a plan in the 1960s to blast an alternative Suez Canal through Israel using 520 nuclear bombs

·3 min read
Israel canal plan
An annotated map of Egypt and Israel shows the placement of the existing Suez Canal and an approximation of plans for a canal through Israel that the US considered in the 1960s. Google Maps/Insider
  • A declassified memorandum reveals a 1963 US plan to create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

  • It would have excavated more than 160 miles through Israel's Negev desert with nuclear bombs.

  • A cargo ship is currently stuck in the Suez Canal, blocking the vital shipping route.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The US considered a proposal to use 520 nuclear bombs to carve out an alternative to the Suez Canal though Israel in the 1960s, according to a declassified memorandum.

The plan never came to fruition, but having an alternative waterway to the Suez Canal could have been useful today, with a cargo ship stuck in the narrow path and blocking one of the world's most vital shipping routes.

According to the 1963 memorandum, which was declassified in 1996, the plan would have relied on 520 nuclear bombs to carve out the waterway. The memo called for the "use of nuclear explosives for excavation of Dead Sea canal across the Negev desert."

The historian Alex Wellerstein called the plan a "modest proposal for the Suez Canal situation" on Twitter on Wednesday.

The memorandum was from the US Department of Energy-backed Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It suggested that an "interesting application of nuclear excavation would be a sea-level canal 160 miles long across Israel."

Conventional methods of excavation would be "prohibitively expensive," the memo said. "It appears that nuclear explosives could be profitably applied to this situation."

The memo added that "such a canal would be a strategically valuable alternative to the present Suez Canal and would probably contribute greatly to economic development."

As part of the pricing model, the memorandum estimated that four 2-megaton devices would be needed for every mile, which Wellerstein calculated as meaning "520 nukes" or 1.04 gigatons of explosives, he tweeted.

One possible route the memorandum proposed stretched across the Negev desert in Israel, connecting the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Aqaba, opening access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The laboratory noted that there were 130 miles of "virtually unpopulated desert wasteland, and are thus amenable to nuclear excavation methods."

The "crude preliminary investigation" suggested that using bombs to create a canal through Israel "appears to be within the range of technological feasibility," the memo said.

But the memo conceived that one problem, which the authors had not taken into consideration, might be "political feasibility, as it is likely that the Arab countries surrounding Israel would strongly object to the construction of such a canal."

The memo came as the US Atomic Energy Commission was investigating using "peaceful nuclear explosions" to dig out useful infrastructure, Forbes reported in 2018. There were also plans to use this method to dig out a canal in Central America, Forbes reported.

But the PNE project remained experimental, after the US found that 27 experiments with PNEs heavily irradiated the landscape. The Atomic Energy Commission was also abolished in 1974.

Meanwhile, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory still exists. According to its website, it is dedicated to "ensuring the safety, security and reliability of the nation's nuclear deterrent."

The 1963 memorandum had also come less than a decade after the Suez crisis, a conflict for the control of the strategic waterway which was a defining event in the Cold War.

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