Operation Plowshare and the nuclear option

After World War II concluded, the United States government established a program called “Operation Plowshare.” This program was intended to use nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes. The irony here is obvious: nuclear weapons were the most destructive option ever invented by man, and they were designed to solve the complex problems associated with fighting and the end of World War II. Subsequently, during a time of relative peace, the government sought to advance nuclear technology by promoting nuclear explosions to accomplish projects that would be viewed as useful by the public. Various nonmilitary projects were planned under this program with regard to blasting, mining, construction, and science. Not all of the planned projects were carried out, but some (about 30) were. For example, projects were advanced to create a new harbor in Alaska; widen the Panama Canal; create a new canal through Nicaragua; build highways in mountainous areas; connect rivers and aquifers; create caverns for the storage of water, natural gas, and petroleum; produce steam to generate electricity; produce useful radioisotopes; and mine shale oil and natural gas.

Some of the proposed projects were complex and involved salvos. In salvo testing, more than 1 nuclear explosion was involved, the devices were placed in a certain proximity to each other, and nuclear bombs were detonated at nearly the same time. One example of this type of explosion design involved the release of natural gas from “tight rocks” (like fracking). Several explosive devices were stacked one above the other at various depths beneath the surface, and they were detonated together, all for the purpose of creating a tubular cavern into which natural gas was released. It was hoped that any radioactive material would be captured in the molten rock and would sink to the bottom of the tube, and the natural gas at the top could be piped to cities in California. Unfortunately, after several such tests were conducted, it was clear that the natural gas was radioactive, and piping it to homes in California would not be financially feasible or supported by the public. Eventually, because of changing public opinion about the perils of radioactivity, Operation Plowshare was discontinued in 1977, after more than $770,000,000 was spent.

In recent times, a relatively new term, the “nuclear option,” has been used in relation to other complex problems. Notably, the term has been used to describe a parliamentary process whereby the rules of the United States Senate are changed so that a simple majority (51 votes) is required to confirm a nomination instead of a supermajority (60 votes). In 2013, this affected persons nominated for executive branch positions and federal judges; in this case, the Democrats were in the majority in the Senate and supported the rule change. In 2017, the same rule change was made with regard nominations for the Supreme Court; in this case, the Republicans were in the majority in the Senate and supported the change.

The basis for the initial supermajority vote requirement was a desire to enlist some bipartisan support for candidates. The belief was that candidates who were somewhat moderate in their views would be more likely to engender a measure of bipartisan support. Nowadays, the Senate is polarized, and neither party seems to trust the other. Under the new rules, a more ideologic candidate could be selected as the nominee and confirmed by a simple majority vote. The most troublesome issue is that the present rules will be applied to all future Senate considerations; the majority party has greater influence. Also, public sentiment, sometimes fickle, may also be more influential under these conditions.

This rule change is described as the “nuclear option” because it is thought to be analogous to adopting the most extreme option in warfare. It is considered a decision of last resort and an unthinkable final recourse. Overall outcomes can be predicted but cannot be controlled after such a change.

Elsewhere in the politics of today, “nuclear option” is in widespread use again; unfortunately, its contemporary use is associated with potential war between nations.

Now at this point, you may be wondering what all this has to do with orthodontics. Although it may not seem obvious to you, orthodontists solve problems all the time, individually in their practices, and collectively as a specialty and as an organization.

When we are confronted with well-structured problems that can be defined easily, and have specific goals, clearly defined solution paths, and clear expected solutions, this is not too difficult; these are considered simple problems that can be fairly easy to solve. For example, if the phone is not being answered efficiently because the practice has grown, the options explored might include hiring additional staff, retraining the current staff, or improving the technology available to the staff. In this situation, the nuclear option would not seem appropriate. . . firing everyone (blowing it all up) and hiring a whole new staff would not be a normal option; neither would turning patients away.

On the other hand, not all problems that we face are simple. Some problems are complex and involve the following: intransparency (some variables are not observable), polytely (multiple goals), complexity (many variables that must be considered), connectivity of the variables (some variables affect others), dynamic developments (some problems worsen over time), and time-delayed effects (every variable may not be apparent initially). Because solving complex problems is so difficult, it may seem that the nuclear option might be considered.

On occasion, the American Association of Orthodontists considers whether its governance needs to change. In my view as an observer of the officers and trustees, there is evidence that these people are excellent problem solvers, and there is no evidence that they ever consider using the nuclear option to solve a problem. They encounter problems and develop strategies by methodically seeking input from others and reflecting on the matters at hand; they are calculating and controlled in considering their options, and are always seeking solutions that involve the common good. They seek opportunity, encourage innovation, and work toward growth so as to create and sustain momentum for orthodontists, the specialty, and the organization. They seem to be reasonably effective and efficient in all their work.

Of course, there have been, are, and always will be contrarians seemingly opposed to things, or all things, that are occurring or will occur. They tend to direct their thoughts and speeches in a negative way: they espouse that the end is near for orthodontic practices, for the specialty, for the Association, and even for the human race. Sometimes they are eager to predict the future; occasionally they are right, but often they are wrong. . . very wrong (see the quotes). They also seem to argue that their ideas are the only correct ones. Sometimes they appear to say that the only way for orthodontics to survive is to invoke the nuclear option. . . blow it up and then put it all back together according to their ideas, directions, and level of hubris.

Somehow, this situation reminds me of “Chicken Little,” a folk tale for children. According to the story, an acorn fell from a tree and struck Chicken Little on the head. He believed that this event means that the sky is falling and the world is coming to an end; he decides to go on a journey to tell the king. Along the way, the chicken tells other animals what is happening, and they join him. In the end, this is a story about a hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent. Of course, there are multiple versions of this tale: one suggests that this is an example of courage and not being “chicken.” In another, it is tale suggesting that one should not believe everything that one hears. How one interprets events, and acts on them, appears to determine the quality of the derived truth and the eventual outcome.


“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

“Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

“Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within ten years.”

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”

“I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”

“Apple is already dead.”

“The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt.”

“Two years from now, spam will be solved.”

“7-inch tablets are dead on arrival.”

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Dec 10, 2018 | Posted by in Orthodontics | Comments Off on Operation Plowshare and the nuclear option
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