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.
If the LMRP fails, Plan G gets more speculative still. It’s an attempt to fit a second blowout preventer atop the crippled original, a procedure that at depth amounts to welding an ice-covered spigot to an ice-covered spigot in pitch-black darkness. If that fails, Plan H — awaiting the completion of a pair of relief wells now being drilled — would amount to little more than surrender; the wreck of the Deepwater Horizon would continue to spurt as many as 19,000 barrels per day into the Gulf clear through the end of August. For reference, that is a total of 2.565 million barrels — equivalent to ten Exxon Valdez’s, or as much oil as the world’s fifth-largest economy, Germany, consumes on any given day.
In that case, the Gulf bleeds black through summer. The impotent Big Oil flotilla surrounding the spill zone, the tar balls and petroleum-covered pelicans from Texas to Florida, and the seawater set ablaze in controlled burns would likely ensure that the Gulf becomes the graveyard of domestic drilling, increasing our energy dependence and hastening efforts to top-down engineer a uncompetitive green economy. Meanwhile, President Obama, after having symbolically taken responsibility for the spill, after having rolled up his sleeves and toured the coast promising salvation, will have presided over a “man-caused disaster” of biblical proportions, revealing to one and all the ineffectuality of his best-and-brightest technocrats in the face of Murphy’s Law.
That is why Obama should be discussing the possibility of using an atomic weapon to seal the leak. Before the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the United States successfully detonated nuclear devices both on land and under water, and two potential delivery paths for a nuke are already in place in the form of the partially completed relief wells. Assuming the bomb could be delivered close enough to the drill channel, the yield required would be relatively small. Moreover, well-established formulae establish the burial-depth-to-yield ratios that make it possible to trap virtually all of the radioactive fallout within the sub-oceanic bedrock.
Of course, the risks of an atomic blast — not just of catastrophic malfunction or ineffectiveness, but of post-blast “venting” or “seeping” of radioactive gases from cracks in the ocean floor — have to be measured against those of the alternatives. But it seems a reasonable conjecture that the dissipation of a limited amount of radioactive material across the vast Gulf is preferable to the blanketing of thousands of miles of American coastline in ribbons of tar.
To be sure, other important substantive and technical questions must be answered before determining if the nuclear option is the best one. Is that process already in motion? Perhaps. President Obama has dispatched a five-man team of nuclear physicists — including 82-year-old Richard Garwin, who designed the first hydrogen bomb — to the Gulf to draw up outside-the-box alternatives to BP’s engineering efforts.
If the Deepwater Horizon disaster has rendered the mantra of “Drill, Baby, Drill,” of limited rhetorical use, it may eventually come time for another plea: Nuke, Baby, Nuke.
– Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.