Hydraulic fracturing of rock strata to ease the extraction of natural gas is controversial. It should be. Well operators have used loopholes in EPA regulations to prevent the public from knowing exactly what is in that pressurized fluid they pump underground. Energy companies have bribed state legislatures into passing laws that prevent the public from knowing what they are pumping underground. Presumably, that means it’s probably something dangerous. But let’s look on the bright side, at least they’re not fracking with nukes. Don’t laugh. In the US and USSR in the 60’s and 70’s that’s exactly what happened.
Although the Soviet government had announced its intent to use nuclear bombs for civilian engineering purposes as early as 1949, they didn’t take the lead in reshaping the Earth with the power of the atom. The US made the first move with the Atomic Energy Commission’s Operation Plowshare in 1958. Plowshare was a program to use nuclear devices for scientific investigation, resource extraction, and geographic-scale engineering. As you might expect, nuclear “visionary” Edward Teller, one of the inspirations for the Dr. Strangelove character, was behind the most ambitions proposals of Plowshare.
But we’re not going to talk about Teller’s dream of an artificial Arctic harbor in Alaska, or plans to nuke a sea level canal between the Atlantic and Pacific through Nicaragua or Columbia. Instead, we’ll just take a look at plans for nuclear resource extraction. You know, stuff that’s no big deal in comparison.
Here’s a late 60’s video from the AEC that leaves so much out. It’s a very good summary of how fracking works, and covers the first two nuclear fracking tests. Gasbuggy and Rulison. Please note that the video leaves out the results of the tests. I will discuss why they were not the successes this video makes them seem.
It’s important to note that this video has propaganda purposes. Plowshare was not entirely a civilian program. By 1963 the US, UK, and USSR had all signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty that forced all nuclear testing underground. Some of the tests were “seismic surveys”. Yeah, calibration tests with known nuclear devices so we can know how new weapons are performing underground. And calibration tests so we can guess what the Soviets are doing. Very clever.
But back to fracking. This video covers the Gasbuggy shot in late 1967. Houston-based El Paso Natural Gas built the two rigs in the title background image. One would hold a 29 kT fission bomb, and the other borehole would hold a sensor array that would be destroyed in less than a second after detonation. These tests happened in the Carson National Forest of New Mexico. As the video states, the gas flowed freely at good pressure, but El Paso Natural Gas never got to make a profit from this experiment.
The first gas from the ground at Gasbuggy was found to have potentially unsafe levels of tritium, an isotope of hydrogen with two neutrons on its proton. It wasn’t considered safe for unventilated for home use. El Paso flared (safely) the gas to the wind for three years, but gave up because when the gas became safe, the pressure was too low to justify piping it from remote areas of New Mexico. They capped the wells and left.
The Rulison shot in Colorado in 1969 had similar problems. El Paso sat this one out because Gasbuggy had not paid off fast, but two other Houston companies got in on the deal. They got burned too.
Both Gasbuggy and Rulison were failures because the methane in the ground had absorbed neutrons and some of the hydrogen in the gas became tritium. How much? What are the risks of gas with tritium? I have not been able to find this information. I did find that 2% tritiated water, water with one in fifty molecules containing the tritium isotope is considered by the US to be safe to drink. Really? that seems extremely high. Most of the hydrogen incorporated into our cells comes from lipids and proteins, tritiated bacon is risker than tritiated water, but I would not want to drink that much tritium for more than a month. Was the gas higher than two percent?
After these two failures, Operation Plowshare tried a third time in 1973 with the Rio Blanco test in Colorado. This was during the Energy Crisis. Three 33kT devices went off at the same time at different depths in the same shaft. Lots of gas, but more tritium than ever and the wells were capped.
The other point in the video was underground caverns for storing gas and oil. The video also discussed caverns for water storage, but no. I will not drink water from a nuclear cavern. Water is an aggressive inorganic solvent and who knows what it could pick up from the walls of the cavern.
But natural oil storage structures exist. Structures like Bryan Mound near Freeport, Texas.
A mound? Yes! It’s a whopping 12 feet above sea level. And there’s actual rock under it. And notice the tropical blue-green water? Seriously, this is where locals from Galveston and Surfside go to get away from the crowds. Seriously, if you want to get away from beach culture and still go to the beach Bryan Mound is a choice destination.
Bryan Mound is a salt dome dating back to when SE Texas and southern Louisiana were covered in hypersaline lagoons. Salt domes are areas of strata where oil, gas and sulfur are deposited because the strata become impermeable as salt chemically combines with sedimentary rock. Bryan Mound was the first site of modern sulfur mining when Freeport was founded in 1912. In 1975 Bryan Mound was bought by the US Government to become the largest site of the Strategic Petrolium Reserve. The 1986 FEMA nuclear attack survey listed Bryan bound as a target of a Soviet second strike.
Peaceful Nuclear Explosions in the Soviet Union
Many attribute the phrase “peaceful nuclear explosion” to the government of India’s press release about the 1974 Smiling Buddha test. But India copied that from the English translation of a phrase the Soviets insisted on in the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. The phrase is not so oxymoronic in Russian, the word translated as “peaceful” does not have the same implications of “calm” and “quiet” English does.
And as you might expect, the soviets went big from 1963 onwards. All but a handful of their nuclear detonations from 1963 to the late seventies were classified as non-military explosions.
39 Soviet detonations were classified as seismic exploration. While I am sure they they made an accurate strata map of the Soviet Union during these tests, this data would be useful for calibrating future weapons test and evaluating underground test by the US and UK.
And 25 detonations to extract gas and oil opposed to three in the US. And the Soviets probably really did deliver the gas. And why not? If most of this gas went to industrial applications where the tritiated gas water vapor would go up a smokestack, no problem.
The Soviets really did try canal construction when the US abandoned it. The results were poor and near radiation disaster levels in a few cases. Most projects were abandoned by the late seventies.
But they still had a nuclear Red Adair. Just look at the Urta-Baluk gas fire in Uzbekistan it burned three years before they took such drastic measures in 1966.
The USSR would go on to use nuclear devices to put out fires in five other locations. I am pretty sure they used the tritium contaminated gas later on. If the US rated 2% tritiated water as not contaminating our precious bodily fluids , I’m pretty sure the Soviets didn’t care about tritiated gas.
And I would recommend that you do not laugh at these Soviet efforts. When the first few attempts to cap the Deepwater Horizon platform leak and fire failed, there was serious study put into using a nuclear device to seal it. Two idle drill ships in Houston had been selected for the task, and a survey of stockpiled nuclear weapons had begun. Deepwater could have destroyed the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Cuba if it had gone on for a year.
Why don’t we frack with nukes any more. Prices justify it?
Modern hydraulic fracking is better. Why? The Internet is why. The same tech that built the ‘Net is the same tech that allows well operators to examine strata with digital imaging. We can now see where the blockages are between pockets of gas in fields considered depleted and use hydraulic fracturing to unite those pockets for a profitable yield. It’s precise and profitable. And it’s dangerous. How dangerous? We don’t know. They keep us from knowing what’s in the fracking fluid. We are more comfortable with chemical risks than radiation risks. Modern fracking might be more risky than nuclear fracking.
What I do know is that all expansion of use of carbon based fuels brings us closer to death. A full early 80’s Cold War nuclear exchange would do less damage to the Earth than the likely warming between 2050 and 2100. We need to cut the carbon. It will kill us.