The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, now called the Department of Energy, was experimenting with ways to use atomic energy in a “friendly” way back in the 1950’s and ’60’s. As part of Project Plowshare, several nuclear bombs were used in tests to measure the release of natural gas from tight rock formations.
One such nuclear bomb was exploded west of Rifle called Project Rulison. The experiment had mixed results. Gas was recovered, but it was too radioactive to be used commercially.
Robert Prince tried to stop the Project Rulison atomic blast back in 1969. He noted that it didn’t take a nuclear scientist to figure out the gas would be too hot to handle.
Rob Prince was a graduate student at C.U. when he read a flyer about Project Rulison that a fellow student was handing out on campus. He decided to travel to the Rifle area to join an unorganized group of protestors in the few days leading up to the explosion.
Today, Prince teaches International Studies at the University of Denver. Originally from New York City, he’s been living in Colorado since 1969. Married to the girl he met at the Project Rulison protest, he and his wife, Nancy have two grown children.
Prince joined Colorado Confidential in a trip back in time.
CC: In your blog you wrote: “I just thought that exploding a nuclear bomb underground to produce natural gas commercially – was, next to the Vietnam War which was very intense at the time, the most awful thing I could ever imagine.”
Can you expand on that a little — how many protesters were there in your group and what was your mission? It sounds like you were trying to stop the bomb, not just protest the explosion.
RP: Although I would spend a good deal of time working for nuclear disarmament later, at the time of Project Rulison I was not involved in that movement. I was involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement at the time and was deeply disturbed with the human cost of the war.
I was entering a doctoral program at the University of Colorado in Boulder at the time of Project Rulison when someone handed me a leaflet about Project Rulison. I simply couldn’t believe it.
The notion of nuking the mountains defied reason. When — after researching the issue — I learned that it was actually true, I simply felt I had to do something to protest this. It was as simple as that. I was not a part of any more organized movement at the time.
I was living in a small rented house near the campus at the time. When I told the other students living with me about the project — we all decided, on the spot — to go to Rulison to protest.
I was present on Sept. 4 when the blast was expected, but went back to campus before the September 10 blast (to take an exam as I recall). So I missed the big one. Some of our friends stayed when the bomb was detonated.
CC: Seems like I read that the Feds gave up on chasing the protesters and blew up the bomb anyway. What really happened?
RP: Concerning the FBI, arrests…to my recollections there were NONE, which is in and of itself interesting.
There were federal agents in helicopters and bull horns flying around us calling on us to leave, but that was about it. They never landed (to my knowledge) and never actively tried to clear us from the spot where we were camped.
We did break up into small groups with the idea that if we did, the federal agents would get some, but not all of us, but nothing came of that.
What we reasoned — incorrectly — was that our presence there would prevent the detonation; that our government would not risk the lives of its citizens and that the publicity we would get from our efforts would spur public opinion to come out against the project and stop it. That didn’t happen.
There is the fact that the blast was delayed from Sept. 4 to 10 with the reason being “the weather.” I never understood that, as it was an underground blast — 8000 and something feet below the surface — and therefore, was not certain what the weather on the surface had to do with it.
We felt the delay was because of our presence. To this day, I cannot prove (or disprove this). I remember a number of us thought more or less the same — that the government did not want the adverse publicity. They would have liked to proceed with as much anonymity as possible.
CC: Who were you back in 1969 and did your protesting activities at the Rulison Project make an impression on you in future years?
RP: I was someone who had been “politicized” in the Peace Corps years — with mostly what might be called an ‘anti-war’ and ‘anti-colonial’ consciousness.
Protesting at Project Rulison did not greatly change my views; it only made me more cynical to see what the government was willing to do in conjunction with powerful corporate interests and how in the end, they didn’t care if a couple of protestors died at the site (even if none did).
The project was — and is — ridiculous. I simply couldn’t believe that the U.S. government was capable of such an elaborate and destructive scheme.
I remember thinking relating the destructiveness in Vietnam (don’t forget 3,000,000 Vietnamese were killed, mostly from bombings in that war along with the 56,000 US military casualties) with that of Rulison. It also gave me a much greater fear of the danger of nuclear weapons, of the need to work to eliminate them — from everyone’s arsenal, but there was so much work to do to end the war that I couldn’t concentrate on the nuclear questions till later.
And at the protest, I met my wife, Nancy.
Part II with Project Rulison protest Rob Prince will continue on Wednesday.