In the late spring of 2010, the world watched, often in real time, a new kind of environmental disaster unfold: An oil rig operating deep under the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico exploded, and the well under it began spewing oil copiously into the waters above. BP’s Deepwater Horizon had previously drilled the deepest oil well in the world, through nearly a mile of water and seven miles of rock. After the explosion, the rig’s impressive reach became its greatest flaw, as the well proved impossible to seal under such depths. It became the biggest marine oil spill in history.
As BP cycled through various unsuccessful fixes, some observers quietly discussed a different, rather unconventional approach: setting off an underground nuclear bomb to seal the gash with rubble. “Seafloor nuclear detonation is starting to sound surprisingly feasible and appropriate…I never thought I would hear myself write that out loud,” wrote University of Texas engineer Steven Webber. But the nuclear option seems to have never become a serious possibility. An explosion might have destroyed the well without sealing it, making closure a permanent impossibility. A task force assembled by energy secretary Steven Chu dismissed the possibility out of hand; a senior official said, “It’s crazy.”
The idea may not have been as crazy as it seemed—or, at least, its craziness was not altogether unprecedented. The Soviet Union had successfully used underground nuclear explosions to snuff out fires at out-of-control natural-gas wells four times in the 60s and 70s. This was just one part of a large Soviet program to use nuclear explosions for a variety peaceful ends; the U.S. had a similar yet smaller program. Much of the information about these Cold War-era efforts was little known until 1998, when Milo Nordyke, a former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, put out an authoritative report on this historical curiosity.
One plan involved using a string of bombs to carve out a replacement for the Panama Canal.
It seems strange to us now to think of nuclear bombs as just another tool for engineers to shape our environment. We have to think back to the post-War mindset, enthusiastic for all things nuclear, when people on both sides of the Iron Curtain thought our cities, cars, and lives would soon draw their power from splitting or combining atoms. The Soviet representative to the UN channeled this nuclear boosterism when he proclaimed, “The Soviet Union did not use atomic energy for the purpose of accumulating stockpiles of atomic bombs…it was using atomic energy for purposes of its own domestic economy: blowing up mountains, changing the course of rivers, irrigating deserts, charting new paths of life in regions untrodden by human foot.” President Dwight Eisenhower sounded similar notes in his “Atoms for Peace” speech, also at the UN: “It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of their soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.” Of course, at the time, the U.S. and USSR were also accumulating stockpiles of atomic bombs big enough to wipe out humanity many times over.
The first concrete step toward the use of peaceful nuclear explosions came in 1957, when the U.S. carried out the world’s first underground nuclear explosion, 900 feet (270 meters) below the Nevada desert. The test went exactly according to plan, producing little damage or radioactivity above ground, giving a “tremendous boost of enthusiasm and confidence that a variety of peaceful uses for nuclear explosions were possible and could be implemented safely.” Over the next 16 years, the U.S.’s Plowshare Program set off 12 more explosions, most to test the use of nukes for extracting natural gas or excavating the Earth’s surface. One plan involved using a string of bombs to carve out a replacement for the Panama Canal.
The Soviets came to the game later but with more enthusiasm. In 1965, they set off their first civilian nuclear explosion, this one placed much closer to the surface in order to create a crater near a river in Kazakhstan. The idea was to divert water into the crater to create a reservoir that could be drawn upon for irrigation in dry seasons. The test was successful, and the project’s director, Efrim Slavskiy, reportedly hopped into the new lake, proudly becoming the first person to swim in it.
A year later, Soviet engineers found another creative use for the bomb. At the time there was an out-of-control gas well in Uzbekistan that had been burning for almost three years, spewing out 420 million cubic feet (12 million cubic meters) per day, enough to supply all of St. Petersburg. To make matters worse, the gas had a high concentration of poisonous hydrogen sulfide, making it dangerous for workers trying to seal the well and for nearby residents should a botched attempt send the gas their way. After every conventional approach failed, the decision was made to use a nuclear bomb to try to pinch the well closed far underground. A new hole was drilled down near the borehole, a specially designed bomb was put in place, and the hole was filled with concrete. Twenty-three seconds after the bomb went off, 33 months after it ignited, the inferno was finally extinguished. A contemporary video captured the build-up and dramatic conclusion:
These early successes kicked off an active program that included 122 nuclear explosions and stretched all the way through late 1988, as the Soviet Union started crumbling. Engineers used nuclear bombs to not only seal gas fires and create lakes, canals, and dams, but also to increase oil extraction, create underground cavities, find geological resources, and create new elements. Perhaps the most surprising use was creating large underground spaces where especially toxic waste was disposed of, isolated from the biosphere and water sources. In the post-Soviet years, Russian scientists have suggested getting rid of waste from nuclear plants by putting it in a chamber deep underground and detonating a bomb there, fusing the waste and rock together in a stable block whose radioactivity would safely dissipate over the course of millennia. Funny to think that nuclear bombs might actually be the most effective way to get rid of nuclear waste.
In the 70s and 80s, nuclear power made a dramatic flip in the public mind, changing from a futuristic miracle to an environmental disaster. The U.S. and Soviet Union wound down their programs, which had come to be seen as politically radioactive. This helps explain the visceral resistance to even the peaceful use of nuclear bombs. The invention that once symbolized humanity’s world-beating ingenuity had become an emblem of our abiding hubris.
Amos Zeeberg is a freelance science journalist based in Tokyo.
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This classic Facts So Romantic post was originally published in October 2014.