'Drilling' for oil with ... nuclear weapons? The US has done it.

Here's something you might not know: The US once used nuclear weapons not to stop flows of petroleum (as was suggested for capping the BP oil spill), but to start them.

Jose-Luis Magana/Greenpeace/Reuters
A patch of oil from the BP oil spill floats on the surface of the water in Barataria Bay, Louisiana just off the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday.

THE UNITED STATES is not going to nuke the BP oil spill. That’s one option that’s off the table. Yes, the old Soviet Union did cap runaway wells by destroying them with nuclear weapons, but that’s not the American way.

That’s settled, then. But here’s something you might not know: The US once used nukes for the exact opposite purpose. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) exploded nuclear devices underground in Colorado and New Mexico, not to stop flows of petroleum, but to start them.

It’s true. Decades ago, the AEC (ancestor of today’s Department of Energy) was very big on the Plowshare Program, which studied ways of using nuclear blasts for peaceful purposes. Project Chariot, for instance, looked at using five hydrogen bombs to create a nice new 700-foot-deep artificial harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska. Project Ditchdigger investigated the physics of using nukes to produce canals.

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

But it turned out that the most promising peaceful use of nuclear explosions was for the stimulation of natural-gas production.

The idea was that underground nukes could blow big cavities in so-called “tight” natural-gas fields in the western US, which would make it easier to pump the gas out. Over the years, the US conducted three nuclear experiments to see if this theory actually worked.

One, in 1967, was near Farm­ington, N.M. The second was in 1969, near Grand Valley, Colo. The last was in 1973, near Grand Junction, Colo., and it was a biggie, involving three devices.

These tests did produce recoverable gas. But it cost way more to blow up the nuclear device than the gas was worth, and residents were leery about the possibility of radiation release.

“Although the technology was demonstrated to be technically feasible, it could not be proved that national energy needs justified the elaborate procedures that would be required,” concludes a Department of Energy history of the project.

The Plowshare Program came to an end in 1975.


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