Nuke It?
It's a little less crazy than it sounds.


Daniel Foster

It was September of 1966, and gas was gushing uncontrollably from the wells in the Bukhara province of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. But the Reds, at the height of their industrial might, had a novel solution. They drilled nearly four miles into the sand and rock of the Kyzyl Kum Desert, and lowered a 30-kiloton nuclear warhead — more than half-again as large as “Little Boy,” the crude uranium bomb dropped over Hiroshima — to the depths beneath the wellhead. With the pull of a lever, a fistful of plutonium was introduced to itself under enormous pressure, setting off the chain reaction that starts with E = MC2 and ends in Kaboom! The ensuing blast collapsed the drill channel in on itself, sealing off the well.

The Soviets repeated the trick four times between 1966 and 1979, using payloads as large as 60 kilotons to choke hydrocarbon leaks. Now, as the Obama administration stares into the abyss of the Deepwater Horizon spill, and a slicker of sweet, medium crude blankets the Gulf of Mexico, slouching its way toward American beaches and wetlands, Russia’s newspaper of record is calling on the president to consider this literal “nuclear option.”

As well he should. It’s a little less crazy than it sounds. The simple fact is that the leak has confounded all conventional efforts to quell it, forcing British Petroleum and its federal overseers to resort to a series of untested, increasingly unwieldy, and heretofore unsuccessful backup plans as the American people’s impatience and rage grow at geometric rates. In the madness that is Deepwater Horizon, The Bomb may be the sanest choice.

Consider the alternatives. BP’s Plan F — Plan B was the wellhead’s compromised blowout preventer, Plan C a massive containment dome, Plan D top kill, and Plan E the “junk shot” — reveals both the resilience of the gusher and the increasing desperation of the engineers tasked with stopping it. Called the Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) cap, Plan F is on site in the Gulf and could be operational by Thursday or Friday. It involves rending the leaking drilling pipe, or riser, atop the blowout preventer and capping the open valve with a new siphon — imagine a large drinking straw — that would bring the oil to the surface for collection. But like nearly everything else in this saga, there is no playbook for completing the operation a mile beneath the sea. Even if successful, the LMRP will not have stopped the leak, but only contained it, potentially allowing substantial quantities of oil to escape around the margins of the apparatus. Worse, the process could temporarily increase the rate of leakage by up to 20 percent, as it will involve slicing off a section of cinched pipe that appears to be holding some of the oil back.