It’s often forgotten what a technological feat it was to pump oil out of the Fort McMurray area. While it’s long been known that the Athabasca region is swimming with petroleum, geologists spent decades banging their head against the problem of how to turn oily sand into something that could be refined into gasoline.
Which makes it all the more fortunate that — just before science figured it out — Alberta kiboshed a plan that would have simply thrown nuclear bombs at the problem. “Nuclear miracles will make us rich,” declared famed physicist Edward Teller in a 1959 syndicated editorial.
As the first seeds of the anti-nuclear movement began to show themselves, Teller was trying to assure a worried public that they should welcome atomic bombs as bringers of “as rich a harvest as man’s ingenuity ever has produced.”
A veteran of the Manhattan Project, the Hungarian born Teller had been instrumental in the development of the hydrogen bomb. Now, he was the point man for Operation Plowshare, a U.S. scheme to supply nuclear weapons for civilian purposes.
Canals, the project vowed, could be effortlessly dug around the world. Deserts could bloom thanks to nuclear-blasted wells. And one day, promised Teller, nuclear explosions “may be able to squeeze oil from rock.”
As the story went to press, in fact, a plan to A-bomb oil from rocks was already taking shape in Northern Alberta. “They were doing a lot of shots in the dark back then,” said Daniel Meneley, retired chief engineer with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., speaking by phone from the Toronto area.
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