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Nuclear Option on Gulf Oil Spill? No Way, U.S. Says
NYTimes/By WILLIAM J. BROAD Published: June 2, 2010
The chatter began weeks ago as armchair engineers brainstormed for ways to stop the torrent of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico: What about nuking the well?
Decades ago, the Soviet Union reportedly used nuclear blasts to successfully seal off runaway gas wells, inserting a bomb deep underground and letting its fiery heat melt the surrounding rock to shut off the flow. Why not try it here?
The idea has gained fans with each failed attempt to stem the leak and each new setback — on Wednesday, the latest rescue effort stalled when a wire saw being used to slice through the riser pipe got stuck.
“Probably the only thing we can do is create a weapon system and send it down 18,000 feet and detonate it, hopefully encasing the oil,” Matt Simmons, a Houston energy expert and investment banker, told Bloomberg News on Friday, attributing the nuclear idea to “all the best scientists.”
Or as the CNN reporter John Roberts suggested last week, “Drill a hole, drop a nuke in and seal up the well.”
This week, with the failure of the “top kill” attempt, the buzz had grown loud enough that federal officials felt compelled to respond.
Stephanie Mueller, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, said that neither Energy SecretarySteven Chu nor anyone else was thinking about a nuclear blast under the gulf. The nuclear option was not — and never had been — on the table, federal officials said.
“It’s crazy,” one senior official said.
Government and private nuclear experts agreed that using a nuclear bomb would be not only risky technically, with unknown and possibly disastrous consequences from radiation, but also unwise geopolitically — it would violate arms treaties that the United States has signed and championed over the decades and do so at a time when President Obama is pushing for global nuclear disarmament.
The atomic option is perhaps the wildest among a flood of ideas proposed by bloggers, scientists and other creative types who have deluged government agencies and BP, the company that drilled the well, with phone calls and e-mail messages. The Unified Command overseeing the Deepwater Horizon disaster features a “suggestions” button on itsofficial Web site and more than 7,800 people have already responded, according to the site.
Among the suggestions: lowering giant plastic pillows to the seafloor and filling them with oil, dropping a huge block of concrete to squeeze off the flow and using magnetic clamps to attach pipes that would siphon off the leaking oil.
Some have also suggested conventional explosives, claiming that oil prospectors on land have used such blasts to put out fires and seal boreholes. But oil engineers say that dynamite or other conventional explosives risk destroying the wellhead so that the flow could never be plugged from the top.
Along with the kibbitzers, the government has also brought in experts from around the world — including scores of scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other government labs — to assist in the effort to cap the well.
In theory, the nuclear option seems attractive because the extreme heat might create a tough seal. An exploding atom bomb generates temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun and, detonated underground, can turn acres of porous rock into a glassy plug, much like a huge stopper in a leaky bottle.
Michael E. Webber, a mechanical engineer at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote to Dot Earth, a New York Times blog, in early May that he had surprised himself by considering what once seemed unthinkable. “Seafloor nuclear detonation,” he wrote, “is starting to sound surprisingly feasible and appropriate.”
Much of the enthusiasm for an atomic approach is based on reports that the Soviet Union succeeded in using nuclear blasts to seal off gas wells. Milo D. Nordyke, in a 2000 technical paper for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., described five Soviet blasts from 1966 to 1981.
All but the last blast were successful. The 1966 explosion put out a gas well fire that had raged uncontrolled for three years. But the last blast of the series, Mr. Nordyke wrote, “did not seal the well,” perhaps because the nuclear engineers had poor geological data on the exact location of the borehole.
Robert S. Norris, author of “Racing for the Bomb” and an atomic historian, noted that all the Soviet blasts were on land and never involved oil.
Whatever the technical merits of using nuclear explosions for constructive purposes, the end of the cold war brought wide agreement among nations to give up the conduct of all nuclear blasts, even for peaceful purposes. The United States, after conducting more than 1,000 nuclear test explosions, detonated the last one in 1992, shaking the ground at the Nevada test site.
In 1996, the United States championed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, a global accord meant to end the development of new kinds of nuclear arms. President Obama is pushing for new global rules, treaties and alliances that he insists can go much further to produce a nuclear-free world. For his administration to seize on a nuclear solution for the gulf crisis, officials say, would abandon its international agenda and responsibilities and give rogue states an excuse to seek nuclear strides.
Kevin Roark, a spokesman for Los Alamos in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, said that despite rumors to the contrary, none of the laboratory’s thousands of experts was devising nuclear options for the gulf.
“Nothing of the sort is going on here,” he said in an interview. “In fact, we’re not working on any intervention ideas at all. We’re providing diagnostics and other support but nothing on the intervention side.”
A senior Los Alamos scientist, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his comments were unauthorized, ridiculed the idea of using a nuclear blast to solve the crisis in the gulf.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “Technically, it would be exploring new ground in the midst of a disaster — and you might make it worse.”
Not everyone on the Internet is calling for nuking the well. Some are making jokes. “What’s worse than an oil spill?” asked a blogger on Full Comment, a blog of The National Post in Toronto. “A radioactive oil spill.”
Henry Fountain contributed reporting.