Project Wagon Wheel:

    A Nuclear Plowshare for Wyoming


By Adam Lederer


   Project Plowshare was the name given by the Atomic Energy Commission to a project that sought “to find practical industrial and scientific uses for nuclear explosives.”1  The AEC could make the Biblical leap to beat its “swords (bombs) into plowshares.”2 One idea for Project Plowshare would have used deeply buried nuclear explosions to form chimneys of broken rock into underground reservoirs for water in arid regions.

    Scientists, during the 1960s and 1970s, developed the new and exciting technology of nuclear stimulation in the energy field.  Nuclear stimulation, a process where natural gas trapped in tight formations is released, was going to be the answer to the nation’s energy crisis, at least in the view of project proponents. 

    The process in which the chimneys stimulated the production of natural gas attracted the attention of El Paso Natural Gas Company. The firm signed a contract with the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of the Interior to explore the feasibility of using nuclear stimulation in natural gas production.  The agreement was signed January 31, 1967.3

    Plowshare’s only focus seemed to be nuclear stimulation. The Atomic Energy Commission’s 1972 Annual Report gave a glowing review of research progress. The research had high-level support. President Richard Nixon, in 1971, “cited this nuclear stimulation technology as one of four Federal technological efforts undertaken to alleviate the Nation’s natural gas shortage.” 

    Four nuclear stimulation projects were planned during the Plowshare years, three of which were detonated. The first stimulation project detonated by the Atomic Energy Commission was Project Gasbuggy near Farmington, New Mexico, in the northwestern corner of that state.   By the time it was implemented, Project Gasbuggy was a single 29-kiloton nuclear device detonated December 10, 1967. The test brought with it little negative publicity. In fact, the project was “heralded by the New Mexico Governor, the State’s Senators, and members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.” 

    Local newspaper coverage in New Mexico was generally positive. The day after the test shot, one newspaper included a photograph of a Native American with an employee of the El Paso Natural Gas Company. The caption read, “Space Age First Helps First American.” PThe company printed pamphlets describing the project in Spanish and English. Apparently, they were distributed widely. 

    State government officials and most elected politicians in New Mexico embraced the project.  “New Mexico congressmen consistently pressed for progress on Gasbuggy, and some were unhappy with the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) for what they felt were unwarranted delays in the Gasbuggy timetable.”  Project Gasbuggy was considered a technical success according to many because the “shot stimulated gas flow into the well to a degree somewhat greater than had been possible through conventional techniques, but uncertainty remained as to how much improvement had occurred.” After the first test shot, the project continued to move forward--and with the overwhelming support from both elected officials and people living in the area.10 

    The second nuclear stimulation project, Project Rulison, in Colorado faced significant early opposition. Environmental groups filed suits opposing the project. In the Project Rulison test, a single nuclear device of 40 kilotons, was detonated Sept. 10, 1969, near the town of Rifle, Colorado. The site was beneath 73-year-old Claude Hayward’s 292-acre potato-patch.  Hayward initially declined the offer of $100 a month for the rest of his life for use the property..  Later “the AEC came back around with a whiskey bottle and got him good and juiced up and said they would pay him $200 a month for the rest of his life.”11   This time, Heyward signed.

    Unlike Gasbuggy, the Rulison project brought out protestors both at the scene and in the court system. The day the project was detonated, four protestors paired off and, just before detonation, made their presence known by lighting fireworks inside the secured zone.  A helicopter swept two of the protestors out of the area while the other two remained and experienced the blast’s shock waves. 

    Another protestor was in the U. S. Supreme Court when the bomb went off. Tom Lamm, brother of future Colorado Governor Dick Lamm, appealed to the Supreme Court to stop the project. He lost.  Tom Lamm said he “got kicked all over the court, but everybody was real nice because they all knew that I was just a dumb kid from Colorado.” After the ruling was announced, Tom Lamm spent time thanking clerks, avoiding the press waiting for him outside.  When he finally left the building, “the first thing they said was that the bomb just went off.”12  

    Meanwhile, local residents met the Rulison detonation with a “fun afternoon.”  In fact, one local resident “remembers being irritated by the protestors who’d come in from out of town.”13   The preliminary results “indicated that the experiment had demonstrated the technical feasibility of nuclear stimulation of gas in the Rulison field.”14  

    Heyward never got any money for letting the bomb go off beneath his potato-patch even though he had signed the contract. In the fine print was language revealing that Heyward “got paid only if the well made money for the energy companies.”15  The project spurred interest in 1974 through a citizen’s initiative. Colorado voters amended the state’s constitution to require that any project to detonate a nuclear bomb in Colorado “must first pass a statewide vote of the people.”16  Dick Lamm credited Rulison with helping to “launch the state’s environmental movement along with his candidacy for governor.”17 

    The third nuclear stimulation project was Rio Blanco.  The project, detonated May 17, 1973, was located in western Colorado in Rio Blanco County. Rio Blanco differed from its predecessors because it used three 30-kiloton nuclear devices stacked vertically and detonated simultaneously. The objective of Rio Blanco was to determine if detonating the nuclear devices would result in the three bombs creating one “rubble chimney,” thus producing more natural gas.18   Technically speaking, Project Rio Blanco was a failure because “there was no communication between the top and the lower chimneys,” defeating the purpose of the design.19 

    The dynamics of the Rio Blanco political situation were dramatically different from Gasbuggy and Rulison. The energy crisis had hit home in Colorado during the preceding winter when “Denver public schools were briefly forced to curtail the school week because of (their) inability to heat school buildings.”20  Unlike Rulison, the strongest voices opposing Project Rio Blanco came not from environmentalists, but from industry. TOSCO (The Oil Shale Company) took center stage with the argument that the project would “destroy the opportunity to exploit overlying oil-shale formations.”21  

    However in the end, local residents appeared to be in favor of Rio Blanco.  In fact, “a Rio Blanco county commissioner expressed exasperation that some of Colorado’s elected representatives seemed to pay less attention to the local area residents who favored the project than to some ‘so-called experts who live as far away as Connecticut.’”  Project Rio Blanco was detonated because the resistance was muted—local residents favored the project and elsewhere the story got “lost amid coverage of Watergate and other stories of the day.”22 

    Project  Wagon  Wheel was to be Wyoming’s nuclear stimulation project, nestled in Sublette  County, Wyoming.  However, unlike its predecessors Wagon Wheel was not detonated.            

    Sublette County is located in southwestern Wyoming and in 1970 had a population of 3,755. There were four towns between ten and twenty miles from the blast site in Sublette County, Wyoming:

                                                            Town                         Population                                    

                                       Pinedale                           950                        

                        Marbleton                        220         

                                        Big Piney                          570                        

                     Boulder                             75     

    Wagon Wheel, had it been tested, would have detonated five nuclear devices sequentially from bottom to top between 9,220 feet and 11,570 feet below the surface of Sublette County. The detonations would have created an underground rubble chimney approximately 2,800 feet high and about 1,000 feet in diameter.23  The five nuclear devices would have been 100 kilotons each24  and detonated approximately five minutes apart.25   It was estimated by one geologist, William Barbat, that “the nuclear energy to be released in the stimulation of Wagon Wheel ... is about 35 times as great as the energy of the gas which is expected to be produced.”26 

    After the blast, El Paso would have waited between four and six months to allow for the decay of “short-lived radioisotopes” before test production of natural gas. Even then, there would be some release of radiation during the 325-day flaring of the well.  According to the AEC, “the resulting total maximum radiation dose which would be received by a local resident from the production testing activity is found to be a small fraction of the natural background radiation.”  The AEC did not anticipate contamination of groundwater either.27 

    Had the test been successful in stimulating natural gas, it would have been mild compared to what the AEC planned when El Paso started full field production. There could have been as many as forty to fifty nuclear detonations a year, some within a mile of Pinedale, Wyoming.28  Dr. Ken Perry, a University of Wyoming geologist and rancher, said the area could, “become the earthquake center of the world” based upon the AEC prediction.29 

                                                                                                                                *  *  *


    In 1954, the El Paso Natural Gas Company (EPNG) found a gas field between 7,500 and 10,700 feet below the surface south of Pinedale in Sublette County.30  El Paso drilled six wells and figured there were approximately four trillion standard cubic feet of natural gas in the field. However, the natural gas was in low-permeability sandstone formations and the available technology to fracture the rock did not justify building a pipeline to the field.31  A worker at the original site said, “You’ll have to blow the hell out of the rock to get the g- d- gas.”32  An oil field contractor, told Owen Frank, in the late 1950’s, “The only way they’ll get it out is to set off an atomic bomb down there.”33  El Paso proposed the  nuclear stimulation concept for the Pinedale unit to the AEC in 1958.34 

    In 1963 several government agencies agreed to a feasibility study of nuclear stimulation. In December, 1967, Gasbuggy, the first nuclear stimulation project, was detonated near Farmington, New Mexico. The results of the test explosion encouraged El Paso Natural Gas to sign a contract a year later to study Wagon Wheel.35  El Paso described Wagon Wheel as


...a joint effort between El Paso Natural Gas Company and the Federal Government of the United States of America to further develop the use of underground nuclear explosions to stimulate low permeability natural gas reservoirs.  Cooperating on the project are El Paso Natural Gas Company, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and the U.S. Department of Interior as specified in Contract No. AT(26-1)-422 between the United States of America and El Paso Natural Gas Company, dated December 24, 1968.36 


   There are conflicting dates as to when the project was started.  Some sources suggest that the project started January 24, 1968, when “a detailed project definition was begun by El Paso, the AEC, and the Department of the Interior to evaluate the potential of nuclear stimulation techniques in the Pinedale area.”37  

    The same document reveals that on July 30, 1969, the WASP (Wyoming Atomic Stimulation Project) project was started. It was “composed of seven independent oil companies, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of the Interior (and) began a detailed project definition of using nuclear explosions in the Pinedale, Wyoming, area.”38 

            But Wagon Wheel differed from Gasbuggy because “its goals include obtaining cost information as well as technical information.” Gasbuggy’s objectives were to determine the engineering, but not to be a profitable investment.39  

    Initially, the project gained little publicity in Wyoming. Apparently, the first article about Wagon Wheel appeared in the Casper Star-Tribune, the only statewide newspaper in Wyoming, on February 1, 1972.40 

    The Wagon Wheel test was scheduled for 197341  when it was announced initially.42   As time passed, the date for the test was postponed. On June 14, 1972, an article in the Casper Star Tribune noted that El Paso had delayed the test until 1974.43  A day later, a front-page story in the Rock Springs newspaper confirmed the delay. According to the article, El Paso had announced Wagon Wheel would not be conducted in 1973, and that 1974 might not be feasible.44 

             Less than a month later, Dr. James Schlesinger, then head of the AEC, predicted the test was at least five years away — in 1977.45   In September, the AEC announced that “the project is still in the design stage and no execution has been authorized as yet,” and that the test would probably not occur before fall 1974.46  Confusion continued; the project was planned for spring 1974 in October,47  while in December, it was “slated to take place sometime in 1975.”48 

    The exact date Wagon Wheel died is also unclear.  President Nixon’s budget for fiscal year 1974 did not include funding for tests under Plowshare, which included Wagon Wheel.49   By May 22, 1973, Wagon Wheel had “been shelved at least temporarily because of lack of funding.”50   According to one source, Nixon’s director of the AEC, Dr. Dixy Lee Ray51  “announced that Project Wagon Wheel was dead for the foreseeable future,” but a search of the references cited failed to turn up supporting evidence.52 

    The test-well drilled for Wagon Wheel was never used in a nuclear test but was employed by EPNG to conduct tests of “Massive Hydraulic Fracturing” (MHF) during 1974 and 1975.  MHF is a method where water is pumped into a well until the pressure of the water causes the rocks to fracture.  The study used the well originally drilled for Wagon Wheel,53  and concluded the MHF “technique employed [was] not commercially feasible.”54  

Public Participation

    It’s not really clear when the news about Wagon Wheel was made known to the public. However, on December 1, 1971, a letter was written to Wyoming Governor Stanley K. Hathaway referring to a November 8, 1971, Associated Press dispatch from Amchitka, Alaska. According to the letter, the AEC “was planning or conceiving of nuclear blasts in Wyoming.”  The author of the letter, whose identity was not revealed, urged the governor to “fight against any AEC doings in Wyoming.”55  Hathaway responded December 10:


I am not aware of any planned nuclear test blasts by the AEC for Wyoming.  I am confident that if the AEC plans such action that it will take the necessary precautions to protect the health and safety of Wyoming citizens and our environment.56 


    If Hathaway had not known about Wagon Wheel when he wrote the letter, he learned about it on February 1, 1972, the date the first article about Wagon Wheel was published in the Casper Star Tribune.57  Six days later the Casper Star-Tribune published the first editorial on the project. Titled, “Shaking Up Ecologists,” the paper noted “we can anticipate at least some murmurs of disapproval from conservationists.”  The editorial defended the project by noting “Similar nuclear stimulations, like Gasbuggy and Rulison have failed to shake up the Rockies — but there is always that prospect of shaking up the ecologists.” Ending on an upbeat note, the paper hoped the “experiment will contribute to relieving the future shortage of natural gas in this country.”58  

    Meanwhile, in Pinedale, the Wagon Wheel Information Committee (WWIC) was formed by a group of local residents, “to impartially gather all pertinent information regarding the Wagon Wheel Project.”59 As a result of their study, they opposed the nuclear stimulation project.

    Before arriving at that conclusion, the committee members performed extensive work. They consulted experts in various fields connected with petroleum exploration, geology, nuclear physics, and game and fish biology. They read and analyzed data submitted by a wide variety of organizations, including the Atomic Energy Commission, Lawrence-Livermore Laboratory, El Paso Natural Gas and others. 

    Information on both sides of the issue was made available to the people of Sublette County, through their library system. The committee sponsored public meetings, in order that the members might have the benefit of informed public opinion in reaching a conclusion.60             

    While the Casper Star Tribune continued its pro-Wagon Wheel stance until May 1972, it was evident the public, at least in Sublette County, did not agree with the paper. When, in a later editorial, the Casper Star Tribune stated “Emotional conservationists, as usual, grabbed the scene at a meeting in Pinedale,”61  the paper received a heated letter from Phyllis Birr,62  a member of the Wagon Wheel Information Committee.

    Countering the paper’s editorial about the March 20 meeting, Birr’s letter contended that the meeting, “was conducted on an intelligent and organized basis.” Birr added that the newspaper’s “attitude is one of total ignorance of the situation.”63  

    It was not Birr’s first letter to an editor about the proposal. The previous month, she wrote to High Country News, an environmental newspaper then based in Lander, Wyoming, commenting on an editorial by Tom Bell, the paper’s editor.64   Bell wrote that the planned atomic devices were “the sort of thing once dropped on an alien people another world away. Now it is being dropped in our laps.”65   Birr wrote to Bell telling about the WWIC:


We have formed a committee ... with the sponsorship of our County Commissioners...we urge all your readers to write to their elected representatives to protest this rape of our Country.  We feel that nuclear detonation is not the only answer to retrieving this natural gas.66 


    Neither the AEC nor El Paso Natural Gas were represented at the initial meeting of the WWIC where more than 500 people gathered to learn more about Wagon Wheel. Floyd Bousman and Sally Mackey were co-chairs. It was mentioned during the meeting the AEC had admitted, “if Pinedale were more populated, the gas stimulation would not be economically feasible.”67                             

    Shortly after the meeting, a local insurance agency used Wagon Wheel to their advantage.  They placed an ad with the word “Wagonwheel” in bold print at the top: “THERE, WE’VE CAUGHT YOUR ATTENTION. Why not drop in to discuss your insurance?”68  

    The Wyoming Wildlife Federation and the Green River Valley Cattlemen’s Association called a meeting for April 29, with AEC and El Paso representatives. Reportedly, the meeting was well attended  (“When the meeting got started...the gymnasium was perhaps a little more than half full but people continued to come in.”) It went on for five hours.69  Phillip Randolph, director of the El Paso Nuclear Group, (as well as several others from the company and AEC), assured residents there was “little potential danger.”70 

    Perhaps nothing shook the public confidence more than the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) issued in January 1972. The draft EIS contained a photograph of the well site during the drilling of the well.  The document covered the background of Wagon Wheel, probable environmental impact, “adverse environmental impact which cannot be avoided,” as well as alternatives and “environmental effects of contemplated future action.”71  The final EIS covered similar ground and included 91 pages of public comments and responses by the AEC.                     

    Once the final EIS was released, few critics considered it complete or adequate.72  U.S. Senator Gale McGee (D-Wyoming) decried the EIS, claiming it, “was premature, failed to cover the overall impact, and failed to comply with some criteria laid out for the preparation of such reports.”73        

    Randolph agreed the EIS was premature as it “contained language that was alarming to the layman ...the report was satisfactory to technical persons working in the field.”74   Whether or not Randolph was correct in his assessment of the EIS, it was followed by an announcement by El Paso that, “independent experts from Colorado State University are being engaged as a team of consultants to expand the bio-environmental studies already carried out.”75  However, the two experts, as well as the earlier EISs’, were blasted in an article in the Jackson Hole News:

    El Paso is only now being forced to undertake comprehensive studies to indicate the possible effects of their blast.

    That would be fine, if the studies appeared a bit more objective.  Buried in this week’s announcement we find that Dr. Keith Schiager, a CSU radiation ecologist, is to be on     the investigating team.  Sounds impressive until you remember that Dr. Schiager was one of the few scientists at a meeting held last spring at Big Piney who spoke in favor of the Wagon Wheel project.  Judging from this experience, can we expect Dr. Schiager to be objective?


    Unfortunately, Dr. Schiager doesn’t appear to be as much of a liability to the team as Dr. H. G. Fisser, range management expert from the University of Wyoming.  According to the El Paso release, “Previous studies by Dr. Fisser and others ... have indicated that the project Wagon Wheel detonations will not have observable effects upon the ecology and environment of the area.”76 

    This study was not the only one to surface after the EIS was released. A report by U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife biologists said “the location of the site should be re-evaluated with consideration for the possible ‘adverse effects’ it might have on fish in nearby streams.”77 

    In December 1972, the AEC announced that “information for a scientific decision on Project Wagon Wheel will not be available at least until late summer of 1974.”  AEC said it needed “continued scientific work in Wyoming ... before [it] could consider whether to proceed.”78   The actions by EPNG and the AEC did not appear to inspire confidence in the public.

    El Paso and AEC also came under fire for their attitude toward area bridges and irrigation systems. Randolph said he “questioned whether it was the company’s social responsibility to retain an engineering firm for ‘a quarter of a million dollars’ when only one or two ranchers use the bridge.”79   According to Randolph, four bridges were examined but,


    Our big problem is — how do you be responsible?  What is a socially responsible position?  Crossing a bridge to that one man whose living is dependent on crossing a river is damned important.  Whether ownership is by the public or a private individual, we will seek a way to work with those people affected.80 


    Technical studies noted in the EIS estimated the expected damage to be about $65,000, including significant damage to a highway bridge about 5.5 miles away.81  In 1971, Dames and Moore, “a company nationally recognized for its competence in the field of applied earth sciences,” conducted a study “to see if there would be an effect upon selected dams, reservoirs, canals, streams, buildings and other surface features as a result of an underground nuclear test.”82   However, the study had overlooked irrigation systems.               

    Floyd Bousman, local rancher who was co-chairman of WWIC, lived ten miles away in Boulder, Wyoming.  Bousman claimed the test would “destroy concrete irrigation structures on his ranch.” Randolph said the motion would be four feet at the well, “but only one-eighth of an inch at Bousman’s ranch.”83 

      Bousman, a commissioner of the Boulder Irrigation District, also objected to the EIS valuation of the Boulder Dam at $150,000. The dam, built in 1965, cost over $280,000 to construct, with an estimated replacement cost in 1973 of $430,000.84   The original EIS and technical studies by El Paso seemed inadequate, even to the company, as they saw fit to do additional study. In July 1972, a group was formed to inspect “all dams within 30 miles of the project location and all canals, control gates and siphons within 15 miles.”85 

    Dames and Moore returned during the summer of 1972. For an unstated reason, perhaps because they had omitted irrigation systems, their earlier study was not adequate. They were asked to do a “more detailed study,” taking into account comments from the AEC, county residents, and various federal and state agencies personnel.86 Bousman wrote to the Star Tribune:


    I am writing in regard to the recent press release by EPNG in which they list the dams, etc., which they are now going to study in conjunction with Dames and Moore, for possible damage from the Wagon Wheel Project.

    I wonder how many people realize that these are all things that EPNG and the AEC, in their environmental statements said had already been done, when in fact they had not been done.

    Is it any wonder there is such a large credibility gap?87


    WWIC continued opposition to the test throughout the fall. The organization conducted a “straw poll” during the 1972 general election. Although the vote had “no legal effect on the future of the planned nuclear detonations,” the results indicated the strength of the opposition to Wagon Wheel.88 Of the 1,670 people who voted in the general election, 1,230 chose to express an opinion about Wagon Wheel. “873 said they opposed Wagon Wheel, while 262 said they favored continuation of the project. Ninety-five individuals had no opinion.”89

    WWIC members, concerned that the straw poll results would be questioned, had the county sheriff’s department collect the ballots. Two ministers counted them. U. S. Representative Teno Roncalio (D-Wyoming) said it appeared that El Paso would “not live up to promises that it wouldn’t cram Wagon Wheel down the throats of Sublette County residents.”90

    Pinedale resident Mildred Delgado wrote to the Casper newspaper, claiming that if one were to add the 501 people who did not vote, the 95 who were undecided and the 262 who voted in favor of Wagon Wheel, they would comprise 49.6 percent. Those who voted against were just 50.4 percent. She pointed out that WWIC’s choice for U. S. Congress, Teno Roncalio, had lost Sublette County to his Republican challenger, Bill Kidd, by a vote of 900-761.91

            WWIC member Phyllis Birr responded quickly to the Delgado claim. “Since when do people who do not vote automatically register as a vote ‘for’ something?” she asked in her letter to the editor.92

            In December, officers of the WWIC sent a letter to El Paso officials, the AEC and members of the state’s congressional delegation, requesting a meeting. The groups decided to meet in the Washington offices of U. S. Senator Clifford P. Hansen (R-Wyoming), in February, 1973. Birr, Bousman, and other WWIC members arrived in Washington on February 4. Cong. Roncalio had arranged for them to meet with representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency the next day, in addition to meeting with the AEC and El Paso representatives on February 7.  Bousman also appeared on NBC’s "Today” show to help publicize the opposition to Wagon Wheel.93

    Even before the meeting, an AEC “official promised Wyoming citizens...he will ask the AEC head to consider making Project Wagon Wheel dependent on a citizen’s referendum.”94  It turned out that Roncalio was a step ahead of the committee, pressing for change within the AEC.

    While the exact date of Wagon Wheel’s death is murky, the direct cause appears clear. Roncalio, a staunch opponent of Wagon Wheel, had tried unsuccessfully throughout the summer to cut funding from the AEC budget for the project. In January, 1973, the congressman was appointed by House Speaker Carl Albert to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. “I sought this post to give Wyoming a voice in atomic energy developments, ranging from the proposed Project Wagon Wheel....,” Roncalio said.95

    Less than a week after his appointment to the committee Roncalio announced that the AEC budget for Plowshare programs did not “include funds for any test events in fiscal 1974.” On the Senate side, Hansen pointed out that Nixon’s budget “delayed Wagon Wheel until late 1977--at the earliest.” He added that even if funds were restored by Congress for the fiscal year 1974 budget, it was “rather apparent that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would impound those funds also.”96

    Roncalio claimed that the more study made of Plowshare, the sooner it was going to end:

    It appears to me that the more we study the entire Plowshare Program, the more it is doomed....I say that is because previous attempts at this type method have not been commercial.97

    In mid-May, 1973, Roncalio requested elimination of the $3.8 million for nuclear stimulation from the AEC budget.

    Despite years of research, including Projects Gasbuggy and Rulison, this technology has not produced one cubic foot of salable natural gas...the AEC should terminate this program and direct its attention to far more pressing needs in reactor programs.98

    Wagon Wheel already had been delayed by cuts in funding. Now, the entire concept of nuclear stimulation was about to be shelved. WWIC had succeeded in its goal. Wagon Wheel had been halted.

    Even if it had not been stopped by Roncalio, Bousman believed the project would not have continued because the public opposition was too great. “The people were willing to organize a county-wide or even statewide referendum and devote ourselves all our lives, if need be, to end this thing,” Bousman said.99

            The shaft drilled for the testing was used to test “massive hydraulic fracturing.” Nuclear devices, however, were never used at the site of Project Wagon Wheel.

    Wagon Wheel could be considered a case study of how people from outside of Wyoming have wanted to exploit the state for their ends and how local groups, such as the WWIC, can successfully oppose such actions. El Paso, as early as 1958, asked the AEC for assistance in extracting natural gas out of low-permeability sandstone formations near Pinedale, but contracts and publicity were not publicly known for at least 11 years.

            The threat of five nuclear detonations threw fear into a small community, inciting a group of ranchers and ecologists to join on a quest to stop the test of nuclear stimulation. Wagon Wheel was halted. The sword was not be a plowshare. It remained an unwanted implement of war.


1 Atomic Energy Commission, 1964 Financial Report, 17.

2 Isaiah 2:4

3  Evidence suggests it may not have been the first contract for nuclear stimulation. In 1963, El Paso, the AEC and the Department of the Interior jointly studied the feasibility of nuclear stimulation. See Frank Kreith and Catherine B. Wrenn, The Nuclear Impact: A Case Study of the Plowshare Program to Produce Gas by Underground Nuclear Stimulation in the Rocky Mountains. (Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1976), 13.

4 Atomic Energy Commission, 1972 Financial Report, 36. On June 4, 1971, Nixon delivered a “Special Message to the Congress on Energy Resources,” that incorporated the term “nuclear stimulation” while describing efforts to reduce the current shortage of natural gas.  In the message, Nixon states “this relatively clean form of energy is in even greater demand to help satisfy air quality standards.  Our present supply of natural gas is limited, however, and we are beginning to face shortages which could intensify as we move to implement the air quality standards.”  Nixon noted that federal effort to help alleviate the shortage included: “Progress in nuclear stimulation experiments which seek to produce natural gas from tight geologic formations which cannot presently be utilized in ways which are economically and environmentally acceptable.” Richard Nixon, Public Papers of the Presidents: Richard Nixon 1971, (GPO, 1971), 710.

 5 Kreith and Wrenn,  49.

 6 Kreith and Wrenn, 55.

 7 Kreith and Wrenn, 54.

 8 Kreith and Wrenn, 54.

 9 Kreith and Wrenn, 68.

 10 Today, a plaque marks the point of detonation on the surface: “Project Gasbuggy Nuclear Explosive Emplacement/Reentry Well (GB-ER) Site of the First United States Underground Nuclear Experiment for the Stimulation of Low-Productivity Gas Reservoirs. A 29-Kiloton Nuclear Explosive Was Detonated at a Depth of  4227 feet Below This Surface Location on December 10, 1967. No excavation, drilling, and/or removal of materials to a true vertical depth of 1500 feet is permitted within a radius of 100 feet of this surface location. Nor any similar excavation, drilling, and/or removal of subsurface materials between the true vertical depth of 1500 feet to 4500 feet is permitted within a 600-foot radius of T 29 N. R 4 W. New Mexico Principal Meridian, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, without U. S. Government Permission. United States Department of Energy  November 1978.” Bureau of Atomic Tourism, “Project Gasbuggy,” (, Author accessed site, March 23, 1998.

 11 Scott C. Yates, “The Day They Bombed Colorado,” Westword, (February 26, 1998), 23-24.

 12 Ibid., 24.

 13 Ibid.

 14 Kreith and Wrenn, 106.

 15 Yates, 27.

 16 Ibid., 27.

 17 Ibid., 23.

 18 Kreith and Wrenn, 125-126.

 19 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “Project Rio Blanco,” ( Site accessed March 24, 1998.

 20 Kreith and Wrenn, 126.

 21 Ibid., 137.

 22 Yates, 27.

 23 “AEC Supports Nuclear Blast Near Pinedale,” Casper Star Tribune, February 1, 1972, 2. The article refers to the blast in the past tense: “The blast was expected to result...”  Perhaps the author(s) had a vision that it would never actually occur.

 24 Each device would have been approximately five times as powerful as the World War II atomic bombs. “AEC Says Plans for ‘Wagon Wheel’ OK,” Casper Star Tribune, April 1, 1972, 11.

 25 Frank. “Dangers of Wagon Wheel,” Casper Star Tribune, May 10, 1972, 10.

 26 Mackey. “Who’s ‘Plowed Under’?” Casper Star Tribune, June 25, 1972, 5.

 27 “AEC Supports Nuclear Blast Near Pinedale.” Casper Star Tribune, February 1, 1972, 2.

 28 Frank. “Dangers of Wagon Wheel,” Casper Star Tribune, May 10, 1972, 9.

 29 Ibid.

 30 El Paso acquired its rights to the Pinedale Unit in 1954, the same year they discovered the reserves. El Paso Natural Gas Company, Project Wagon Wheel Technical Studies Report, ii.

 31 Frank. “‘Only way to get it out,’” Casper Star Tribune, May 9, 1972, 9.

32 “Work force of 2,000 seen for Wagonwheel,” Casper Star Tribune, February 14, 1972, 9.

 33 Frank, “‘Only way to get it out,’” Casper Star Tribune, May 9, 1972, 9. In 1972 Owen Frank was the State Editor for the Casper Star Tribune, but he does not specify what position he held in the late 1950s, except that he refers to himself as “this writer.”  In addition there is no evidence as to what position the oil field engineer held and with what company.

 34 El Paso Natural Gas Co., Project Wagon Wheel Technical Studies Report, 1971, ii.

 35 Frank, “‘Only way to get it out,’” Casper Star Tribune, May 9, 1972,  9. Ironically, while “Gasbuggy” project encouraged El Paso, a University of Colorado study of the second nuclear detonation, “Rulison,” decided it was an economic failure. The project produced $1.4 million in natural gas, but cost $11 million. “Rio Blanco Opposed,” High Country News, March 16, 1973, 11.

 36 El Paso Natural Gas Co., Project Wagon Wheel Technical Studies Report, 1971, ii.

37 Whan. 1973. A-3.

 38 Whan. 1973. A-4.

 39 El Paso Natural Gas Company, Project Wagon Wheel Technical Studies Report, 1971, ii.

 40 “AEC Supports Nuclear Blast Near Pinedale,” Casper Star Tribune, February 1, 1972, 2.

 41 “AEC Supports Nuclear Blast Near Pinedale,” Casper Star Tribune, February 1, 1972, 2.

 42 One article suggests that EPNG wanted to fire the test in 1972, but was set back by a lack of funds. “‘Only way to get it out,’”  Casper Star Tribune, May 9, 1972, 9.

      43 “Plowed under,” (editorial),Casper Star Tribune, June 14. 1972, 4.

      44 “No Wagon Wheel Blast Possible In ’73: EPNG,” Rock Springs Daily Rocket-Miner, June 15, 1972, 1.

       45 “AEC chief says 1977 for Wagon Wheel test,” Casper Star Tribune, July 8, 1972, 7.

      46 “AEC estimates damage from Wagon Wheel,” Casper Star Tribune, September 22, 1972, 13.

      47 “Wagon Wheel gets new questions,” Casper Star Tribune, October 3, 1972, 1.

      48 “Each WW well gives tax return,” Casper Star Tribune, December 2, 1972, 5.

      49 “AEC budget has no test funds,” Casper Star Tribune, January 31, 1973, 11.

      50 “Roncalio requests cutoff of gas stimulation money,” Casper Star Tribune, May 22, 1973, 11.

      51 Dr. Dixy Lee Ray became chairman of the AEC shortly before the WWIC went to Washington.

     52 Kreith, The Nuclear Impact, 168. The authors cite both the Rocky Mountain News, May 12, 1973, and the Denver Post, May 22, 1973. Additionally, the Casper Star Tribune appears not to have quoted Ray about Wagon Wheel during May 1973.. 

         53 El Paso Natural Gas Company, Pinedale Unit MHF Experiments Final Report, 2.

      54 Ibid., 1.

      55 Plumme, The Wagon Wheel Contention, 7.

      56 Plumme, The Wagon Wheel Contention, (printed in back of book, about p. 198).

      57 “AEC Supports Nuclear Blast Near Pinedale,” Casper Star Tribune, Feb. 1, 1972, 2.

      58 “Shaking Up Ecologists,” (editorial), Casper Star Tribune, February 7, 1972, 4.

     59 Wagon Wheel Information Committee, Statement of Opposition to Project Wagon Wheel. (Pinedale, Wyoming: Wagon Wheel Information Committee, n.d., c. 1973), 2.

      60  Ibid.

        61  “Welcome Wagon Wheel,” Casper Star Tribune, March 25, 1972, 6.

         62 Birr was also a journalist for the Pinedale Roundup, according to Sally Mackey. Mackey, phone interview by author, 1995.

      63 Birr, “Emotional Ecologist?” (letter to the editor), Casper Star Tribune, April 4, 1972, 5.

      64 High Country News is now based in Paonia, Colorado.

        65 Bell, “High Country,” High Country News, March 17, 1972, 2.

      66 Birr, “Help on Wagon Wheel,” (letter to the editor), High Country News, March 31, 1972, 15.

      67 “Little Support for Nuclear Project at Pinedale,” Casper Star Tribune, March 23, 1972, 1. Selection of the chairs was noted in “Bousman to be on ‘Today Show’,” Casper Star Tribune, February 6, 1973.

      68 Plumme, The Wagon Wheel Contention, 117.

      69 Ibid., 118.

      70 “Meeting Told Wagon Wheel Danger Slight,” Rock Springs Daily Rocket-Miner, May 2, 1972, 1.

      71 Atomic Energy Commission, Draft Environmental Statement: Wagon Wheel Gas Stimulation Project, 1972, i.

    72 The Associated Students of the University of Wyoming (ASUW) passed a resolution stating: “the AEC has not proved conclusively that radiation levels following the test would be safe, and alleged an AEC environmental impact study conducted on the project was biased and partial.” See “Students would delay gas blast,” Casper Star Tribune, May 18, 1972, 18.

     73 “McGee asks AEC revise evaluation,” Casper Star Tribune, August 23, 1972, 27.

     74 “No Wagon Wheel Blast Possible In ’73: EPNG,” Rock Springs Daily Rocket-Miner, June 15, 1972, 1.

       75 “Biology experts to study ‘Wagon Wheel’,” Casper Star Tribune, August 15, 1972, 11.

     76 “This Week’s Offering!” High Country News, Sept. 29, 1972, 3.

     77 “Wagon Wheel gets new questions,” Casper Star Tribune, October 3, 1972, 1.

       78 “Wagon Wheel data is two years away,” Casper Star Tribune, Dec. 17, 1972, 17.

     79 “‘Wagon Wheel’ Blast Might Damage Bridges,” Casper Star Tribune, February 13, 1972, 2.

     80 “Work force of 2,000 seen for Wagonwheel,” Casper Star Tribune, Feb. 14, 1972, 9.

     81 Tom Bell, “Wagon Wheel — Mark of Progress,” High Country News, March 31, 1972, 11.

      82 “El Paso continues work on Wagon Wheel project,” Casper Star Tribune, July 14, 1972, 13.

    83 Owen Frank, “Opinions Vary Widely On Wagon Wheel Blast,” Casper Star Tribune, May 2, 1972, 8.

    84 Statement of Opposition to Project Wagon Wheel, (Pinedale, Wyoming: Wagon Wheel Information Committee, 1973), 11.

    85 “Irrigation impact of blast checked,” Casper Star Tribune, July 27, 1972.

    86 “El Paso continues work on Wagon Wheel project,” Casper Star Tribune, July 14, 1972, 13.

    87 Bousman, ”Credibility gap?” (letter to the editor), Casper Star Tribune, August 3, 1972, 5.

    88 “Take straw vote on Wagon Wheel,” Casper Star Tribune, November 7, 1972, 11.

    89 “Straw vote opposes Wagon Wheel,” Casper Star Tribune, November 9, 1972, 17.

    90 “Teno chides El Paso on ‘promises,’” Casper Star Tribune, Dec. 7, 1972, 17.

     91 Delgado, “More ‘realistic’ account,” (letter to the editor), Casper Star Tribune, Dec. 18, 1972, 3. The official count shows Delgado figures were slightly in error--the total was 900-766.

    92 Birr, “Gross errors claimed,” (letter to the editor), Casper Star Tribune, Dec. 22, 1972, 6.  One other person wrote to refute Delgado’s comments.

    93  “AEC meeting is scheduled,” Casper Star Tribune, January 9, 1973, 9; “EPA-Wagon Wheel meeting Feb. 5,” Casper Star Tribune, January 31, 1973, 11; “Bousman to be on ‘Today’ show,” Casper Star Tribune, February 6, 1973, 9.

    94 “Wagon Wheel vote to be considered,” Casper Star Tribune, February 6, 1973, 1.

    95 “Roncalio loses fight to stop Wagon Wheel,” Casper Star Tribune, June 10, 1972, 10; “Teno joins group on atomic energy,” Casper Star Tribune, January 27, 1973, 12.

    96 “AEC budget has no test funds,” Casper Star Tribune, Jan. 31, 1973, 11; “Nixon budget delays Wagon Wheel plans,” Casper Star Tribune, February 3, 1973, 7. The second article referred to $2.7 million that had been impounded from Plowshare in fiscal year 1973. Impoundment is a procedure where the President directs that funds appropriated by Congress not be spent. Such actions are for savings, not program elimination.

    97 “AEC budget has no test funds,” 11.

    98  “Roncalio requests cutoff of gas stimulation money,” Casper Star Tribune, May 22, 1973, 11.

    99 “AEC may drop Wagon Wheel,” Casper Star Tribune, February 9, 1973, 11; Bousman, telephone interview by author, December 12, 1995.


Adam Lederer, a doctoral student at Indiana University, earned his M.A. from the University of Wyoming. This article first appeared in Annals of Wyoming (Summer 1998). It is adapted from Lederer’s master’s thesis, Using Public Policy Models to Evaluate Nuclear Stimulation Projects: Wagon Wheel in Wyoming. (University of Wyoming, April 1998). The author wishes to thank the members of the Wagon Wheel Information Committee for providing him with information for this article.