Talk about conviction. Now that the flow of oil in the Gulf
of Mexico is growing and containment efforts are proceeding
at a snail’s pace, the talk of shutting down the leak through brute force—the
nuclear option—has intensified among outspoken pundits, energy experts, and
But top officials say “no way”, go so far
as to call the proposal “crazy”. As a workable option, though, it’s not all
that radical. The force of an explosion of a several kiloton nuclear device, if
positioned properly, should snap the well shut.
The logistical problem, discounting the certain public
outcry, is where to touch off the device to make sure it works as advertised. According
to the few successful efforts by the Russians in the 1960s to extinguish
gas-well fires, the detonations were positioned around 1,000 feet underground just
meters from the well bore. In the case of BP’s leaking well, the bore is at
6,000 feet. Detonating the device beneath 1,000 feet of rock would theoretically
turn the rock to glass, plugging the hole permanently. Is there a risk the
blast could simply create a radioactive oil leak, or make the leak even worse?
Yes. But even Tony Hayward concedes in his testimony
before Congress today that his company has been more successful in rounding
up the oil than in stopping the flow. Which is to say, not at all.
BP, of course, has little other choice. The U.S. government
would have to be willing to take over the effort for the nukes to appear on the
table, and BP would probably go bankrupt before then. But what if it were to
come to that? For brief time in the early 1960s Project Plowshare explored the
use of nuclear bombs for peacetime activities. At the time, the deleterious effects
of airborne radiation were not widely appreciated, and it was thought that,
like dynamite, fissile explosions could revolutionize large-scale engineering
projects. There were plans in the U.S.
to use Peaceful Nuclear Explosions—the name for the official program which had
several restrictions, including yields under 150 kT—to accomplish major tasks,
like widening the Panama Canal and creating an artificial harbor in Alaska, in the blink of
an eye. The Russians, with their transparently named “Nuclear
Explosions for the National Economy” program, went further by actually
conducting projects like diamond mining (few diamonds, but lots of radiation),
river damming (the infamous 140-kT Chagan
test that mostly served to anger the U.S.), and seismological shifting for the
oil and gas industry (a near calamity when the Volga threatened to flood the explosion
In the U.S.,
aboveground tests quickly soured on a public that by then was well aware of the
hazards of radiation poisoning, so the tests were realigned to help the energy industry
by stimulating the flow of natural gas in difficult deposits. The first such
test, Project Gnome, was a failure after the desired flow didn’t appear and the
public expressed some understandable reservations over being supplied with
radionuclide-laced gas. There were subsidiary experiments. The effort to pipe
water through the superhot cavity to generate steam for electricity was
inspired by the finding that 30% of the energy released by the bomb was
converted to heat in the rock, but rapid cooling would kill the steam
generation quickly. Another aim to recover useful radionuclides at the
explosion source was also impracticable.
But the seismological portion of the experiment was
considered a success, and Project Gnome, believe it or not, pointed the way to
a theory that a bomb could be used to reduce the viscosity of oil in the
Athabascan Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada, and aid
recovery. Obviously, that theory was never explored as Project Plowshare fizzled.
This was probably fortunate as the Russians met with calamity after calamity. Even
now, natural gas wells near the Nevada Test Site have to skirt around
radioactive cavities created by hundreds of nuclear tests.
If we want to plug the well tomorrow, a nuclear blast is the
best way to get it done. But peacetime nukes have too much liability. The U.S. has signed
numerous treaties that would stay its hand, even if it were in charge of the
oil recovery and leak stoppage effort, which it isn’t. And we must consider the
3.1-kT Project Gnome, which created radioactive leaks despite being detonated
more than 1,100 feet underground. We can’t discount the fact that nobody has
ever bothered trying to detonate a nuke under nearly a mile of ocean.
The option of using a Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb—a conventional
explosive—to collapse the well pipe has also recently
been floated. But again, the risk of worsening the leak and destroying the
borehole is high. Higher, perhaps, than with a nuclear bomb.
This much is clear, however. If the relief well and cap
strategy works—and some say a relief well has a 95% chance of neutralizing a
leaky well—we will have a dodged a bullet. And a potential nuclear calamity on
top of an oily one. Just give it some time.