Detonating Nukes in Search of Natural Gas: A Curious Tale in the 1960s and ’70s
Bomb, baby, bomb.
The U.S. sits on a trove of natural gas, but it’s trapped in shale and other rock formations. Using chemicals and pressurized water to force it out takes an environmental toll.
So here’s Plan B: Let’s plug some nuclear bombs into the shale, light the fuse and let the natural gas flow.
Don’t snicker. That was tried in the 1960s and ’70s. Three tests of the method detonated five nuclear bombs underground. And using hundreds more nuclear explosions to boost energy supplies came far closer to becoming U.S. policy than you probably can imagine.
Federal officials once expected to use nukes to blow sandstone and shale to smithereens to provide decades of natural gas to heat homes and run businesses.
One estimate calculated that 10,000 nuclear bombs could blast loose enough natural gas to meet 20 years of U.S. demand for the fuel. In just one gas field in Colorado, 140 bombs were to be set off.
As President Richard Nixon put it in 1971, the time had come for some “nuclear stimulation technology.”
He meant business. A couple of nuclear bombs had already been detonated in New Mexico and Colorado to test whether they could break loose the natural gas.
Both were deemed a success, so Nixon called for more — a test setting off three bombs together, buried more than a mile underground. They were triggered in western Colorado in 1973, unleashing the equivalent of 90,000 tons of TNT, or five times the energy from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.
But in the end, using nuclear bombs in the gas fields didn’t work as some hoped. One big reason was it produced natural gas that had radioactive particles in it, and there were problems with selling that, though proponents insisted it would be safe once it was blended with other gas.
The effort was the high point of the country’s hopes to use nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes.
Jay Hakes, the former head of the federal Energy Information Administration, said the episode had faded from memory, a largely unknown chapter in the country’s energy history. But there was a time when U.S. officials were so worried about running out of oil and natural gas that they thought the only way out was to go nuclear.
“I tell energy experts about this today and their jaws drop,” he said.
Project Plowshare, a play on the biblical phrase of turning swords into plowshares, set the stage for what would arguably be the most audacious effort ever to boost energy supplies. In the hands of U.S. officials, the sword became nuclear bombs, and plowshares were peacetime ideas for using the explosions for projects such as widening the Panama Canal and excavating an Alaskan seaport.
Neither of those projects happened, in part because of local opposition and concerns about violating nuclear test treaties. But the idea of using nuclear bombs to free up natural gas gained traction partly because underground explosions would sidestep questions about the testing treaties and spewing radioactivity into the atmosphere.
The federal Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. Department of Interior threw their support behind the plans and formed partnerships with several companies, including some that sold natural gas. CER Geonuclear, a Las Vegas company, would manage the enterprise.
The first nuclear explosion to “stimulate” natural gas was in 1967 in New Mexico, and it won the support of state and local officials. Project Gasbuggy, which used a 29-kiloton bomb about double the size of the one used on Hiroshima, was declared a success because it caused gas to flow from the rock formations and created a cavern to store the fuel.
A larger bomb was planned for another test in 1969 near Rifle, Colo. The Atomic Energy Commission said that the test would have only “minor adverse effects on the local environment” and that the possibility of radioactivity venting into the atmosphere had a “very low significant probability.”
That wasn’t good enough for people such as Chester McQueary, who had grown up in the area and was astounded that such a plan was even being considered.
“My God, this is stunning,” he recalled thinking.
A lawsuit sought to stop the test but was tossed out of court. McQueary and 27 other protesters slipped into a quarantine zone around the test site, hoping that their presence would force cancellation of the detonation. The military canvassed the area in helicopters and snagged a couple of protesters, but others evaded detection.
As they listened to a countdown on a local radio station, they lit smoke flares to show they were still in the five-mile evacuation zone, but the bomb was triggered anyway.
“We wondered if the madness was going to continue,” he said.
In fact, there was a pause. But the plan regained momentum when Nixon stated his support for “nuclear stimulation” in a message to Congress sketching out the country’s energy policy. The Atomic Energy Commission approved Project Rio Blanco, which would be carried out about 70 miles north of Grand Junction, Colo.
This would be the biggest test yet, with three nuclear bombs detonated in a vertical stack. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1972 said this would be the first of three phases that could eventually involve up to 60 nuclear explosions to produce enough natural gas to justify building a pipeline to the area.
D-Day for the first phase was set for May 17, 1973.
Dale Stahlecker remembers the day well. He had a job tracking birds for the Colorado Division of Wildlife and was sitting in a field watching a red-tailed hawk’s nest just a few miles from where the underground bombs detonated.
He felt the earth roll underneath him, and a female hawk jumped from her nest and began screaming. The bird was joined overhead by her mate, shrieking as they flew off. Their week-old chick was left behind and killed by falling rocks from a nearby cliff.
“I remember having the thought that maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” Stahlecker recalled.
Stahlecker and a colleague then wrote a report recommending that in the future it would be best if nuclear explosions weren’t scheduled during bird nesting season.
More explosions were planned.
Project Wagon Wheel would fire off five 100-kiloton bombs in Wyoming in a partnership that included El Paso Natural Gas, which is today a leading domestic natural gas producer. But the detonations were repeatedly postponed, and it eventually was announced that using nuclear bombs for natural gas production was being dropped.
Project Rio Blanco revealed one problem with connecting the caverns created by the explosions. But the big issue was the radioactive gas.
A CER Geonuclear executive, in a presentation at the Colorado School of Mines, said regulatory obstacles made it too difficult to sell the gas. But the company continued to insist it would have been safe if blended with other natural gas.
Eventually, price controls on natural gas were removed in the 1980s, and higher prices led companies to increase drilling. In the last several years they also used hydraulic fracking — a chemical and pressurized-water technique — to increase recovery of the gas.
Fracking has its own challenges, including requiring lots of water in a generally dry region, leaving behind tons of shattered rock and potentially polluting the water supply because of the chemicals used.
But it doesn’t require nuclear weapons.
When fracking was being tried out, at least one of the holes drilled to place a nuclear bomb in the Wyoming test was used again.
Elsewhere there are other signs of the legacy of Project Rio Blanco. A Colorado law that requires voter approval for any future nuclear explosion in the state is still on the books. The sites where the nuclear tests occurred are now surrounded by chain link fence to keep out trespassers.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has begun issuing permits to drill for natural gas as close as a half mile to the two detonation sites in the state — as long as precautions are taken, including testing for radioactivity. The commission says the drilling has gone smoothly.
“We’ve devoted a great deal of attention to it,” said commission director David Neslin.
But some property owners near the detonation sites still worry that any drilling could cause radioactivity to leak. They want public hearings before more drilling is allowed, instead of government assurances that there isn’t a problem. The issue is now before the Colorado Supreme Court.
“There is a legacy, and it’s a distrust of government,” said Luke Danielson, an attorney for the property owners.