The Corner

Re: Unhealthy Interest in Nuking the BP Leak

Rich, what can I say? Quoth Nelson Muntz, in conversation with Lisa Simpson:

Lisa: “Nuke the whales”? You don’t really believe that, do you?

Nelson: I dunno. Gotta nuke somp’m.

Lisa: Touché.

Meanwhile, Ken Layne at Wonkette has adorably misread my piece, accusing me of wing-nuttery, war-mongering, and undue affection for the Soviets. Behold the sass:

What’s the best way to deal with an environmental disaster? If you’re a National Review Online writer in June 2010 or, say, the Soviet Union three or four decades ago, the answer is simple: Drop a nuclear bomb on the leaking wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico. If the Rooskies used to do it, it must be a great market-driven solution, right?

[. . .]

The “catastrophic malfunction” of a radioactive explosion on the Gulf sea floor with who knows what kind of long term fallout and a potential giant dead zone of nuclear devastation along the entire southern coastline of America is far superior to …. well, to anything, really.

Is anyone in the non-wingnut-website world actually considering dropping nuclear bombs on a bleeding oil well? Maybe! Bloomberg reported on May 14 that Energy Secretary Stephen Chu sent a team of America’s Top Scientists to come up with wacky ideas just in case BP’s next twenty solutions also fail to work. And to this NRO person, that means we are literally hours away from nuking our own seawaters! Just like the Soviet Russians, who kick ass! So as soon as our Mighty War President 4 Life Barack Obama starts cold bombing New Orleans or whatever, then the wingnuts will finally love him for finally being as hardcore as the Soviet Communist Russians, who are the great heroes of every American Wingnut:

What a perfectly irrelevant string on non-sequiturs, straw men and ad hominems. I know Wonkette exists to make fun of everything, but how historically uncoupled is the Left when it can un-ironically condemn the Right for its Soviet nostalgia?

In any event, what could I do to counter these charges but take my case to Wonkette’s allies in the east coast media elite — public radio. The Takeaway, to be precise, where I appeared this morning with Naval nuclear guru Christopher Brownfield.

The audio is here:

A few points I didn’t get to make in the segment. One, we’ve done this sort of thing before. During operation Wigwam in the late ’50s we detonated a 30-kiloton device underwater at a depth of 2,000 feet.  In 1971, we drilled a 90-inch hole 6,150 feet under the Aleutian Islands and exploded a 5 megaton device. And that was 40 years ago. There is absolutely no reason to think we couldn’t hit the right spot with a small-yield device now. You already have shafts running diagonal to the well – the relief wells — that are both over a mile deep.

Two, most or all of the radioactivity could be contained under the ocean’s crust according to well-established formulae. We’ve been doing this for decades in Nevada. Besides, as I say in the segment, oil only forms where porous rock meets a non-porous boundary. That’s the name of the game in subterranean nuking. If things go according to plan, the gas-proof rock layer that caps the BP well would absorb virtually all of the fallout.

Last but not least, Brownfield — who previously supported the nuclear option but has since backed off — thinks we can do the job with carefully placed conventional explosives. All due respect and deference to Chris, but I’m still not so sure. The temperatures, depths, pressures, and massive amounts of combustible oil involved make things trickier, and a failure runs the risk of making the spill worse by destroying the wellhead so that it simply can’t be plugged from the top. I just don’t think you net much by going conventional, either politically or substantively.

The explosive power of 30,000 tons of dynamite, on the other hand, tends to be a bit more forgiving.

Nuke, baby, nuke.

UPDATE: Kenneth Green over at AEI’s Enterprise blog wonders whether I have “lost [my] mind.” Well, folks who have lost their minds are usually in the worst position to answer that question, but I don’t think so. Green goes on:

There’s no comparison between what Russia did and what people are proposing for the Gulf. Russia was putting out land-based fires, and we’re talking about plugging an oil gusher miles below the surface of the ocean, which is strong enough to displace 23,000 feet of water pressure.

I’m with Greenpeace on this one, the nuke idea is crazy.

What could be worse than having massive oil slicks floating in the Gulf, killing fish, tainting fisheries, and so forth? Having radioactive oil slicks floating in the Gulf, killing fish, tainting fisheries, and so forth, that’s what.

My short answer is: I defer to Dr. Green on questions of environmental policy. My longer answer is, I think he got this one wrong. Again, a properly-executed 20-30 kiloton detonation beneath a solid layer of impermeable rock would let virtually no fallout escape into the waters of the Gulf. I am surprised that Green, like Wonkette, is treating one itty-bitty A-bomb as Vishnu, Destroyer of Worlds. Bikini Atoll, which was nuked to the high heavens in the 40s and 50s (twenty times, all told) has some radioactive coconuts to be sure, but is even as we speak safely inhabitable, and the waters around it are no worse for wear. In the Gulf case, BP has a detailed knowledge of the stratigraphic situation down there, and already has two ideal delivery sites in the form of the relief wells. The U.S. government has 60-plus years expertise in sub-surface nuclear detonations. Put all that together and this isn’t “crazy.” This is workable.

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