Call it the Option That Will Not Die. As long as oil continues to spew into the Gulf at a rate that equals the Exxon Valdex every three days, the crisis will look desperate enough for the most desperate measures. And one measure is about as desperate as it gets:
A nuclear fix to the leaking well has been touted online and in the occasional newspaper op-ed for weeks now. Washington has repeatedly dismissed the idea and BP execs say they are not considering an explosion — nuclear or otherwise. But as a series of efforts to plug the 60,000 barrels of oil a day gushing from the sea floor have failed, talk of an extreme solution refuses to die.
For some, blasting the problem seems the most logical answer in the world. Mikhailov has had a distinguished career in the nuclear field, helping to close a Soviet Union program that used nuclear explosions to seal gas leaks. Ordinarily he’s an opponent of nuclear blasts, but he says an underwater explosion in the Gulf of Mexico would not be harmful and could cost no more than $10 million. That compares with the $3 billion BP has paid out in cleanup and compensation costs so far. “This option is worth the money,” he says.
And it’s not just Soviet boffins. Milo Nordyke, one of the masterminds behind U.S. research into peaceful nuclear energy in the 1960s and ’70s says a nuclear explosion is a logical last-resort solution for BP and the government. Matthew Simmons, a former energy adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush and the founder of energy investment-banking firm Simmons & Company International, is another calling for the nuclear option.
Even former U.S. President Bill Clinton has voiced support for the idea of an explosion to stem the flow of oil, albeit one using conventional materials rather than nukes. “Unless we send the Navy down deep to blow up the well and cover the leak with piles and piles and piles of rock and debris, which may become necessary … unless we are going to do that, we are dependent on the technical expertise of these people from BP,” Clinton told the Fortune/Time/CNN Global Forum in South Africa on June 29.
The conventional blast doesn’t sound like it would work. The reasoning goes that the force and the heat of a nuke would effectively seal the hole and cracks in the field, as well as give it that healthy glow all young seabeds desire. Blasting it with conventional weapons might just make the situation worse, which is why Clinton added the ‘rocks and debris’ proviso. Unfortunately, that sounds like a replay of “top kill,” which turned out to be impractical at that depth.
Furthermore, the Russians (then Soviets) had practical experience at this kind of intervention, as the article mentions. At least one of those blasts were apparently above the surface, though, and not all of them were entirely successful. Getting it half done with a nuke would make it almost impossible to fix it any further, it would seem, except with another top-kill operation, and a nuclear blast in the immediate area just might complicate those efforts.
We still have other options on the table. BP is in the process of drilling relief wells that, if successful, will greatly reduce the pressure at the damaged wellhead and perhaps give BP a chance to cap it completely. That won’t take place until August, though, so the best idea is probably to sit tight and wait it out, or try other methods of capping it short of a cataclysmic explosion. The nuclear option is in this case a literal nuclear option and should be used only in the final extremity, it at all.
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