June 16, 2010

Let's drop the Big One and see what happens

Admittedly, I'm intrigued by the idea of using a nuclear bomb to stop the Deep Horizon spill. The science is fairly straightforward: drill down very deeply into the sea floor in the general area of the well head, plant an A-bomb, and kablooey! The rock formations are superheated by the nuclear fireball, converting them to glass and sealing the oil reservoir. Problem solved.

The Russians, naturally, have already done this kind of thing, although never underwater. When I read that the Soviet Union had exploded five A-bombs between 1966 and 1981 to seal off natural gas wells (usually because of uncontrollable fires), I thought: well, of course they did. If it's big and loud and environmentally catastrophic, the Russians have already tried it. Just the way they do stuff. We've got a natural gas fire burning out of control here, Comrade. What shall we do? Is pooting it out with nuclear bomb! It must be all the vodka.

But before I get Dmitri Orlov all pissed off at me (because he only likes comparisons where the Soviet Union comes out on top), we should probably consider just how bad this oil problem could get. I think that people (including your humble blogospondent) are having trouble coming to terms with this catastrophe. We're in a state of denial. We allowed a foreign company with a miserable record of safety compliance to drill a well under five thousand feet of water into a huge oil reservoir with no effective plan for dealing with a blowout of precisely the kind that occurred. We don't know how bad this situation will become, how far the oil will spread, how much oceanic water will be affected. We can't foresee the ecological consequences of this much oil contaminating the seas. You start thinking: given the intricacies of the web of life, the continuity of the seas, the inability to seal anything off from anything else, the delicate structure of the food chain - could we all wind up dying from this, directly or as the result of an unforeseeable and incalculable chain of causation?

Thus, people are getting freaked out. Matthew Simmons, the Oil Guru, doesn't help when he talks about the failure of "down hole" structures below the superstructure of the blowout preventer (BOP). Julia Whitty in Mother Jones was writing about that. Simmons is adamant that oil is leaking not just from the well head, but from the sea floor at some distance from the BOP. Which suggests that the uncontrolled rush of oil is eroding and damaging the subsurface piping. That's the true nightmare scenario, because if the subsurface pipes fail, there isn't going to be any way to confine the control efforts to the BOP superstructure. The relief wells thus become a race against time in a different sense: can they get there while the existing well is still mainly intact?

Simmons urges the use of a nuclear bomb.

Simmons said the US government should immediately take the effort to plug the leak out of the hands of BP and put the military in charge. "Probably the only thing we can do is create a weapons system and send it down 18,000 feet and detonate it, hopefully encasing the oil," he said.

In some ways, I like this approach just because I'd love to hear Barack Obama, who tends to be a little on the cautious and measured side, announce the plan. "The beaches of the Gulf will be more beautiful than ever," he intones, "but first we have to hit them with an A-bomb."
It's all kind of surreal. We currently won't even let Dutch skimmers help us out with technology they possess but we don't, which involves sucking up oil-contaminated seawater, separating out the oil, and discharging the seawater overboard, the reason being: there is a small residue of oil in the discharge. (h/t Gary). This is the kind of fussiness which prevented Louisiana from constructing sand berms on a hurry-up basis. We're determined to use bureaucracy to get in our own way in dealing with the problem, but not to prevent the problem in the first place.

Of course, no one has ever drilled down 18,000 feet into a sea bottom 5,000 feet beneath the surface and detonated a nuclear bomb. No one can say for certain it will work, although the Russians are confident. But then they think that nuclear explosions are the answer to everything.

Unless BP has a nuclear capability (and maybe they do, they have more resources than some of the countries that have A-bombs), it looks like it's time to call in the guys from Lawrence Livermore and order up something kind of special.

1 comment:

  1. Machipongo John5:26 AM

    Sure! Nuclear power! What could go wrong?