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Nuclear fracking? Been there, done that


Scientists lower a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear warhead into a well in New Mexico. The experimental 29-kiloton Project Gasbuggy device will be detonated at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alamos Lab photo.

Hydraulic fracturing has speckled the nation with pockmarks. Drilling activity has increased nearly 700 percent since 2007 and has left ordinary citizens and leaders alike anxious about the possible effects. With reports of radioactive socks and water polluting the environment, worries of the unknown environmental impacts have festered. But sometimes it helps to look back in time in order to gain perspective, if only to say, “Well, at least we’re not doing THAT anymore.”

In the era of the Cold War, with an arsenal of nuclear weapons poised to launch and an understanding of their effects in war, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (which is now the Department of Energy) explored various forms of peaceful applications for atomic weapons under the Plowshare Program, conducting 27 nuclear explosive tests comprising of 35 individual detonations.

Possible applications were split into two broad categories: large-scale excavation and quarrying (using the massive explosions to create canals, harbors and railroad cuts), and underground engineering with the goal of using atomic energy to increase the permeability and porosity of rock by breaking and fracturing formations deep underground.

In December 1967, in the New Mexico desert near Farmington, government scientists teamed up with the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the El Paso Natural Gas Company, lowered and detonated a 29-kiloton nuclear explosive dubbed the ‘Gasbuggy’ into a 4,240 foot natural gas well. For comparison, ‘Little Boy’, the atomic weapon detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, in WW2 was 16 kilotons.

Like the hydraulic fracturing process being used today, the intention was to break and to fracture the rock deep below the surface as a means to increase the recovery rate of the natural gas trapped within the formation. It worked.

Geologists had known for years that detonating explosives at the bottom of a well would fracture the surrounding rock and stimulate the flow of oil and gas. Explosives such as gunpowder, dynamite, and nitroglycerine (sometimes as much as 3,500 quarts at a time) were used to fracture the rock at the bottom of wells.

The Gasbuggy explosion created a cavern at the bottom of the well 160 feet in diameter and 333 feet tall. The explosion created a molten, glass-lined chamber, which collapsed seconds after the blast, creating a chimney filled with rubble and fractures that geologists later estimated to extend a few hundred feet from the chamber in all directions. The hope was that the gas would flow through the fractures and into the chamber, acting as a collection point.

It was believed at the time that a nuclear explosive would simply be a more economical way of increasing gas flow. After the detonation of the Gasbuggy, the well produced 295 million cubic feet of gas, five times as much as the well had been expected to produce prior to detonating the nuclear bomb. Unfortunately, nearly all the gas released had been burned off, or flared, into the atmosphere.

The DOE couldn’t have sold the gas to anyone if they had tried, though, since the gas had become contaminated by Tritium radiation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported in 2012 that Tritium emits a very weak form of radiation which does not travel far and cannot penetrate the skin. Burning the released gas didn’t eliminate the radioactivity; rather, it combined the radioactive byproducts such as Tritum and an inert gas called Krypton-85 with the atmosphere, which most likely found its way into the upper-atmosphere.

Related: 4 reasons Thorium could be the future of nuclear energy (and 2 reasons why it hasn’t happened yet)

The Plowshare Program conducted two more similar tests in Rulison and Rio Blanco, Colorado, in 1969 and 1973, respectively. The Rulison test involved the detonation of a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb 8,426 feet below the ground surface. Like the Gasbuggy site, the blast created a large cavity. Shortly after the detonation, the roof of the chamber collapsed into the cavity, creating a chimney with an estimated height of 274 feet above the point of detonation.

After the explosion, a reentry well was drilled into the top of the chimney to collect data on the flaring of the natural gas being released from the well. Despite releasing 455 million cubic feet of natural gas, production stimulated by the detonations was less than anticipated and the initial flaring showed unacceptable levels of radioactivity. The radioactivity released from flaring, however, was miniscule compared to the fallout levels produced by the atmospheric weapons tests performed in the early 1960’s.

The Rio Blanco test site used three 33-kiloton devices, detonated almost simultaneously, at depths of 5,838, 6,230, and 6,689 feet below the surface. The test created three blast cavities, each with a diameter of 150 feet. Researchers had hoped to create rubble chimneys above each cavity, which they expected to connect with the others. Gas flow was stimulated initially but dropped 40 percent during the tests following the detonations. It was also found that the cavities didn’t connect as well as had been hoped, and the fractures extending outward from the blast zones weren’t as lengthy as predicted.

Currently, what remains of the test sites are plaques indicating the wells where the detonations occurred. In 2008, the Energy Department’s Office of Legacy Management took over responsibility of long-term management and surveillance of the site. The marker placed by the DOE at the Gasbuggy site reads:

Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs.

A 29 kiloton nuclear explosive was detonated at a depth of 4227 feet below this surface location on December 10, 1967.

No excavation, drilling, and/or removal of materials to a true vertical depth of 1500 feet is permitted within a radius of 100 feet of this surface location.

Nor any similar excavation, drilling, and/or removal of subsurface materials between the true vertical depth of 1500 feet to 4500 feet is permitted within a 600 foot radius of t 29 n. R 4 w. New Mexico principal meridian, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico without U.S. Government permission.

Nuclear fracking had a good, but short run. With advancements in technology, oil and gas companies have exchanged their explosives for the hydraulic fluids being used today. Despite public outcry over the potential harm of this process, at least we can say, “Well, at least we’re not doing THAT anymore.”

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