Why nuking the blowout is a very bad idea
There has been a lot of talk lately about nuking the BP Macondo blowout in order to seal it. This is a very unwise idea, unfortunately it has gained enough currency among the blogosphere that even people who really should know better are wondering if it might not be a bad idea. Let me assure you, it is. VERY BAD.
OK, lets take this harebrained scheme apart shall we?
- The Soviet detonations were on land. The shock wave was dissipated by the air above the ground. Shock waves of that magnitude underwater have another name, they are called tsunamis. Anybody for flooding NOLA, Galveston, Mobile Bay, Matagorda Bay and every other port on the GoM at the same time? Yah, didn't think so.
- You would still need to drill a horizontal well to within a few hundred feet of the blown out well and far enough below an impermeable layer to not fracture the impermeable layer. If you were going to do this you might as well drill another hundred feet or so and just pump mud and cement which is the plan anyway. This was not an option for the Soviets because directional drilling technology was rudimentary at best in 1966 and there was no way they could reliably hit the original borehole with an intersecting relief well. They couldn't even get close enough to use conventional explosives.
- It would contaminate a big and productive chunk of the Mississippi Green Canyon, both from a seafood/wildlife standpoint as well as an energy standpoint with radioactive fission products. Underground nuclear detonations leak, they ALL do. They may not leak initially, but within a week to 10 days they will, and radioactive fission products are much longer lived than oil contamination. Oil will degrade and no longer be a problem within a year or so, radioactive fission products will be around for hundreds of thousands of years. And if it leaks fission products, it will leak oil and gas too eventually.
- Currently we have a solidly cased hole that can conceivably be plugged by mud and cement if a relief well is drilled. The Soviets did not. These Soviet gas wells were blowouts because the driller cut corners and did not use enough (or any!) cement to bond the casing to the formation in order to meet his unrealistic quota for hole drilled. Gas was coming out around the casing as a result and leaking into aquifers and boiling out of the ground surrounding the well too. They did not have any other means of pressure containment. It is conceivable that further high pressure pumping could result in a similar situation, but that is currently not the case.
- What happens if nuking it fails? you will have compounded the problem then. With so many other possible avenues of attack still open to us, it is insane to throw those options away on this scheme. Now, if all else fails (and we are nowhere NEAR that point yet, media hype be damned.) then MAYBE this should be looked at, but again there is so much more to still try yet, let's not burn that bridge before we have crossed it.
- Remember that in 1966, the Soviets and the US were both talking up the "peaceful" uses of nuclear weapons as an excuse to continue to manufacture them by the trainload (the USSR especially) The Sov's were talking about digging a canal to the Ural Sea deep enough to give them a year round warm water port for their nuclear subs using nuke bombs set for ground burst. Of course we responded with the idea of digging a new, wider and deeper Panama Canal the same way, but nobody really believed the hype, it was just PR. It was really intended to be cover for above ground groundburst testing to see how far the fallout would go and to see just how deep the shock wave would penetrate the ground. this was really about figuring out how deep and how much concrete was needed in order to build an impenetrable bunker that was Nuke proof. In the case of the oil well shots these were actually underground test shots for linear implosion artillery rounds (which is a lot harder to achieve than conventional spherical implosion rounds.) which is why 1/5 of them failed to detonate correctly. They were in fact prototype tactical battlefield weapons that just happened to also fit with the cover story of a "peaceful" nuke test. A "conventional" nuke simply won't fit within a wellbore from that time period, it won't physically fit unless it was designed specifically to fit within a small diameter like the 155 mm howitzer shells were but again, the compromise was a very inefficient, very expensive, and difficult to optimize implosion design with very low yield. Similar to the US W-48 warhead.
- Another major issue is the geology of the formation as well. The geology is full of Methane Clathrate (AKA Methane Hydrate) deposits and gas pockets. It is also not well consolidated or impermeable. Setting off a nuke would most likely fracture the formation and cause the well to blow out even more. It was the fact that this formation is so unstable that was the cause of the well being so far behind schedule as it was. It caused the borehole to washout and "lose circulation" (I.E. the formation was absorbing the drilling mud instead of allowing it to flow back to the surface through the annulus which may have left large cavities around the casing that may not have been adequately filled with cement.) And BP compounded the problems by insisting that the weight on bit be increased to increase the penetration rate. But doing so merely fractured the formation instead of cutting it. This is what caused the wellbore to collapse and caused the drill string to get stuck in the well. BP was forced to sever the drill string with shaped charges in order to trip out of the hole, backfill with a cement plug and then drill a "sidetrack" to go around the stuck drill string. There is also concern that the heat generated by the setting cement may have caused pockets of methane hydrate to sublimate into gaseous methane, increasing the wellbore pressure far in excess of the pressures the plugs or the wellhead were designed to deal with. Can you imagine what the heat of a nuclear blast would do to this formation? It would pulverize it and cause every pocket of methane hydrate in the area to simultaneously sublimate. you could quite literally turn a huge chunk of the formation into rubble that would have no ability at all of containing all that pressure. You could turn this into the world's first subsea oil and gas volcano.