Steven Chu, the secretary in charge of the Department of Energy, needs to get the agency’s historian on the phone. Then he needs to have a word with the directors of the nation’s three top weapons laboratories: Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore.
A side call should go to the Department of Energy’s office at the Nevada Test Site.
If he had made those calls, Chu, a physicist, might have been less swift to reject the nuclear option on stemming the oil hemorrhage in the Gulf of Mexico. We do not know why the idea of nuclear intervention was rejected out of hand. Was it Chu’s choice or did word come down from the White House that there would be no nuclear blast under the gulf? My guess is that the White House made the call.
Although the Soviets claimed they used a nuclear blast to tame an out-of-control gas well that burned for three years, the real expertise in using nuclear detonations for civil engineering resides in the DOE.
From 1958-73, the Atomic Energy Commission—later subsumed into the DOE —had a very active civil engineering program called Operation Plowshare. The program grew out of the national exuberance for all things nuclear that prevailed in the 1950s and into the 1960s, when public opinion began to turn and enthusiasm for government science wilted.
Initially Operation Plowshare (named for the biblical injunction to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks) fathered some pretty radical ideas, like using controlled nuclear blasts to lower mountains. Others included widening the Panama Canal, building a new Central American canal though Nicaragua, and carving a new bay in Alaska. Finally, the project’s goal was narrowed to stimulating natural gas production.
In all there were 27 detonations, most of them at the nuclear test site in Nevada; but there were two in Colorado and two in New Mexico. Every test had its own name and the size of the charge ranged from 105 kilotons (code-named Flask) to 0.37 kilotons (code-named Templar).
The last and most ambitious test, which took place outside Rifle, Colo., and was code-named Rio Blanco, consisted of three linked detonations of 33 kilotons each. The technique mirrored conventional blasting with sequential charges. And the idea was that gas would be driven from cavity to cavity, concentrating it for extraction in the last cavity.
Radioactive contamination of the gas doomed the whole idea. But what worked were the detonations themselves.
A good deal is known, somewhere in the archives of the DOE and its laboratories, about how to detonate safely underground and what happens when you do.
Three things happen after a detonation: an area becomes vitrified, a much larger area is reduced to rubble, and there is a cavity into which much of the rubble falls. Sounds like what you want in the Gulf of Mexico, eh?
At the time of Operation Plowshare, most of the data was classified. Much of it has since been made available to an apathetic world.
Driven by a complex mixture of guilt over creating nuclear weapons and real enthusiasm for the science, there is no doubt that silly things were undertaken in the early days of civilian nuclear experimentation. But that does not mean that the devices did not work or that the science was deficient. Or that it cannot be used for better purposes today.
President Obama and BP have said that the best minds are working on engineering solutions to the Gulf disaster. So it seems strange that the truly high-tech one has received short shrift.
I covered the last three years of Operation Plowshare as a reporter, and I never heard a whisper that any of the 27 detonations failed. It was the mission that was in doubt.
As for lingering effects, the government has issued natural gas drilling licenses within three miles of some experiments, and in one case within a mile of where the nuclear blast took place years ago. Apparently, nothing to worry about.
Institutional memory is a terrible thing to waste. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
Linda Gasparello says
None of the Plowshare detonations failed, but Gasbuggy came close. The a/c unit that was supposed to cool the nuclear device failed and the temperature at the bottom of the shaft rose to over 200F. The site was abandoned for several weeks while the possibility of damage to the device was assessed. It was finally successfully detonated, generating a seven foot ground wave propagating more than two miles.
Now, transfer that more than a mile beneath the Gulf. What if the device fails to detonate? What if the detonation generates a wave?
There is currently no infrastructure for such a project in place… no people, equipment, or plans. No environmental assessment has been conducted. No device is ready; in fact, we don’t even know what size device (or devices) would be needed. Just getting ready for such a detonation could take several months, longer than the relief wells are projected to need.
The Plowshare detonations were designed to make holes and fracture gas formations, not seal a well. You asked if we wanted a rubble-filled cavity; no, we want a sealed tube.
Yes, gas wells are being drilled closer and closer to the old Plowshare sites, and so far – SO FAR – no high radiation levels have been encountered But they were found immediately after the blasts, in the gas. Gasbuggy produced about 295 million cubic feet of gas; no one wanted it because of the radioactivity. It was flared off.
You may have a point. A nuclear detonation may be the answer. But we don’t know and simply cannot risk it now.
Linda Gasparello says
This is a dumb idea, that is why is was rejected. There is a proven way to stop the oil leak and it is being used. It is not radio active and will not contaminate the environment with radio activity. Nukes have been tried in Russia with a 4 out of 5 success ratio. They have all been on land (not in 5000 ft of water)and carefully laid, it sure messed up the formations in the ground, and 80% success is not good enough for the Gulf of Mexico.
6/19/2010 8:47 PM CDT
Linda Gasparello says
I’m sure the blast would work, but a subsurface nuclear blast would irradiate tons of seawater, silt and sand and redeposit it throughout the region.
You could google the multiple test shots at Bikini Atoll to get an idea..
6/19/2010 5:33 PM CDT
Linda Gasparello says
I may not be the the brightest of the bunch but even I see no logic in your argument for a nuke…although you make a sound case for the government having ignored the past, I can give you one as well…
Early on in this crisis the US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen claimed that the BP people were the experts as to how to go about cleaning up and stopping the oil mess…at the time there was no reason not to believe him.
As the many people across the country stepped up to convey they had a method for clean up, such as Kevin Costner, there was one guy out there that really got ignored and from my perspective, had the best idea and plan – but what’s more – the track record of success!
Microbes…those little critters eat up the oil and then become food for the living in the water…simply apply the substance on the water where the oil is and that’s it, it does the rest.
Despite the on going set backs of the hole it self, had this been instituted immediately when the US Coast Guard became involved…who knows how much better this disaster would be at this time.
Why was this so important to mention the US Coast Guard? Back in 1989 when Mexico suffered the worst oil spill at the time –
IT WAS THE US COAST GUARD THAT WENT IN AND CLEANED UP THE MESS IN SIX WEEKS WITH MICROBES!!!!!
Go to: http://www.SpillFighters.com – The Texas Land Office and Texas Water Commission successfully used ‘oil eating’ microbes to clean up large oil spills in just weeks. Microbes hunt down and eat the toxic oil and leave only a biodegradable waste that is non-toxic to humans and marine life. Marshland and beaches were pristine again in just weeks!
We are all being lied to! This clean up was so successful! Watch the video, at 3:14 and again at 3:54 you will see it is the US Coast Guard doing the work.
Have you heard Michio Kaku explain why a nuke is “not” a good idea?
I’m sorry to say to you but I believe his argument is much more plausible…BP went where no one should have gone, rupturing the mother load of oil pockets that by now has “proven” to be much larger than originally believed at first.
Using common sense, simply rationalize this: The pressure at where the oil is breached is estimated to be more than 10 times the average well = 20-70k ppsi…there is no technology on earth, man-made or otherwise, that can capsulate that kind of pressure…after over two months now do you realize that the pressure has not subsided one bit!
After all the oil that has been released, the pressure remains constant, do you have any idea what that means, 1 – in and of itself and 2 – if it is nuked?