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The Dark Domain: Resurrecting Project Rulison: Part One (in two Parts)

September 28, 2007

1969 - Project RulisonOn Tuesday,

(for Part 2)

October 2 – just a few days from now – The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will hold a meeting at the Old Court House in Grand Junction to consider a request from the oil and gas industry to drill for natural gas within the three mile perimeter of the epicenter of what has been known for 38 years as `Project Rulison’.

These must be a trying few days for many oil and gas reps, having to scurry from Denver where they attended a major Republican Party fund raising dinner keynoted by Vice President Dick Cheney (who went on to speak to oil and gas people in Utah and Wyoming) to the other side of Colorado to Grand Junction to make their case as to why drilling for natural gas within 3 miles of Project Rulison is good for Colorado, the nation and the world. It’s going to be a tough sell for sure, but its more than likely those oil and gas lawyers will get their way. After all, who – outside of some people who live nearby Rulison, in western Colorado in 2007 – remembers `Project Rulison’?

Actually, it turns out that the `Project Rulison’ does ring a certain bell for my wife, Nancy Fey, myself – and a dear friend about to arrive today at our home from California, Jo Ellen Patton. Why? Because we were there in the mountains south of Rulison in the early days of September, 1969 with a somewhat rag-tag group of environmental protestors hoping against hope, but all the same intent on stopping the detonation of a 43 kiloton underground nuclear blast set to go off 8426 feet below the surface. Also with us was another life long friend – Melinda Dell Fitting – now of Baltimore. While Nancy and I cannot prove it, as we recall, our presence at Rulison did (or did contribute to it) stop the detonation….for six days. Not bad when you’re up against the military industrial complex, the oil and gas industry and a fair share of people living around Rulison (who believed that the blast might trigger oil and gas development, jobs and money to the county. After nearly 40 years of dealing with the oil and gas industry, most of them know better now).

Indeed it was at the Rulison protest site that I met Nancy Fey. There she was, I recall, sitting on a boulder, in what seemed a contemplative mood. It turns out, I completely misread her: she was sitting there seething – that the government, in conjunction with private industry, would detonate a nuclear bomb in `her mountains.’ And she was there – in one of her early protests – to express her dismay and opposition. Coming  from a place where for many, myself included, nature hardly existed, New York City, I didn’t then consider the Colorado Rockies as `my mountains’ and the environmental concerns that touch so many here in Colorado were only vaguely on my mind. I just thought that exploding a nuclear bomb underground to produce natural gas commercially – was, next to the Vietnam War which was very intense at the time, the most awful thing I could ever imagine.

Project Plowshare

Project Rulison was one leg of what was supposed to be a four stage program a part of a more extensive project called, ironically, Project Plowshare. Project Plowshare was conceived in 1957 supposedly to use the power of nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes. All tolled between 1958 and 1973, the program included 27 nuclear blasts (in which 35 nuclear bombs were exploded, many of them at the Nevada Test Site). In the mid 1960s, as a part of Plowshares, a joint government-private sector program to use nuclear weapons for energy development was initiatied. The problem is, that while it might be possible to turn swords into plowshares, although I’m not sure how it can be done with cruise missiles, it is virtually impossible to detonate nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes.

The project was the brain child of one of the nation’s most demented geniuses, Edward Teller, the `father of the hydrogen bomb’, whose faith in the utility of nuclear weapons both for war and peacetime uses was unbounded. The fact that none of the natural gas cavities thus produced could be commercially used gives an inkling of the failure of the project. That the natural gas at Project Rulison would be contaminated with radioactive isotopes did not require a doctorate in geology or chemistry. As my good friend Danny Graul (owner of Black and Red Books in Arvada) commented `It (Project Rulison) always seemed such a preposterously stupid idea’. Actually Teller’s plans to use nuclear explosions went far beyond the bounds of Project Plowshare. The man had really lost it. His overall enthusiasm for starting his nuclear construction company comes through in a letter he wrote to heads of state `If your mountain is not in the right place, just drop us [the Atomic Energy Commission] a call’.

• Teller argued that nukes could be used to build a second Panama Canal to connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans accomplished by detonating mere 300 hydrogen bombs rather than TNT. What a deal. Actually over 25 possible routes for the project were considered with plans for five of them developed in considerable detail (two through Panama, one through Mexico, one through Costa Rica and Nicaragua, one through Colombia close to the Panama border). The shortest of these routes would have required more than 100 nuclear explosions, longer projects needed 250 or more bombs.

• Likewise he argued that a harbor for shipping in Alaska could be built in the craters left from nuclear blasts.

• Another Teller idea, mentioned by Donna Gray writing in The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Feb. 26, 2006) was to nuke the Sacramento Valley for a water transportation project.

If, thank heaven, none of the above projects came to fruition, Project Plowshare, a 4 stage program to increase the collection of natural gas through nuclear explosions, largely did. The idea was to create, through the wonders of nuclear explosions, vast underground cavities into which natural gases would flow and then extract those radioactive gases for commercial uses to help meet the nation’s energy needs and as President Nixon told it `to alleviate the nation’s natural gas shortage’ at that time.

Four nuclear blasts were planned:

1. Project Gasbuggy (see below) was a single nuclear bomb detonated near Aztec New Mexico (near Farmington) on December 10, 1967. A single 27 kiloton device was detonated at a depth of 4227’ below the surface.
2. Project Rulison was scheduled for September 4, 1969, but detonated on September 10, 1969 near Rulison Colorado (w. of Glenwood Springs in Garfield County). The blast was larger than Gasbuggy. A 43 kiloton bomb was used, 2.6 times the strength of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
3. Rio Blanco Project (also in Colorado). Located in Rio Blanco County Colorado entailed the detonation of 3, 30 kiloton nuclear bombs (I cannot bring myself to call them `devices’) stacked vertically and simultaneously detonated. It took place on May 17, 1973. The stated goal was to use three bombs to create a larger cavity and thus collect more natural gas than had been created by the Rulison blast. Technically the project was considered a failure, because the three sections of the cavity never joined and it was impossible to measure the size of the resulting cavity.
4. Project Wagon Wheel was to have been the fourth in the series of nuclear explosions, the climax, if you will of the series. But, mercifully for the land and people of south-central Wyoming, it was never detonated. Still the plan is worth noting. Wagon Wheel would have been on a larger scale and deeper than the previous three tests. It would have detonated five nuclear bombs sequentially from bottom to top between 9,220’ and 11,570’ (deeper than Rulison). The result would have been a significantly larger cavity than either Rulison or Rio Blanco. AEC predictions suggested the test would result in low levels of radioactivity. Nor did the AEC anticipate any ground water contamination. Had Wagon Wheel succeeded, El Paso Natural Gas Company had plans to detonate as many as 40-50 nuclear bombs annually in south central Wyoming.

(for a map of Project Plowshare, click here)

As Project Gasbuggy preceded Project Rulison, it is worth exploring the dynamics and results of that test. What is initially striking is the degree to which the political class in New Mexico not only supported the project but pushed it through. Project Gasbuggy had strong support at the time from the state’s governor, legislature and Congressional delegation that pressured the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct the test sooner, rather than later. Participating in the project were the Atomic Energy Commission (now a part of the Dept. of Energy), the Bureau of Mines and the El Paso Natural Gas Company. Locals in the area of the blast, near the Navajo Reservation, were less enthusiastic and worried about radio active fallout and contamination. Their concerns were basically brushed aside.

At first, Project Gasbuggy was considered a success because it created a cavity into which natural gas did flow, Some geologists at the time believed that nuclear explosions could create `more bang for the buck’ than could nitroglycerine and would be, as a result, cost effective. (I’d like to know precisely who these geologists were who could make such specious arguments).

In fact, the success claims were little more than hype. From the very outset the program was plagued with serious problems. Although the detonation happened as planned, water broke into the shaft and the bomb was left in boiling hot water for several weeks. Just how much radioactivity was released in the air and the degree to which workers at the site were subject to contamination was not determined.

As Wade H. Nelson noted in a copyrighted article written in 1999, the test was a failure in other ways as well, although this conclusion was little publicized.

• Although special `cleaner’ nuclear bombs had been engineered for Project Plowshare, they turned out to be rather `dirty’ all the same, producing radiation contamination in the surrounding area. The natural gas produced was seriously contaminated.
• As Nelson relates: “Among the hundreds of declassified records are memos and reports discussing increased tritium levels in surrounding vegetation, the release of radioactive Krypton-85 gas, and testing of milk from nearby dairy cows for Strontium 90.”
• The California Public Utilities Commission objected to any gas produced by Project Gasbuggy being shipped to California even though they had tested only `slightly’ radioactive. Again, Nelson: “Scientists suggested that mixing it with gas from other wells would bring the radiation levels down to what was considered “an acceptable level,” but gas customers would reportedly have none of it.”
• Serious questions also emerged as to whether radioactivity from Project Gasbuggy would contaminate other wells in the San Juan Basin. Early test results suggested that initial contamination was minimal but measurable amounts of radio-active tritium were being recorded several decades later.
• A 1973 New York Times Magazine investigation pointed out that radioactive Krypton-85 escaped through gas flaring and that “undoubtedly some of it would enter the food chain
• Nelson’s final verdict on Project Gasbuggy is worth quoting:

“Perhaps because of the project’s five million dollar pricetag, geologists and scientists involved with Gasbuggy were reluctant to declare the test a failure. Yet it didn’t create nearly as much fracturing of the shale as geologists had hoped. Nor did Gasbuggy stimulate the levels of increase in gas production needed (10-20X) to pay for the half-million dollar nuclear bomb. What gas it did produce, customers wouldn’t buy.”

Project Rulison would produce much the same results. (to be continued)

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