Why can’t we just nuke the oil well out of existence? As each successive failure to stop the nation’s worst-ever spill ratchets up popular outrage and political pressure on the Obama administration, chatter about the nuclear option has also heated up. We’ve got an extreme problem, so why not an extreme solution? Strange as it may seem to hear people advocating thermonuclear devastation to stop an environmental catastrophe, one can understand the psychological attraction. Enough with the nutty Rube Goldberg “top kill” kludges. Let’s just blow the damn thing up and get it over with! Hey, the Soviets did it, why can’t we?
This much we do know: In four separate instances dating back to 1966, the Soviet Union successfully used nuclear explosives to shut off runaway onshore gas wells. According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2000, “The Soviet Program for Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Explosions,” the first successful application of the nuclear option took place in the Urtabulak gas field in Southern Uzbekistan. The Urtabulak well had been gushing more than 12 million cubic meters of gas per day for almost three years and had defied numerous techno-fixes.
Finally, in the fall of 1966, a decision was made to attempt closing the well with the use of a nuclear explosive… Two 44.5-cm (13.5-in) diameter slant wells, Holes No. 1c and 2c, were drilled simultaneously. They were aimed to come as close as possible to Hole No. 11 at a depth of about 1500 m in the middle of a 200-m-thick clay zone…. The location for the explosive in Hole 1c was cooled to bring it down to a temperature the explosive could withstand. A special 3O-kt nuclear explosive developed by the Arzamas nuclear weapons laboratory for this event was emplaced in Hole 1c and stemmed. It was detonated on September 30, 1966. Twenty-three seconds later the flame went out, and the well was sealed.
Emboldened by their success, the Soviets proceeded to cap three other runaway gas wells in ensuing years, once in 1968 and twice in 1972. Another attempt in 1981 failed, however, and as far as we know, there have been no further efforts at nuclear well destruction. I cannot affirmatively attest to the authenticity of the footage in the following video, but the events recorded align pretty well with the DOE report, and it certainly makes for gripping viewing: