Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Clean-up operations in Gulf of Mexico
Around the world, scientists have turned their ingenuity toward looking for ways to stop the ever-expanding oil slick spreading through the Gulf of Mexico, and one answer keeps popping up: explosives.
Both in Russia and in the U.S., some scientists are suggesting nuclear blasts to bury the oil rig and send molten rock down to seal the leak. Other scientists say smaller, controlled explosions can stop the flow with shock waves.
Regardless of what causes the boom, however, BP would have to consent to the destruction of its leaking Deepwater Horizon well with explosives, something the company seems hesitant to do.
In a telephone conference call with reporters yesterday, Doug Suttles, the chief operating officer for BP exploration and production, said blasting around the well was “not an option we believe we would ever use,” because once done, “we would have denied ourselves all other options.”
A former senior analyst with the White House Office of Science and Technology, Rich Pryor, favors using multiple, simultaneous explosions to pinch the leaking pipe closed rather than a nuke to bury it. The nuclear physicist told WND there are several good ideas available to BP, but they include sacrificing the Deepwater Horizon.
“That may be the reason [for BP's hesitation],” Pryor told WND. “Once you pinch the pipe, it’s done; it will shut down the well.”
BP, however, has insisted its resistance is based on the use of explosives, not a desire to salvage the well. Suttles told reporters earlier this month BP has conceded the need to “permanently plug” the gushing well and has “absolutely no intent to ever, ever produce this well.”
The nuclear option
Reports in a pair of Russian newspapers have been pushing the idea that a nuclear blast could stop the leaking oil and that the former Soviet nation has done it before successfully.
“It sounds terrible and incredible – an idiotic joke,” writes Valdimir Lagowski in the Russian daily Komsomoloskaya Pravda. “But in fact there were several cases where catastrophes in the fields were fought this way in the former USSR – five times – when nothing else has helped.”
According to the report, the first attempt was in 1966, when a 30-kiloton explosion (the Hiroshima bomb was about 20 kilotons) extinguished a burning gas well six kilometers beneath the surface.
Lagowski reports that the nuclear solution has only failed once, when a four-kiloton explosion failed to penetrate the ground far enough.
“Of course, we used a civilian nuclear program on the ground, and the Americans [are working] in the sea,” Lagowski concedes, but then claims the scientific principle is no different and “the U.S. is full of smart scientists and powerful computers.”
The Moscow Times further reported that Alexander Moskalenko, head of GCE, a St. Petersburg-based group that advises oil companies, is also suggesting the nuclear option.
The Russians, however, aren’t the only ones talking nukes.
Christopher Brownfield, a former nuclear submarine officer and a visiting scholar on nuclear policy at Columbia University, wrote a piece in The Daily Beast echoing the Russian solution.
“This was not simply an aggressive urge to brandish the most beastly of weapons in our mighty American arsenal, but a serious way to snuff out an enormous problem that grows worse by the day,” Brownfield writes. “For more than 100 years, explosives have been used to break the necks of runaway oil wells, snapping the long, narrow columns and sealing them shut with tons and tons of rock.”
Brownfield also cited the 1966 Russian experiment: “The practice was well documented by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of our nuclear-weapons facilities.”
But would the White House even consider a nuke?
Earlier this month, the London Telegraph reports, President Obama’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu sent a team of nuclear physicists to BP’s main crisis center in Houston, Texas. Included on the team was 82-year-old Richard Garwin, who designed the first hydrogen bomb, and Tom Hunter, head of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, N.M.
Still, Pryor told WND, Obama’s allies in the environmentalist movement would make it difficult for the White House to approve a nuke.
“I think there might be a lot of resistance to that,” Pryor said.
Brownfield also conceded, “Using nuclear weapons, even for peaceful purposes, would be problematic for a president who stood in Prague and declared that the world should rid itself of such devices. … The dilemma seems clear: Either Obama leaves BP in charge of managing its own short-term interests, or he can take charge and stop this spill immediately by pulling the trigger on a nuclear option with severe political and environmental aftershocks.”
The non-nuclear option
Even Brownfield, however, has suggested BP also consider putting America’s supercomputers – instead of its super explosives – to work at solving the problem.
“Our military could potentially use a carefully placed combination of conventional explosives to collapse the well,” Brownfield suggested. “Our technology is much better than that of the Soviet Union in 1966, so we should be able to make this work without having to go nuclear.”
Pryor told WND of a similar plan that wouldn’t be as haphazard as burying the well in rubble but would still use explosives to stop the flow.
Pryor’s plan involves using supercomputer-timed explosions that would send shock waves through the water to crimp closed the leaking pipe.
“The explosions I have in mind are contained in pipes sent down near the Deepwater Horizon, and you set off an explosion in each of the pipes simultaneously,” Pryor explained. “A good friend of mine at Sandia Labs has done preliminary analysis, and it shows that it does in fact close the pipe.
“The plan does need some analysis, for you have to factor in displacing the fluid in the pipe itself. When you try to pinch the pipe off, you have to stop the flow of oil,” Pryor said. “The bottom line is they need to do some parameter studies: how close can they get (BP would have to tell us), how deep can we make it, lots of issues that need to be addressed. Long, running calculations are needed to determine this sort of stuff, so you would need funds to go into these labs and go do analysis and review.”
Pryor said he couldn’t explain in more detail because of the classified nature of his former work at Sandia Labs, but assured WND, “I know this kind of things works from experience.”
BP’s Doug Suttles, however, told reporters the company “doesn’t see it as a viable option.”
“The reason we wouldn’t use explosives is we couldn’t control the damage. If it failed to stop the flow, we would have denied ourselves all other options. In addition to that, if it failed, it could also cause the flow rate to go up substantially,” Suttles said. “We believe quite strongly. In fact, none of the experts involved in this believe explosives should be used as a vehicle to stop the flow.”
Instead, BP has announced plans to begin its next attempt at stopping the leak tomorrow, a “top-kill operation” that pumps drilling mud at a very high rate into the pipes to overcome the flow of oil.
If it the top-kill operation is unsuccessful, Suttles announced, BP plans to attempt an “LMRP cap,” which would cut away the current pipe and refit it to pump the oil to the surface, rather than allowing it to flow freely into the water.