Note: This story — which had been in preparation for a couple weeks — went live literally seconds before news broke that BP had temporarily ended the oil leak. That’s great news. I’m keeping this post up for some perspective on the efforts to provide alternatives to the cap plan.
Sick of this back-and-forth from BP and the Coast Guard on containment caps yet? After fears that leaks in the device could make the Gulf Coast spill even worse, national incident commander Thad Allen promised on Thursday that it was merely a “precursor” to plugging the oil. If the latest test doesn’t work (again), could the next best option be sending a mini-nuke into the water? Scientists and engineers tell The Politics Blog that the Department of Homeland Security is interested in bunker-busting techniques — not least of all because the plan could sidestep BP with existing U.S. government technology — and that inducing a massive explosion in the Gulf might not be as crazy as it sounds. Here’s why:
1. It’s worked before.
On at least three occasions in the ’60s and ’70s, the Soviets succeeded in burying small nuclear warheads to crimp and permanently seal leaking natural-gas wells on land. The blasts were meant to shift the rock strata, collapsing the well shafts. Using a nuclear bomb for anything these days — even tests — is politically unacceptable, but there are no such hang-ups about conventional explosives. “The physical principles of an explosion-induced shockwave are very good,” says U.S. Marine Corps science adviser Franz Gayl, the main proponent of the bomb plan who’s been making the rounds from the Pentagon and through blast modeling all the way up Capitol Hill.
2. We’ve got the hardware.
Back in the Gulf War, when the Iraqi army torched hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells, Gayl started thinking about using bombs on oil leaks, too. And advance engineer who would later go to advise the Pentagon on drones for Afghanistan, his idea was to use several standard, 2,000-pound U.S. Air Force bombs dropped by a B-52. But Gayl has modified his scheme for the Gulf of Mexico, limiting warheads to one or two of the Air Force’s special bunker-buster munitions, each weighing in at between 23,000 and 30,000 pounds. The (relatively) measured explosion, Gayl and other proponents say, should crimp the well.
3. We’ve crunched the numbers.
Make no mistake: Gayl is not acting on behalf of the U.S. military or government, but with scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and defense consultant SAIC modeling the effects of his undersea blast plan, he’s no mad scientist, either. “Results look good,” one scientist told Gayl. In an interview with The Politics Blog, the same scientist, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution within the Obama administration, said the bomb plan was not a “slam dunk” but that “the initial looks suggest it might be worth pursuing as backup should relief wells not work.”