Haven History: Project Ketch: Nuking Clinton County

By Lou Bernard in Arts & Entertainment

February 16, 2012

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Lou Bernard/Eagle Eye

As the semester begins, all of you are going to classes. Many of you are thinking how little you’d like to go back to school. A lot of you are having some variation of the same thought: I wish someone would drop a nuke on this place.

Guess what? It’s already been tried.

You probably think I’m kidding.

The date was June 6, 1967. The headline in the Lock Haven Express read “A-Blast Study in Orviston-Keating Area Is Confirmed.”

The Columbia Gas Company of Pittsburgh, working with the Atomic Energy Commission, announced that they were proceeding with a study. In order to make an underground storage tank for gas, they were considering setting off a nuclear device to hollow out the space. The study, known as “Project Ketch,” was taking place in Clinton County. The site of the nuclear explosion was planned as just south of Renovo, near the Clinton County line along Route 144.

Seriously. A gas company and the government decided to set off a nuclear explosion in central Pennsylvania. It’s hard to see how that could have gone wrong.

Eleven men from the AEC’s Nevada office came out to investigate the possibility. One week later, State Representative Max Bossert paid a visit to the Nevada office. Bossert was a local politician, teacher, and community leader. He was highly respected, a graduate of LHU, married to Edyth Hoy Bossert, a local teacher and artist.

Bossert traveled west as a guest of the AEC, and returned saying that many of his concerns had been settled. He was a witness to a demonstration nuclear blast in New Mexico, and came out convinced that Project Ketch would be harmless.

The public protested, vehemently and immediately. The area they were discussing was a big hunting, fishing, and hiking spot, and people with hunting camps as far away as Sugar Valley came to meetings to fight the nuclear blast. One of the most vocal protestors was Fred Iobst, a retired forest ranger from Renovo. Iobst attended meetings, pointing out consistently that everyone gained from this plan except the locals who would be subjected to possible radiation.

Another professional invited to explore the possibilities was Dr. David Ulmer, science director at Lock Haven University. Ulmer Planetarium is named after him. He investigated Project Ketch, and said he was convinced it would be safe. Because if there’s anyone you want to trust your life to, it’s a tenured professor.

Even the high schools got involved. Local student Fran Decker participated in her debate team at the time, with one of the activities to argue for or against Project Ketch.

Phase One of the project consisted of leasing the land, drilling a hole three thousand feet deep, and studying the layers of rock in the area. Phase Two involved actually setting off the bomb. You’ll notice that they were a little vague on which phase involved placing the bomb there.

As the debate progressed, Lock Haven got a visit from State Secretary of Commerce Clifford Jones, who tried to reassure the public. He informed everyone, through the press, that the governor had only given permission for Phase One, and wouldn’t permit Phase Two unless it was deemed to be safe. (Again, nobody had clarified whether this included delivering an actual nuke.) “If fears are not allayed,” said Jones,”There will be no detonation.”

“Detonation.” There’s a word you don’t want to hear applied to your community.

The debate ranged hotly for a little over a year, until July of 1968. At that point, Columbia Gas sent a letter to the governor, declaring they’d “re-evaluated” Project Ketch, and were withdrawing it from Clinton County. After the local labor union delivered a petition with thousands of signatures, the company chose to give up on it magnanimously, all the while insisting it would have been completely safe.

In the end, Ketch never happened. And everything in Clinton County went back to its usual abnormal normalcy.

As the semester proceeds, you’ll have days when you don’t want to get out of bed. You’ll have classes you hate, and bad weather, and terrible assignments.

But look at the bright side.

At least nobody’s tried to nuke your community lately.

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