Reuters Special Report: Should BP Nuke Its Leaking Well?

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Finally Matt Simmons' unorthodox theory is gaining some significant mainstream interest. Full article from Reuters.

Should BP nuke its leaking well?

His face wracked
by age and his voice rasping after decades of chain-smoking coarse
tobacco, the former long-time Russian Minister of nuclear energy and
veteran Soviet physicist Viktor Mikhailov knows just how to fix BP's oil
leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

"A nuclear explosion over the
leak," he says nonchalantly puffing a cigarette as he sits in a
conference room at the Institute of Strategic Stability, where he is a
director. "I don't know what BP is waiting for, they are wasting their
time. Only about 10 kilotons of nuclear explosion capacity and the
problem is solved."

A nuclear fix
to the leaking well has been touted online and in the occasional
newspaper op-ed for weeks now. Washington has repeatedly dismissed the
idea and BP execs say they are not considering an explosion -- nuclear
or otherwise. But as a series of efforts to plug the 60,000 barrels of
oil a day gushing from the sea floor have failed, talk of an extreme
solution refuses to die.

For some,
blasting the problem seems the most logical answer in the world.
Mikhailov has had a distinguished career in the nuclear field, helping
to close a Soviet Union program that used nuclear explosions to seal gas
leaks. Ordinarily he's an opponent of nuclear blasts, but he says an
underwater explosion in the Gulf of Mexico would
not be harmful and could cost no more than $10 million. That compares
with the $2.35 billion BP has paid out in cleanup and compensation costs
so far. "This option is worth the money," he says.

And it's not just Soviet boffins. Milo
Nordyke, one of the masterminds behind U.S. research into peaceful
nuclear energy in the 1960s and '70s says a nuclear explosion is a
logical last-resort solution for BP and the government. Matthew Simmons,
a former energy adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush and the
founder of energy investment-banking firm Simmons & Company
International, is another calling for the nuclear option.

Even former U.S. President Bill Clinton has
voiced support for the idea of an explosion to stem the flow of oil,
albeit one using conventional materials rather than nukes. "Unless we
send the Navy down deep to blow up the well and cover the leak with
piles and piles and piles of rock and debris, which may become necessary
... unless we are going to do that, we are dependent on the technical
expertise of these people from BP," Clinton told the Fortune/Time/CNN
Global Forum in South Africa on June 29.

Clinton
was picking up on an idea mooted by Christopher Brownfield in June.
Brownfield is a one-time nuclear submarine officer, a veteran of the
Iraq war (he volunteered in 2006) and now a nuclear policy researcher at
Columbia University. He is also one of a number of scientists whose
theories rely not on nuclear bombs -- he did toy with that thought for a
while -- but on conventional explosives that would implode the well
and, if not completely plug it with crushed rock, at least bring the
flow of oil under control. "It's kind of like stepping on a garden hose
to kink it," Brownfield says. "You may not cut off the flow entirely but
it would greatly reduce the flow."

BLASTS
FROM THE PAST

Using nuclear blasts
for peaceful ends was a key plank of Cold War policy in both the United
States and the Soviet Union. In the middle of last century, both
countries were motivated by a desire to soften the image of the era's
weapon of choice.

Washington had
big plans to use peaceful nuclear explosions to build an additional
Panama Canal, carve a path for an inter-state highway through mountains
in the Mojave Desert and connect underwater aquifers in Arizona. But the
experimental plans were dropped as authorities learned more about the
ecological dangers of surface explosions.

The
Soviet program, known as Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy,
was launched in 1958. The project saw 124 nuclear explosions for such
tasks as digging canals and reservoirs, creating underground storage
caverns for natural gas and toxic waste, exploiting oil and gas deposits
and sealing gas leaks. It was finally mothballed by Mikhail Gorbachev
in 1989.

The Soviets first used a
nuclear blast to seal a gas leak in 1966. Urtabulak, one of its prized
gas-fields in Uzbekistan, had caught fire and raged for three years.
Desperate to save the cherished reserves, Yefim Slavsky, then Minister
of Light Industry, ordered nuclear engineers to use the most powerful
weapon in their arsenal.

"The
Minister said, 'Do it. Put it out. Explode it,'" recalls Albert
Vasilyev, a young engineer and a rising star in the project who now
teaches at the Lenin Technical Institute in Moscow.

Vasilyev remembers the technology behind
the program with obvious pride. "The explosion takes place deep
underground," he says. "We pinch the pipe, break it and the pipe
collapses." According to Vasilyev, the blast at Urtabulak sealed the
well shut leaving only an empty crater.

JUST
DOING A JOB

In all, the Soviets
detonated five nuclear devices to seal off runaway gas wells --
succeeding three or four times, depending on who you talk to. "It worked
quite well for them," says Nordyke, who authored a detailed account of
Soviet explosions in a 2000 paper. "There is no reason to think it
wouldn't be fine (for the United States)."

But
not everything went smoothly. Vasilyev admits the program "had two
misfires". The final blast in 1979 was conducted near the Ukrainian city
of Kharkov. "The closest houses were just about 400 meters away,"
Vasilyev recalls. "So this was ordered to be the weakest of the
explosions. Even the buildings and the street lamps survived."
Unfortunately, the low capacity of the device failed to seal the well
and the gas resurfaced.

Alexander
Koldobsky, a fellow nuclear physicist from the Moscow Engineering and
Physics Institute, insists the peaceful nuclear explosions were safe.
The people who worked on the program "were brilliant professionals", he
says. "They had a culture of safety, which did not accept the word
'maybe', but only accepted the words 'obligation' and 'instruction.' Any
derivation from these in nuclear technologies is a crime."

Still, he concedes, "there were different
scenarios of what happened after an explosion." At his first blast in a
Turkmen gas field in 1972, "the stench was unbearable," he says. "And
the wind was blowing toward a nearby town." He closes his narrow lips
into a smile as if refusing to say more.

Koldobsky
shrugs off any suggestion of fear or emotion when the bomb exploded. "I
felt nothing. I was just doing my job."

UNANSWERED
QUESTIONS

Not everybody is so
sanguine about the Soviet experience. Speaking on condition of
anonymity, an expert from Russia's largest oil
exporter Rosneft, urges the United States to ignore calls for the atomic
option. "That would bring Chernobyl to America," he says.

Vladimir Chuprov from Greenpeace's Moscow
office is even more insistent that BP not heed the advice of the veteran
Soviet physicists. Chuprov disputes the veterans' accounts of the
peaceful explosions and says several of the gas leaks reappeared later.
"What was praised as a success and a breakthrough by the Soviet Union is
in essence a lie," he says. "I would recommend that the international
community not listen to the Russians.
Especially those of them that offer crazy ideas. Russians are keen on
offering things, especially insane things."

Former
Minister Mikhailov agrees that the USSR had to give up its program
because of problems it presented. "I ended the program because I knew
how worthless this all was," he says with a sigh. "Radioactive material
was still seeping through cracks in the ground and spreading into the
air. It wasn't worth it."

"Still,"
he says, momentarily hard to see through a cloud of smoke from his
cigarettes, "I see no other solution for sealing leaks like the one in
the Gulf of Mexico."

The problem, he goes on, is that "Americans
just don't know enough about nuclear explosions to solve this problem
... But they should ask us -- we have institutes, we have professionals
who can help them solve this. Otherwise BP are just torturing the people
and themselves."

RADIATION RISKS

Nordyke too believes the nuclear option
should be on the table. After seeing nine U.S. nuclear explosions and
standing behind the control board of one, he estimates that a nuclear
bomb would have roughly an 80 to 90 percent chance of successfully
blocking the oil. According to his estimates, it would have to be an
explosion of around 30 kilotons, equivalent to roughly two Hiroshima
bombs or three times as big as Mikhailov's estimate. The explosion would
also need to remain at least 3 to 4 miles away from other offshore
wells in the area.

The bomb, says
Nordyke, would be dropped in a secondary well approximately 60-70 feet
away from the leaking shaft. There it would create a large cavity filled
with gas. The gas would melt the surrounding rock, crush it and press
it into the leaking well to close it shut.

Although
the BP well is thousands of feet deeper than those closed in the Soviet
Union, Nordyke says the extra depth shouldn't make a difference. He
also says that so far below the ground, not much difference exists in
onshore or underwater explosions -- even though the latter have never
been tried.

Nordyke says fears
that radiation could escape after the explosion are unfounded. The hole
would be about 8 inches in diameter and, despite the shockwave, the
radiation should remain captured. Even in the case of radiation escape,
he says, its dispersed effect would be less than that of floating oil
patches.

A LAST RESORT

But don't expect an explosion under the Gulf of Mexico any time
soon. Even a conventional blast could backfire and cause more problems.
There is a chance any blast could fracture the seabed and cause an
underground blowout, according to Andy Radford, petroleum engineer and
American Petroleum Institute senior policy adviser on offshore issues.
The U.S. Department of Energy has no plans to use explosives "due to the
obvious risks involved," according to a DOE spokeswoman.

There's also the question of time.
Preparations for a nuclear explosion could take up to half-a-year; BP
has said it will have a relief well in place to stop the leak by August.
"I think it has to be considered as only the last resort," Nordyke
says. But "they ought to be thinking about it."

Would he be willing to work on such an
operation? "I'd be happy to help," he says.