Natural Gas “Fracking” with Nuclear Weapons

Rulison - Kelly Michals Flickr

With the recent controversy surrounding fracking to release natural gas I found it interesting to learn that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the predecessor agency to the Department of Energy (DOE) had actually tested three nuclear weapons for the purposes of natural gas stimulation – similar to fracking back in 1967.

Testing was completed under the US Plowshare program. In all three tests, conducted in 1967, 1969, and 1973, they were able to successfully free the gas from the surrounding rock, however the gas was too radioactive to be commercially distributed to public utilities. So why did it take 3 separate tests and 5 nuclear weapons to come up with this conclusion?

The Plowshares program was initiated by President Eisenhower and announced as part of his Atoms for Peace speech at the UN calling for “more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes…that this capability [referring to nuclear weapons] would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage.” This speech opened the door for the Plowshare Program and the possibility to explore the US of nuclear weapons for projects pursuing economic develop not just for military applications.

Fracking is defined as:

  • Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is a means of natural gas extraction employed in deep natural gas well drilling. Once a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into a well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well. (gasland)

While a nuclear blast does not use water, sand, and proprietary chemicals it does pressure the fractures and open fissures that enable the natural gas to flow more freely. Therefore perhaps we can say that it was a predecessor to today’s fracking.

The three tests are described below:

Test 1: Gasbuggy Nuclear Test, December 10, 1967

On December 10, 1967 Project Gasbuggy, a project under US AEC Operation Plowshare Program, exploded a 29 kiloton nuclear device at a depth of 4222 ft or close to a mile underground in an effort to release natural gas trapped in the rocks. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (then Lawrence Radiation Laboratories) called “gas stimulation,” the technique has been used employing conventional explosives, and it was hoped that a larger nuclear explosion would be capable of opening up gas deposits which are not otherwise economically viable.

The test called for a 29-kiloton nuclear device to be placed at the bottom of a 4,240-foot deep shaft drilled in a “tight” shale formation known to contain natural gas. To a large degree the experiment went as planned: the underground cavity produced by the explosion, 80 feet wide and 335 feet high, filled with natural gas from the fractured surrounding rock. However the gas was too radioactive to be commercially distributed by public utilities. (clui)

Test 2: Rulison Nuclear Test, September 10, 1969

The Rulison test, part of the Operation Mandrel Weapons Test Series

Operation Mandrel was a series of 53 nuclear test explosions conducted in 1969 and 1970. This test series included a 1.2 megaton “calibration shot” code-named Milrow, which was detonated 1,220 metres (4,000 ft) underground at Amchitka Island, Alaska, and the 40 kiloton gas stimulation experiment code-named Rulison, detonated near Grand Valley, Colorado (wikipedia).

The Rulison underground nuclear detonation took place in Colorado in 1969, to investigate the possibility of using nuclear explosions to extract natural gas from low grade deposits.

The test, a Plowshare Program experiment called Project Rulison, was performed by the Atomic Energy Commission and two corporate partners, CER Geonuclear and the Austral Oil Company, using a 43 kiloton bomb (greater than 2x the Nagasaki bomb), at the bottom of an 8,426 foot deep shaft. The blast was marginally successful in causing the gas to collect in the cavity and fissures produced by the bomb, however the gas was too radioactive to be sold commercially. (clui)

Following the initial production test, three intermittent gas-flaring tests followed. These tests showed that production of natural gas stimulated by the detonation was less than anticipated. Although approximately 455 million cubic feet of natural gas was produced, elevated levels of radioactivity in the gas made it unacceptable for use at that time. DOE Fact Sheet

Over 40 years later –
The federal government prohibits drilling and extracting below 6,000 feet within a 40-acre zone surrounding surface ground zero. (DOE)

Test 3: Rio Blanco Nuclear Test, May 17, 1973

Conducted under the Operation Toggle series 75 miles north of Grand Junction, Colorado

An underground nuclear test took place the Rio Blanco site in 1973, to investigate the possibility of using nuclear explosions to extract natural gas from low grade deposits. The test, the last in the Plowshare Program, was performed by the AEC and two corporate partners, CER Geonuclear and the Equity Oil Company, using three simultaneously detonated 30 kiloton bombs, each at the bottom of a shaft more than a mile deep. The blast was marginally successful in causing the gas to collect in the cavity and fissures produced by the bombs, however the gas was too radioactive to be sold commercially. (source)

The purpose of the Rio Blanco test was to stimulate the flow of natural gas in low-permeability geologic formations. The detonations were designed to create three blast cavities, each with a diameter of about 150 feet. The explosions were expected to create a rubble chimney above each cavity, and the three chimneys were expected to join. Each downhole explosive package had two major parts: the nuclear device assembly, which was encapsulated in a 30-foot-long canister, and a cooling system, which consisted of one 33-foot-long water tank and three absorber tanks, each about 36 feet long. (DOE)

The detonations initially stimulated gas flow from the upper chimney in above-average quantities, but the pressure dropped 40 percent during post-detonation tests. The natural gas produced was also radioactive. (DOE)

The three sites are now under the DOE Office of Legacy Management.

While I was familiar with the US Plowshares program I never realized that the US AEC had three nuclear tests for what is similar to what we would today call fracking.

According to a report by Princeton:

  • “the most significant radiological concern was the incorporation of tritium produced by the nuclear explosive into the gas produced from the stimulated region.
  • To reduce emplacement costs and tritium levels to the lowest possible levels, the Plowshare Program developed a special nuclear explosive less than 200 mm (7.8 in) in diameter that produced an extremely small amount of tritium (0.2 g), primarily by neutrons in the medium surrounding the explosive…
  • Although project public radiation exposures from commercial use of stimulated gas had been reduced to less than 1% of background, it became clear in the early 1970s that public acceptance within the US of any product containing radioactivity, no matter how minimal, was difficult if not impossible.
  • In addition, the economic viability of nuclear gas stimulation would require the stimulation of hundreds of wells over several decades, a prospect that proved daunting to potential industrial sponsors in light of growing public concerns about environmental quality.
  • Following completion of the post-shot gas production testing of  Rio Blanco in December, 1974, the gas stimulation program, together with the studies of other potential Plowshare applications, was rapidly phase down and the US Plowshare Program was terminated in 1977.

In comparison, the Soviet Union completed a total of 128 peaceful nuclear tests of which 9 were for gas stimulation. Princeton

Just for the record I’m not calling for the return of nuclear weapons to be used to liberate natural gas from rock formations rather I just think it is important to remember some of the things we tried that at the time seemed to make sense but in hindsight really don’t seem like such a great idea. I wonder if we will do the same regarding some aspects of current day fracking.


Image: Rulison site by Kelly Michals Flickr under Creative Commons license. More photos of the site at the link.

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