Written by Dave Page
Five Spectacularly Failed Megaprojects
From economy destroying colonisation projects, to failed scientific endeavours, and promised walls. Today we will look at five of the world’s most epically failed megaprojects.
5. The Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste
As discussed in a previous megaprojects post, the Yucca Mountain Repository was planned to be located about 80 miles (129 km) away from the Las Vegas Valley. The facility, once completed, would have consisted of a series of tunnels buried about 350 m beneath the mountain. These tunnels would have been used to safely store nuclear waste, such as spent nuclear fuel from power plants and high-level radioactive waste, including the left-over material from the dismantling of nuclear weapons.
The project was officially approved by Congress in 2002 but plans for the site were actually born out of the 1982 ‘nuclear waste policy act’. There were originally nine different sites that were investigated as possible locations for this facility, but, in 1986, the list was narrowed down to only three. The Western U.S. – Hanford in eastern Washington State, a site in the Texas panhandle southwest of Amarillo, and Yucca Mountain in southwestern Nevada. Congress suspended the Selection process in 1987 stating that Yucca Mountain was the only site that would now be considered.
The project suffered many setbacks, mainly due to protests by members of the public and both regional and federal politicians. Also, Yucca Mountain is on Western Shoshone treaty land and the Western Shoshone Nation was, quite understandably, less than pleased with the idea and they too added their voices to the protest. Concerns were also raised with regards to the proposed methods of transporting all of this radioactive waste across the country with one transport advisor to the state of Nevada saying that it presented a serious risk to members of the public.
As a result of these combined protests, federal funding was withdrawn in 2011 under President Obama’s administration and, despite several attempts to restart the program. All that currently exists at the site is a 5-mile exploratory tunnel. It is estimated that over the years the project has cost the American taxpayers approximately $13.5 billion, and at this moment in time it looks highly unlikely that this project will ever be completed.
As it currently stands, nuclear waste is being stored in concrete and steel casks at reactor sites across America.
4. The Superconducting Supercollider
The Superconducting Supercollider or the ‘Desertron’ was originally designed to be the world’s largest particle accelerator. Had it actually been completed; it would have had almost 3 times the power output of the Large Hadron Collider located in Geneva Switzerland.
So, what exactly is a particle Accelerator?
A Particle Accelerator is a device which, through the use of specialised electromagnets, can accelerate charged particles, such as protons or electrons, to speeds close to that of the speed of light.
When these collide with similarly charged particles going in the opposite direction, it is possible to observe the creation of new matter. Without the use of such devices scientists would have never discovered the existence of the Higgs boson or the top quark. Both of these discoveries have played a large part in building our current understanding of the origin of the universe.
The idea of building the supercollider was first seriously proposed in 1983 and, after four years of lobbying, Congress approved the requested $4.4 billion that it was believed would be necessary to complete the project. Construction began in 1991 in Waxahachie, Texas. 24 km or about 15 miles of tunnels and access shafts were excavated and supporting buildings covering 18,600 square meters were built at a cost of over $2 billion.
However, by this point the projected final cost of the project had risen to approximately $12 billion. Financial reports from the time indicate quite frankly reckless misappropriation of funds, with approximately $100,000 being spent on things like Christmas parties, corporate lunches, and the installation and upkeep of office plants. This, combined with the disinterest of any other countries to invest, and the huge amount of money that America was now pumping into the International Space Station, lead to the entire project being cancelled in October of1993.
Many American physicists are of the opinion that, had the Accelerator been completed, the Higgs Boson particle would have been discovered many years earlier. The site was eventually sold in 2012 for $4 million to a chemical handling company but will always remain one of the finest examples of Poor financial planning in American scientific history.
3. The Darien Scheme
As failed projects go, this one is one of the greatest of all time! It is not unfair to say that the Darien Scheme most likely changed the entire history of Scotland as we know it. During the 1690s, Scotland would attempt to establish a colony in Darien (modern day Panama) and from there construct an overground trade route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
At this historic crossroads, although England and Scotland shared a monarch, they were still largely independent when it came to matters of politics and economics. In fact, under the English navigation acts, Scotland was deemed to be a foreign country, and this prevented them from benefiting from trade agreements set up between England and the rest of the world. So when, in 1695, the idea of establishing a Scottish East India company was suggested it is not at all surprising that plans were swiftly made and actioned. So popular was the scheme that Scotland invested approximately £500,000 which equated to about half the available national capital.
It was with great excitement that the first 1,200 people set sail for Darien from Leith harbour on 12 July 1698. Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived. The colonists had been led to believe that Darien was a perfect location from which to establish trade routes with the rest of the world based on incorrect reports from sailors and pirates. Alas, the stark reality was that Darien was a hostile land infested with mosquitoes and with very few sources of food. After only seven months 400 of the original colonists were dead and all the rest of them were in very poor health. It was decided that the entire undertaking should be abandoned, and the remaining pioneers began the arduous journey back to Scotland. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the Scottish problems. Due to a complete inability to communicate with those back home, two further expeditions launched before the first group arrived back in Scotland.
Out of the 16 ships that were sent, only one ever returned. The loss of the £500,000 investment left Scotland financially destitute, and it is believed that this caused such extreme disillusionment in the Scottish Parliament that it led to the 1777 Act of Union with England.
2. The Saint Francis Dam
Built in San Francisquito Canyon the Saint Francis Dam was the brainchild of self-taught architect William Mulholland.
Mulholland appeared, at the time, to be the obvious choice to lead this project having previously both designed and worked on the Los Angeles aqueduct.
This 233 mile ‘or 375 km’ structure required nearly 4000 workers to complete and has been compared in complexity to the building of the Panama Canal.
Completed on May 4, 1926, the Dam was built as part of a reservoir which would supply water to the nearby city of Los Angeles. Standing nearly 200 feet tall, 700 feet long and covering 600 acres, it was designed to hold back 12 billion gallons or approximately 53,500,000 metric tons of water. It was the largest arch supported dam in the world.
Less than two years later, during a daily inspection the dam was found to be leaking a large amount of muddy water. This indicated that there may be a problem with the foundations. Mulholland was immediately contacted and rushed to the site. However, upon arrival he decided that the leak was coming from somewhere else, and the foundations were fine. At 11:58 pm on the same evening most of the dam collapsed, sending a tidal wave of water which destroyed over 1200 homes, killed thousands of livestock and took the lives of more than 450 people.
Although Mulholland would be cleared of all charges, the inquest report would say that ‘construction and operation of a great dam should never be left to the sole judgement of one man, no matter how eminent’. The report would go on to say that, ‘The failure of the St. Francis Dam was due to defective foundations.’ Although Mulholland had been cleared, his reputation was in tatters, and he would go on believing himself to be responsible until his death in 1935.
It would be another 60 years after his death before his name was completely cleared. In a book titled “The Saint Francis Dam Disaster Revisited” geological engineer J. David Rogers would write, ‘the dam had been partially built on an ancient landslide site, which shifted under the massive weight of the dam.’
He would go on to say, in an interview with the LA Times that ’Considering the technology available at the time, there was no way he or any of the people working for him would have known about this gigantic landslide.’
In spite of this testimony, there are still people today who believe that the blame for the entire tragedy rests solely with Mulholland.
1. Donald Trump’s Proposed Wall
No list of failed megaprojects would be complete without the inclusion of former President Donald Trump’s proposed 2,000-mile wall on the Mexican border with the United States.
During his election campaign, Donald Trump promised “a big, beautiful wall”. This wall, he said, would “prevent the flow of illegal immigrants and drug traffickers that come into the United States every day”. Not only did he promise that this would be built, but he also promised that it would be Mexico, not the United States that would foot the bill.
Midway through his campaign, he shortened the length of the wall by approximately 1000 miles and, by the time of his State of the Union address the promised wall had shrunk again and would now be “substantially more than 500 Miles”.
Sometime later, during an interview with reporters aboard Air Force one, President Trump would again change the proposed designs of the wall saying that:
‘The wall needs to be see-through, because drug dealers may otherwise throw large bags of drugs over the wall to the other side, and hit innocent passers-by.’
It was around this time that previously mentioned plans to cover the wall in solar panels were also quietly dropped. So, how much of this wall was actually built?
According to a BBC article published in 2020, ‘Any calculation of the miles of new wall constructed by Mr Trump and his administration depends very much on the definition of the words “new” and “wall”.’
Before he became president, there were 654 miles or about 1000 km of barriers already constructed along the border. Although the Trump administration claims to have built 452 miles (727 km) of new wall, in reality almost all of this simply replaces barriers that already existed. The actual amount of wall built where there was no existing barrier is 80 miles or 129 km. However, because this includes both primary and secondary structures, it only covers 40 miles or 64 km. Furthermore, Mexico has contributed exactly zero dollars to this project, leaving the American taxpayers to pay the remaining fifteen billion dollars.
Even if we include the hundreds of miles of replacement wall, this roughly equates to $33 million per mile. Although it is notoriously difficult to calculate these things, it is estimated that the Great Wall of China, was constructed at a cost of approximately $13 million per mile.
In 2021, President Biden permanently halted the project but, throughout the south-western borderlands, there are slowly rusting stacks composed of millions of dollars’ worth of steel girders. Once destined to form part of the wall, they now stand in silent tribute to one of America’s most epic failed megaprojects.