Nuclear Gas

Jim Brown
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Did you know that the U.S. exploded three nuclear bombs in Colorado and New Mexico in an effort to release natural gas from shale and sandstone formations?

Yes, in 1969 the government detonated nuclear bombs deep underground to fracture shale and sandstone formations in an effort to free up trapped gas. One such bomb exploded in Colorado was twice as powerful as the one that destroyed Hiroshoma in 1945.

The explosion was 8,000 feet below ground under a Colorado mountain. The plan worked but there were severe unintended consequences. The gas was unlocked by the blast and allowed to travel freely in the fractured rock. Unfortunately the gas was deemed too radioactive for commercial use.

It has been forty years and companies are still prohibited from drilling in the vicinity of the blast area. When companies do get permits to drill close to the site residents claim they are fearful that the radioactive gas will leak out and pollute the countryside.

The Colorado blast occurred under a mountain three hours west of Denver near Parachute Colorado. There is a plaque on the site today commemorating the blast.

Blast Plaque

The energy dept prohibits drilling more than 6,000 feet deep in a 40-acre radius that surrounds the Project Rulison site. Colorado regulators have kept drillers more than a half-mile away. Noble Energy has a lease within the prohibited zone but they have not applied for a permit to drill.

Colorado residents are fighting any potential drilling within three miles of the site and the state Appeals court said recently they are entitled to a public hearing if a company applies for a permit.

The Energy Dept claims the radiation from the blast is not a problem for drillers because it is contained inside a sphere of molten rock that formed a sort of glass chamber when it was exposed to the heat of the nuclear blast. They believe there is little danger of it escaping into a well.

People watching the blast from six miles away saw local cliffs crumbling and waves of motion flowing through the ground that rocked cars and broke window glass from the shaking.

The unintended consequences of radioactive gas and the forced removal of millions of dollars of acreage from the drilling pool shows that the best laid plans sometimes go astray. This is another reason using a nuclear bomb to stop the BP well leak would not have been a reasonable alternative.

Fracturing the ocean bottom for miles around and upsetting the delicate geologic formations would have opened the door for some very severe unintended consequences. Fencing off miles of desert because of a mistake with a bomb is a lot easier than fighting oil seeps across miles of ocean in the aftermath of a bomb on the ocean bottom.

Jim Brown

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