RPT-SPECIAL REPORT-Should BP nuke its leaking well?

(Repeats story sent July 2)
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* Russian scientists urge BP to use nuclear explosion

* Bill Clinton calls for conventional blast

* USSR used nuclear detonations to seal gas leaks

* BP wasting time say ex-Soviet minister and scientists

* Soviet era project dangerous – Rosneft, Greenpeace

By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Ben Judah, Alina Selyukh

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON, July 2 (BestGrowthStock) – His face wracked by
age and his voice rasping after decades of chain-smoking coarse
tobacco, the former long-time Russian Minister of nuclear energy
and veteran Soviet physicist Viktor Mikhailov knows just how to
fix BP’s (BP.L: ) oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

“A nuclear explosion over the leak,” he says nonchalantly
puffing a cigarette as he sits in a conference room at the
Institute of Strategic Stability, where he is a director. “I
don’t know what BP is waiting for, they are wasting their time.
Only about 10 kilotons of nuclear explosion capacity and the
problem is solved.”

A nuclear fix to the leaking well has been touted online and
in the occasional newspaper op-ed for weeks now. Washington has
repeatedly dismissed the idea and BP execs say they are not
considering an explosion — nuclear or otherwise. But as a
series of efforts to plug the 60,000 barrels of oil a day
gushing from the sea floor have failed, talk of an extreme
solution refuses to die.

For some, blasting the problem seems the most logical answer
in the world. Mikhailov has had a distinguished career in the
nuclear field, helping to close a Soviet Union programme that
used nuclear explosions to seal gas leaks. Ordinarily he’s an
opponent of nuclear blasts, but he says an underwater explosion
in the Gulf of Mexico would not be harmful and could cost no
more than $10 million. That compares with the $2.35 billion BP
has paid out in cleanup and compensation costs so far. “This
option is worth the money,” he says.

And it’s not just Soviet boffins. Milo Nordyke, one of the
masterminds behind U.S research into peaceful nuclear energy in
the 1960s and ’70s says a nuclear explosion is a logical
last-resort solution for BP and the government. Matthew Simmons,
a former energy adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush and the
founder of energy investment-banking firm Simmons & Company
International, is another calling for the nuclear option.

Even former U.S. President Bill Clinton has voiced support
for the idea of an explosion to stem the flow of oil, albeit one
using conventional materials rather than nukes. “Unless we send
the Navy down deep to blow up the well and cover the leak with
piles and piles and piles of rock and debris, which may become
necessary … unless we are going to do that, we are dependent
on the technical expertise of these people from BP,” Clinton
told the Fortune/Time/CNN Global Forum in South Africa on June

Clinton was picking up on an idea mooted by Christopher
Brownfield in June. Brownfield is a one-time nuclear submarine
officer, a veteran of the Iraq war (he volunteered in 2006) and
now a nuclear policy researcher at Columbia University. He is
also one of a number of scientists whose theories rely not on
nuclear bombs — he did toy with that thought for a while — but
on conventional explosives that would implode the well and, if
not completely plug it with crushed rock, at least bring the
flow of oil under control. “It’s kind of like stepping on a
garden hose to kink it,” Brownfield says. “You may not cut off
the flow entirely but it would greatly reduce the flow.”


Using nuclear blasts for peaceful ends was a key plank of
Cold War policy in both the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the middle of last century, both countries were motivated by
a desire to soften the image of the era’s weapon of choice.

Washington had big plans to use peaceful nuclear explosions
to build an additional Panama Canal, carve a path for an
inter-state highway through mountains in the Mojave Desert and
connect underwater aquifers in Arizona. But the experimental
plans were dropped as authorities learned more about the
ecological dangers of surface explosions.

The Soviet programme, known as Nuclear Explosions for the
National Economy, was launched in 1958. The project saw 124
nuclear explosions for such tasks as digging canals and
reservoirs, creating underground storage caverns for natural gas
and toxic waste, exploiting oil and gas deposits and sealing gas
leaks. It was finally mothballed by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989.

The Soviets first used a nuclear blast to seal a gas leak in
1966. Urtabulak, one of its prized gas-fields in Uzbekistan, had
caught fire and raged for three years. Desperate to save the
cherished reserves, Yefim Slavsky, then Minister of Light
Industry, ordered nuclear engineers to use the most powerful
weapon in their arsenal.

“The Minister said, ‘Do it. Put it out. Explode it,'”
recalls Albert Vasilyev, a young engineer and a rising star in
the project who now teaches at the Lenin Technical Institute in

Vasilyev remembers the technology behind the program with
obvious pride. “The explosion takes place deep underground,” he
says. “We pinch the pipe, break it and the pipe collapses.”
According to Vasilyev, the blast at Urtabulak sealed the well
shut leaving only an empty crater.


In all, the Soviets detonated five nuclear devices to seal
off runaway gas wells — succeeding three or four times,
depending on who you talk to. “It worked quite well for them,”
says Nordyke, who authored a detailed account of Soviet
explosions in a 2000 paper. “There is no reason to think it
wouldn’t be fine (for the United States).”

But not everything went smoothly. Vasilyev admits the
programme “had two misfires”. The final blast in 1979 was
conducted near the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. “The closest
houses were just about 400 meters away,” Vasilyev recalls. “So
this was ordered to be the weakest of the explosions. Even the
buildings and the street lamps survived.” Unfortunately, the low
capacity of the device failed to seal the well and the gas

Alexander Koldobsky, a fellow nuclear physicist from the
Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, insists the peaceful
nuclear explosions were safe. The people who worked on the
programme “were brilliant professionals”, he says. “They had a
culture of safety, which did not accept the word ‘maybe’, but
only accepted the words ‘obligation’ and ‘instruction.’ Any
derivation from these in nuclear technologies is a crime.”

Still, he concedes, “there were different scenarios of what
happened after an explosion.” At his first blast in a Turkmen
gas field in 1972, “the stench was unbearable,” he says. “And
the wind was blowing toward a nearby town.” He closes his narrow
lips into a smile as if refusing to say more.

Koldobsky shrugs off any suggestion of fear or emotion when
the bomb exploded. “I felt nothing. I was just doing my job.”

RPT-SPECIAL REPORT-Should BP nuke its leaking well?