NO MATTER HOW much people fear and complain about the effects of fracking, it could be worse. In the 1960s and 1970s a number of private energy companies developed proposals to stimulate underground gas deposits using nuclear bombs. While this seems like a curious concept to consider, even more surprising is that three of these projects were approved, and ultimately succeeded.
The first one was conducted by the El Paso Natural Gas Company, working with the Lawrence Radiation Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. The gas company conceived of the project in 1958, and proposed it to the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC adopted it as one of the signature projects for the Plowshare Program, exploring peaceful uses of nuclear explosives.
With a nuclear device, the explosive force of thousands of tons of TNT can fit in a few cubic feet, and easily be lowered to the bottom of a drilled hole. El Paso, one of the largest gas companies in the country, believed that such a dramatic increase in explosive force would open up natural gas sources all over the country that were not accessible under current, conventional explosive fracturing methods.
The project, code-named Gasbuggy, ended up taking nine years to develop, and it cost the company $1.8 million to engineer it. 160 acres were secured in national forest grazing lands in northern New Mexico, at a known gas-rich area. The federal government paid another $2.9 million, and supplied the nuclear device. A 19-inch wide hole, 4,420 feet deep, was drilled, into which the bomb was lowered. The hole was sealed, and the shot took place in 1967. The blast was equivalent to 29,000 tons of TNT, roughly twice the size of the Hiroshima bomb. It created a large central cavity, around 200 feet in diameter, that was expected to fill up with gas from cracks formed deep into the surrounding rock.
Gas wells were later drilled into the formation, and gas was processed at facilities on the surface, operated by the AEC and El Paso under special conditions, as it was known that the gas would be radioactive. It was also expected that after some period, the radioactivity would decrease, and the gas could be marketed. This did not occur, and after ten years of lower than anticipated amounts of gas with higher than anticipated radioactivity, the project was shut down.
Irradiated production equipment, separation tanks, and soil was taken to the Nevada Test Site for disposal, and the wells were plugged. Gas, groundwater, and soil sampling continued until 2002, and final surface remediation was completed in 2004. Hydrologic monitoring will continue indefinitely. The site is marked with a small cement monument with a plaque that forbids excavations there. Cows wander around.
Rulison was the second of the three nuclear gas well stimulation projects. It was proposed and primarily financed by the Austral Oil Company of Houston, with the support of the engineering from CER Geonuclear, of Las Vegas (itself a joint venture between Continental Oil and EG&G, the primary contractor at the Nevada Test Site). Los Alamos National Lab supplied technical support and the nuclear device.
The site selected for the project was on the slopes of Battlement Mesa, in northwestern Colorado, a remote but known gas field. Drilled from an elevation of 8,145 feet, the hole extended below sea level, to a distance of 8,426 feet below the surface. The 40-kiloton bomb, in a package nine inches wide and 15 feet long was slowly lowered into position, and the hole filled with gravel and other stemming materials, with wires extending out the hole connecting the bomb to a control trailer 2.5 miles away. 37 families were evacuated from homes within a five-mile radius.
After several postponements, waiting for the winds to be blowing away from nearby population centers in case of any accidental venting, the detonation took place on September 10, 1969.
A few protesters were discovered within the evacuation zone, hoping their presence would further delay the test. Two were removed by an Air Force helicopter, at gunpoint. Two others were seen, but could not be captured due to the steepness of the slope, so were left there, two miles from Ground Zero. The two cleared an area of loose stones, and lay down on the ground, listening to the countdown, which was broadcast on a local radio station. At zero, their bodies bounced eight inches into the air, but they were unharmed.
Brick chimneys in town, seven miles away, fell down. The rumbling of rockslides along the escarpment of the mesa continued for more than half a minute after the blast. The site remained sealed for six months to allow radiation and pressure levels to decrease. Drilling back into the blast chamber determined that it was around 350 feet high and 75 feet across, and was full of gas. Production testing lasted for around six months, but radiation levels were high enough that the gas was not marketable.
Operations ceased in 1972 after more than $10 million was spent on the project. Radioactive equipment and soil was sent to a burial site in Beatty, Nevada. Wells were plugged in 1976, remaining equipment was removed and a monument was placed at the site. The owner of the property, a potato farmer named Claude Hayward, who allowed the AEC to conduct the project on his land, never saw a dime of the gas royalties he was promised.
Since then, gas production in the area has increased dramatically, due to advances in hydrological fracking. There are more than a dozen wells within the three mile buffer zone around ground zero. Several of them are along a well access road that wraps around the back of the site, where the closest drill pad is exactly a half mile from ground zero. A number of companies would like to drill closer, but so far this half-mile limit has been established, and is yet to be breached.
It seems unlikely that the Energy Department’s ban on drilling deeper than 6,000 feet within the 40-acre surface area around the emplacement well will be challenged.
Despite the poor results of these two first nuclear fracking projects, a third was planned and completed, less than 50 miles away. This one was conceived in 1970, and was conducted primarily by CER Geonuclear Corporation, which paid 85% of the $9 million cost, in partnership with the Conoco Oil Company and the Lawrence Radiation Lab.
Unlike the other two, this shot used three nuclear bombs in the shaft, spaced a few hundred feet apart, more than a mile in the ground. The devices, each with a yield of 33 kilotons, were to be triggered simultaneously, in order to create a fractured area more than three times as large as with a single device, as the rubble cavities were expected to collapse into one another.
The blast took place on May 17, 1973. 50 people from a 7.5 mile area were evacuated. Ground movement was felt as much as 50 miles away and at least one building in Meeker, 30 miles away, was damaged. Though the cumulative yield was close to 100 kilotons the chambers did not join as expected.
Testing of the gas extracted from the site continued for two years, but production quantities were less than expected, and radioactivity was high. The operation ceased and most of the site was remediated in 1976. The 320-acre parcel of government property is next to a dirt road and a creek, and is unfenced. A small cement monument and brass plaque, in the same form as at Rulison, marks the site. There are several test and monitoring well heads in the area.
In 1974, as a result of Rulison and Rio Blanco, Colorado passed a state law requiring a public vote before another nuclear bomb could be detonated in the state. The next year, the Atomic Energy Commissions Project Plowshare was cancelled, after 27 separate projects. Rio Blanco’s nuclear fracking blast was the last time a full-scale nuclear bomb would be used for peaceful, economic purposes. It was also the last time the U.S. nuclear program would detonate a nuclear bomb outside of the Nevada Test Site.