Nukes and Expensive Oil

A reader named Marilyn, from Oregon, wrote with the following question: 

“I’ve read Internet threads where people want to use a nuclear weapon to close the oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Even Matt Simmons, who’s a hero to me because of his Peak Oil work, says we might need to use a nuclear weapon to close the well. Can you discuss that?” 

I sure can… 

Underwater Nuclear Bursts 

Here’s my background even to comment on the subject. It’s based on my Navy experience, from many years ago. I should say right here that these are my personal views. Nothing I say is an “official” statement on behalf of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or U.S. government.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I flew a Navy aircraft built by Lockheed called the S-3. It was a graceful twin-engine, carrier-capable jet, and is now retired from Navy service (alas!). 

If man was meant to fly, he’d have wings. Or the Navy/Lockheed S-3. 

But when the S-3 was flying, one of its key missions was anti-submarine warfare (ASW). It was designed during the depths of the Cold War, when the world’s oceans were crawling with Soviet submarines. The S-3 was among the aircraft carrier’s ASW defenses.
To find Soviet submarines, the S-3 had a superb surface-search radar, and awesome electronic capabilities. The S-3 also carried a large load of sonobuoys that we’d drop in the water and use to listen for submarines.
The S-3 could carry air-delivered, conventionally armed torpedoes, if necessary. But the most powerful weapon capability for the S-3 was its ability to deliver a “special weapon,” namely a nuclear depth bomb called the B57. (This is all unclassified information, by the way. These days, you can look it up on the Internet.) 

B57 Nuclear Depth Bomb, on carrying dolly.
Red nose is a plastic cover — please remove before flight.

Point is, back when I was flying S-3s, I became pretty smart about the ASW mission, and also about this particular special weapon. Thus do I know a few things about both nuclear weapons and underwater nuclear bursts.

What Could a Nuclear Weapon Accomplish? 

Why are some people — the eminent Matt Simmons among them — discussing the use of nuclear weapons in the Gulf of Mexico? Does Matt know something that other people don’t? Well, I think Matt is off-base on this point. Don’t take it the “wrong” way, but Matt knows more about Peak Oil than he knows about underwater nuclear bursts.
As we used to say in the Navy, from a small splash, you get a big flash. Among people who have no or limited experience with nuclear weapons, this gives rise to many nuclear myths, if not fixations. That is, many people think that you can really DO SOMETHING with a nuclear weapon. Sorry to disappoint, but the last thing you want to do with a nuclear weapon is trigger it, particularly in a misplaced effort to seal a blownout oil well. 

There’s GOT to be a better way to seal an oil well than this… 

Let’s just consider the explosion. Yes, you can put a lot of energy into the earth — and the water and atmosphere — with a nuclear blast. But is that really what you want? There’s such a thing as putting “too much” energy on your target. And you still might not accomplish the mission.
Nuclear effects — especially subsurface nuclear effects — are not predictable. So even with the best efforts you will doubtless have many unintended consequences. It might seem like a good idea to place a nuclear bomb next to the leaking oil well, cook it off, move an immense level of energy toward that awful oil well and seal it up with fused glass. Except it doesn’t work that way. 

Start at the Beginning 

Let’s start at the beginning. You need to drill a hole first, into which to place your device. Hey, BP (BP: NYSE) is already drilling two holes next to the blownout well. The two holes are for relief wells. So now you want to drill a third hole for the nuclear device?
Then you need a nuclear device to emplace in the hole. Except that the U.S. has no nuclear devices rated for 5,000-foot and deeper water depths. Sure, U.S. special weapons are built to withstand multi-G accelerations, and all sorts of launch and drop shock loads. The devices can function in the vacuum of space. They can even pass through transient re-entry heating. But there’s no weapon design out there — none that I’ve ever heard of — to deal with the high external pressure under a mile or more of water.
That goes for nuclear-armed torpedoes as well — which I can’t discuss except to say that long ago, the Navy developed weapons to chase down Soviet deep-diving submarines. If you ever read Tom Clancy’s book The Hunt for Red October, he has a particular Soviet submarine diving to over 2,000 feet. That’s all I’ll tell you. 

Wigwam Test 

So let’s say that we overcome the initial obstacles of drilling a hole and emplacing a weapon. Let’s say that we can put a nuclear device down there next to the well. What happens with an underwater nuclear blast?
From unclassified sources, I can tell you that the deepest underwater nuclear explosion on record is the Operation Wigwam test, conducted on May 15, 1955. Wigwam consisted of a subsea 30-kiloton nuclear detonation, or a bit over twice the power of the 1945 Hiroshima blast.
The Wigwam test blast was about 450 miles southwest of San Diego, Calif. (29 Deg N, 126 Deg W) in open ocean, with water depth of 16,000 feet. The purpose of the test was to look at the vulnerability of submarines to deep underwater nuclear explosions. (I can’t tell you much on that, but it’s not pretty.)
The Wigwam nuclear device — a very large B7 “Betty” specially reinforced and rigged as a depth charge — was suspended by a 2,000-foot cable from a barge. The dry weight of the bomb was 8,250 pounds, and 5,700 pounds when submerged. After it detonated, here’s what the blast wave did, just before the fireball exited through the surface. 

“Beware, beware!” Little splash, big flash. Cover your eyes and hope you’re upwind. 

Oil, Water and… Radionuclides? 

Right now we have a well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It looks like BP is getting the well under control. The relief wells are also going down, slowly but steadily. We can envision this tragedy coming to an end.
At this point, do we want to let loose a nuke and have radioactive particles mix with the oil and water? Do we want radioactive water vapor rising into the atmosphere just south of New Orleans?
And what of the shock wave? Do we want to rip the seafloor to shreds? Do we want a nuclear-level shock wave traveling through the seafloor in the vicinity of the BP oil well? What will that do? Will it break other oil pipelines installed on the bottom?
What of an oceanographic phenomenon called “bottom bounce”? That’s a situation in which the shock wave bounces off layers of seawater and travels back down to the ocean floor to be reflected even further out. You could, possibly, put destructive levels of energy many dozens of miles away from the burst point. You could break things faraway. So you see where I’m going with this.
What about the oceanic environment? This is not the early days of the Cold War. We know a lot these days about the complex biology of the ocean. Radioisotopes, like strontium and iodine, concentrate as you move up the food chain.
Your basic oyster is a filter feeder, moving hundreds of thousands of gallons of seawater through its system over its lifetime. This causes isotopes to concentrate to a level that can poison wildlife and people. Anybody or anything that eats these critters will surely suffer from radiation damage to every level of cellular function, and almost certainly to reproductive cells. More specifically, radioactive strontium and iodine concentrate in the bones and thyroid glands, respectively.
This is all straightforward, established science. If you want things to get even uglier, and last a real long time, you’ll use a nuclear weapon out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Bottom line is that we need to get the nuclear weapon discussion off the table. Put the nukes back in the bunkers, where they belong. 

Where to from Here? 

Marilyn, I’m glad you asked your question. But a nuke clearly isn’t the right choice.
With that said, another question comes to light…
With a small percentage of oil still flowing out of the well, a massive cleanup ensuing, more goverenment regulation and the effects of a drilling moratorium tying the hands of our energy industry – where do we go from here?
I’ll start by making a statement I’ve made before and I’ll make again: the cheap and easy oil is GONE. Finding new energy to fuel our nation is going to be harder, more regulated and more expensive.
Is a U.S. moratorium the right choice? I’ll let you decide that.
But there’s one matter that you won’t have a choice on: the higher price you pay for oil.
With oil sitting north of $70 a barrel I can’t imagine it getting any cheaper.
Indeed, a few years from now we may look back and deem this period the point where the U.S. lost its edge in energy.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading…
Until we meet again,
Byron W. King
Whiskey & Gunpowder

June 11, 2010