Nuclear Follies: How Not To Stem the BP Oil Gusher

Also published here.

Over the past few years, as I've written about various aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation issues, I've observed one particularly disturbing trend, which is the rather cavalier attitude people have toward “nukes”. I'm not a sociologist, and I haven't conducted a formal study, but there's a tendency among people online and offline to say “just use a nuke”. Or, “why can't they nuke 'em?”, as if nuclear weapons were shotguns, and the use of one wouldn't have catastrophic global consequences.

Never has it been more apparent that there's a lot of misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) regarding nuclear weapons than recently. I'm talking about the appalling, misguided idea that we can “just nuke” the BP oil gusher and it will some how “be okay”.

Here's the Global Security Newswire's “Quote of the Day” from June 3, 2010:

Drill a hole, drop a nuke in and seal up the well.

–CNN reporter John Roberts, discussing one suggestion for dealing with the underwater oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama administration has rejected the idea.

Then there was an NPR article from June 4, 2010 entitled:

Stopping A Spill? There's Always The Nuclear Option

Even Mother Jones mentioned it as a possibility, though it was more tongue-in-cheek than some of the other articles out there.

Okay, guys, I'm going to say it slowly, loudly, and clearly:

The use of a nuclear weapon to stop the BP oil gusher is not an option. It is, in fact, the worst possible thing we could do. Here's why.

Geopolitical Implications: Let's Cause An International Incident!

Way back in 1963, after almost two decades of nuclear testing, the United States and the former USSR were the first of a large number of countries who signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, also know as the Partial Test Ban Treaty:

The Test Ban Treaty of 1963 prohibits nuclear weapons tests “or any other nuclear explosion” in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water. While not banning tests underground, the Treaty does prohibit nuclear explosions in this environment if they cause “radioactive debris to be present outside the territorial limits of the State under whose jurisdiction or control” the explosions were conducted. In accepting limitations on testing, the nuclear powers accepted as a common goal “an end to the contamination of man's environment by radioactive substances.”

With that in mind, last week, I contacted nuclear weapons testing verification expert, Dr. Thomas B. Cochran; he's worked in the area for decades, so I gave him a call and asked him what he thought of this “nuke the oil gusher” idea. He emphasized the obvious:

Well, first you should recognize that this would be in violation of two treaties, one of which we've signed and ratified, and the other which we've signed but not ratified: the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Secondly, there are… national agreements about not putting radioactive waste in the oceans — that might conceivably add [introduce] additional difficulties, although I don't put that in the same league with the violation of the treaties.

Thirdly, you would have to sink a shaft and place the weapon, and the weapon would have to be at a depth sufficient that you didn't breach the surface of the ocean bottom, similar to the way you would conduct an underground nuclear test on land, where, depending on the yield, you would estimate how deep you had to drill the shaft and place the weapon, so that it didn't release radioactivity out of the shaft.

Now, BP has two efforts underway to sink shafts — they're in the process of sinking shafts to try to intersect the well that's not functioning. So, it makes no sense to me to launch a program to sink another shaft and place a nuclear warhead, when that's going to take longer than sinking the [relief well shafts].

The timing doesn't make any sense to me, irrespective of the fact that it's crazy to think about using nuclear weapons.

In other words, we have to recognize several key things. Using a nuclear weapon to somehow “stop the oil gusher” would:

  1. Be the political equivalent of resuming nuclear testing. (We declared a moratorium in 1992).
  2. Most likely introduce radioactive material into the area, though how much is anyone's guess.
  3. Be an impractical waste of time when they're already taking a more conventional approach.

If the international implications of such an action still aren't clear to you, Cochran bluntly told me:

[I]t would probably pretty much destroy efforts to get a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Just Because Someone Else Did It, Doesn't Mean It'll Work

As the New York Times pointed out, the whole idea came from something the Russians tried back in the 1960s to stop a natural gas fire. Historian and nuclear non-proliferation expert David E. Hoffman tears down the idea that “if it worked for them it'll work for us”:

But didn’t the Soviet Union once use nukes for this? Not exactly. Both the United States and the Soviet Union did have a programs of using nuclear blasts for peace time purposes. In the Soviet case, it was primarily excavation. All told,the Soviet Union carried out 715 nuclear tests, of which 156 were labeled as”for peaceful purposes.” (The U.S. total tests were 1,030 with 35 for Plowshare, the overall name for the program to use nukes for peaceful purposes. A pdf about the U.S. tests is here.)

According to a study published by the Russians in 1996, the first time they used a nuke to close a “gas plume bore hole” was the 30-kiloton explosion on September 30, 1966 in Uzbekistan.Several additional blasts were used for excavation. On September 26, 1969, they set off a 10 kiloton nuke in the Stavropol region for “oil recovery intensification.” And in 1970, there was another blast in the Orenburg region for creating “reservoirs” for storage of natural gas.

As nuclear historian Robert S. Norris notes in the Times, all these Soviet were onland and did not involve oil. Eventually, both superpowers gave up trying touse nukes for peaceful purposes, and one of the reasons was the environmental hazards.

Environmental Contamination, Uncertainty, and More

Last week, Keith Olbermann invited physicist Michio Kaku on his program to discuss the use of a nuclear weapon to stop the oil gusher. Dr. Kaku did his best to explain how uncertain it was that such a device would work, and emphasized that it could cause tremendous environmental contamination if it wasn't detonated at a proper depth; the point is that no one really knows what would happen, though it's fairly certain there would be environmental damage from the blast. It would only make the situation worse, not better.

Learning Some History

When I worked as a radiochemist in a lab at the Hanford Nuclear Site, there were shelves and shelves of soil samples from the Marshall Islands, where the US did underwater and atmospheric nuclear tests back in the 1940s and 1950s. The soil samples contained all kinds of fission products, i.e. dangerous, radioactive elements resulting from a nuclear explosion.

That's what stays in my mind when I think of nuclear tests. But you don't need to work in a lab and see soil samples to “get it”.

All you have to do is read a little. Understand that nuclear weapons aren't your average weapon. Testing one isn't like going out and shooting a gun at your neighbor's tree or setting off a firecracker that everyone in the neighborhood hears and smells.

Detonating a nuclear weapon has international consequences. Using one to somehow “fix” the oil gusher is simply crazy. It would do untold damage to nuclear arms control efforts as well as to the environment.

Please don't forget that.

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