Nuke That Oil Well
Back on May 4:
As BP prepares to lower a four-story, 70-ton dome over the oil gusher under the Gulf of Mexico, the Russians — the world’s biggest oil producers — have some advice for their American counterparts: nuke it. Komsomoloskaya Pravda, the best-selling Russian daily, reports that in Soviet times such leaks were plugged with controlled nuclear blasts underground. …
The Soviet Union, a major oil exporter, used this method five times to deal with petrocalamities. The first happened in Uzbekistan, on September 30, 1966 with a blast 1.5 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb and at a depth of 1.5 kilometers. KP also notes that subterranean nuclear blasts were used as much as 169 times in the Soviet Union to accomplish fairly mundane tasks like creating underground storage spaces for gas or building canals.
These kinds of surgical strikes to shut off underground leaks, however, were carried out only five times, with the last one occuring in 1979. And there was only one misfire, near Kharkov, Ukraine, where a nuclear blast was unable to stanch a gas leak. Happily, with a track record like that, “the chances of failure in the Gulf of Mexico are 20%,” KP writes. “The Americans could certainly risk it.”
Makes sense to me. Seems a low risk of fire or of a radioactivity release of comparable harm to the oil pollution. The Christian Science Monitor agreed May 13. On May 24 it looked like we might see reason:
President Obama has stepped in and has sent a team of nuclear experts to contain the spill. The man in charge to contain the spill is Steven Chu, U.S. Energy Secretary and also the one who helped develop the first hydrogen bomb in the 50s. The five member multidisciplinary team are a creative lot involved in the first hydrogen bomb, finding ways to mine in Mars and ways to position biomedical needles. The team will work along with BP’s scientist to find a solution. Meeting at BP’s crisis centre in Houston, Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward said after the meeting, ‘lots of nuclear physicists and all sorts of people coming up with some quite good ideas actually.’
Alas, Today’s Post:
The failure of traditional well-killing methods may also heighten the pressure on authorities to try unconventional approaches. Simmons, for example, suggests a military takeover of the whole operation, and possibly even an attempt to seal the well with an explosive device.
Allen, the national incident commander, dismissed the idea. “My view is since we don’t know the condition of that well bore or the casings, I would be cautious about putting any kind of kinetic energy on that well head,” Allen said, “because what you may do is create open communication between the reservoir and the sea floor.”
Seems caution isn’t working so well now. [Added: And it is hard to believe the well bore or casings matter much – it is the kinds of rock/mud/etc. near the hole that matter.] Alas, also seems Obama has decided the nuke option is politically unpalatable. Sure BP deserves blame for the spill itself, but doesn’t anti-nuke political correctness deserve lots of blame for our reluctance to stop the spill?
One prominent energy expert known for predicting the oil price spike of 2008 says sending a small nuclear bomb down the leaking well is “probably the only thing we can do” to stop the leak. Matt Simmons, founder of energy investment bank Simmons & Company, also says that there is evidence of a second oil leak about five to seven miles from the initial leak that BP has focused on fixing. That second leak, he says, is so large that the initial one is “minor” in comparison.
Obama seems to have avoided getting involved in fixing this spill, for fear of being tarred with its failures. May 28:
Obama … said that his administration is doing all it can, but that, when it comes to plugging the leak, “the federal government does not possess superior technology to BP.”
But I’ll bet BP doesn’t have nukes. If nukes are the answer, then leaving the fix to BP has definitely made things worse.
The Russian television channel RT described how Soviet authorities used underground nuclear explosions to seal off leaking gas pipes. The idea is that the explosion shears the leak closed for good. “That’s not something we’re considering. It would be far too risky,” said BP’s MacEwen. (more)
They don’t explain what risk they have in mind.
Added 3June: Yesterday National Review had an article favoring the nuke option. The NYT had article “Nuclear Option on Gulf Oil Spill? No Way, U.S. Says.”