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A Blast from the Past – Project Rulison Fifty Years On – A Series on Project Plowshares – Nuclear Fracking in New Mexico and Colorado – 2

August 15, 2019

A Blast from the Past: Project Rulison Fifty Years On – A Series on Project Plowshares – Nuclear Fracking – 2

Part One, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven

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The fiftieth anniversary of Project Rulison, an underground nuclear blast to produce commercially grade natural gas – a kind of nuclear fracking – will take place on September 10, 2019. Some of us involved in protesting the blast will return to Rulison as a part of an effort to make a documentary film on the event. What was Project Rulison and what broader program was it a part of? It was an important moment in the state and nation’s history but so few know anything about it. This is the second installment of the series.

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1.

For many in Colorado – most frankly – the fact that September 10, 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Rulison underground nuclear blast will not resonate much if at all. Too long ago, to obscure a reference. Yet anyone seriously involved in oil and gas exploration probably has knowledge of the place and what transpired there along with anyone who was politically active in Colorado a half century ago. It was the oil and gas industry’s failed effort effort at what the literature refers to as “nuclear fracking.”

Rulison lies west of the continental divide, 192 miles due west of Denver on 1-70. Project Rulison, along with the other like-Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.) organized underground nuclear tests, was basically an early method of fracking using nuclear weapons. The other tests were Project Gasbuggy (December, 1967) prior to the Rulison blast and Rio Blanco (May, 1973). A forth project, Project Bronco, was postponed and never took place.

Regardless, something significant happened on that date, in that place. In an attempt to create an underground natural gas reservoir, the federal government, specifically the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Interior, in cooperation with El Paso Energy, detonated a 40 kiloton nuclear explosion underground some 8,400 ft (2,600 meters) below the surface of then 73 year old Claude Hayward’s 292 acre potato patch. (1)

The Rulison blast was part and parcel of a program that the Atomic Energy Commission had dubbed “Project Plowshare.” Try as it may – and it do so in every way imaginable -the federal government could not hide the consequences of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear blasts from the public. As fears of the destructive power released by the development of nuclear weapons grew, and with it that opposition to nuclear weapons would grow to unmanageable level, Washington was desperate to find ways to make nuclear weapons more palatable to the public. Exaggerating the Soviet threat was of course a fundamental lever of the nuclear weapons build up, But there were others. Plowshare was one of the federal government’s attempt to sanitize nuclear weapons by arguing that nuclear energy could be used for other than manufacturing bombs, for peaceful purposes, among them for large scale excavation projects – digging out harbors, canals, rivers, road cuts by detonating a series of nuclear weapons.

The Rulison blast was part and parcel of a program that the Atomic Energy Commission had dubbed “Project Plowshare.” Try as it may – and it do so in every way imaginable – the federal government could not hide the consequences of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear blasts from the public. As fears of the destructive power released by the development of nuclear weapons grew, and with it that opposition to nuclear weapons would grow to unmanageable level, Washington was desperate to find ways to make nuclear weapons more palatable to the public. Exaggerating the Soviet threat was of course a fundamental lever of the nuclear weapons build up, But there were others. Plowshare was one of the federal government’s attempt to sanitize nuclear weapons by arguing that nuclear energy could be used for other than manufacturing bombs, for peaceful purposes, among them for large scale excavation projects – digging out harbors, canals, rivers, road cuts by detonating a series of nuclear weapons.

Several projects—for harbors in Alaska and Australia, for an under ground storage cavern in Pennsylvania—have been dropped as a result of public protests. Nuclear bombs were also seriously considered for large scale mining operations and for the drilling and processing of natural gas.

Project Rulison was basically an early method of fracking using nuclear weapons.

The explosion would be of such magnitude as to release natural gases trapped in the neighboring layers of rock into the cavity thus created. The blast did achieve its goal of liberating large quantities of natural gas which flowed into the cavity created by the explosion. However there was a problem that any serious scientist – or for that matter, fool, could have predicted: the natural gas thus collected was contaminated with radioactivity and therefore, was a commercial dead end.

As the Wikipedia article on the subject notes Rulison natural gas was “unsuitable for applications such as cooking and heating homes.” The site remains capped, a cleanup began in the 1970s that was formally completed in 1998; the state of Colorado created a buffer zone around the site that still exists.

In the period prior to the September 10, 1969 blast a protest movement spearheaded by the Denver office of the American Friends Service Committee tried to cancel the test. The movement included protesters who sat in within a mile of ground zero at the time hoping that their presence would pressure the government to cancel the test. Tom Lamm (2) filed a suit with the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the project; but it was quickly and summarily denied.

2.

In retrospect it is difficult to consider Project Plowshare – that nuclear weapons could be used to create ports, canals, etc, that it could used to mine natural gas – as anything more than one of the worst applications of technologies humanity had ever conceived. In an article entitled “What Could Go Wrong? The insane plan to use H-Bombs to make roads and redirect rivers,” author Ed Regis refers to such application of nuclear weapons as “pathological technology,” a well conceived term.

Regis notes how proponents of pathological technologies “routinely underestimate their costs, risks, downsides, and dangers.” Then he goes on zero in on the most absurd of all of them, Project Plowshare (of which Rulison was an integral part):

…in the annals of pathological technology, no scheme was more obviously harebrained than that embodied in Project Plowshare. The idea was to do large-scale excavation projects—digging out new harbors, canals, rivers, road cuts—by detonating a series of hydrogen bombs. The explosion of a hydrogen bomb was one of the most awesome spectacles ever produced, and it held considerable appeal in the minds of those proposing to use that colossal force to perform planetary geoengineering feats. But the radiation unleashed by the bombs was for the most part passed over in silence by the project’s leaders

Plowshare, or Project Plowshare – its formal name changed to the Division of Peaceful Nuclear Explosives in 1961 – was a part of a program established by the Atomic Energy Commission already in 1957 to explore “the constructive” or peaceful uses of nuclear energy. As an on-line article by the American Oil and Gas Historical society noted, “The reasoning was that the relatively inexpensive energy available from nuclear explosions could prove useful for a wide variety of peaceful purposes,” notes a report later prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy.”

Between 1961 to 1973 dozens of separate experiments were conducted under the Plowshare program – setting off 29 nuclear explosions, of these three (Gasbuggy, Rulison, Rio Blanco) were experiments to explore the possibilities of nuclear fracking of natural gas. (3) Most of these experiments focused on creating canals, harbors, road cuts. The goal of one of these series of tests was to widen the Panama Canal inexpensively but “in the end, although less dramatic than nuclear excavation, the most promising use for nuclear explosions proved to be for stimulation of natural gas production.

Writing about Project Plowshares 25 years ago, Chester McQueary – one of the key organizers of the protest against the Rulison blast noted:

At federally financed laboratories in Los Alamos in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California, scientists were convinced that atoms could be split just as well for peace as for war. Their proposals included setting off atomic bombs to blast a sea-level Central American canal and a new harbor on the northwest Alaska coast. Bombs would also make the Mediterranean Sea rise and freshen so that water could flow to irrigate the Sahara Desert. Physicist Edward Teller saw bombs as giant shovels, or in the case of western Colorado, huge nutcrackers.

Project Plowshare focused on what is referred to as “nuclear stimulation,” that is using nuclear weapons’ explosions for the release of natural gas. At the time, after the 1967 Middle East War, the United States began to look to viable energy alternatives. As its dependency on natural gas imports increased Washington’s interest in finding domestic alternatives to imported natural gas sources intensified. “Nuclear fracking” was considered one viable alternative but it needed to be tested.

Scientists had predicted that nuclear explosives would create more and bigger fractures and hollow out a hug cavity that would serve as an underground reservoir of natural gas. It was argued that detonating nukes would be more cost effective than using nitroglycerine. The dangers of resulting radioactive contamination, which ultimately killed the project’s viability were downplayed if not ignored entirely.

After a 1967 agreement was signed between the El Paso Natural Gas Company with the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Interior, a series of four “nuclear stimulation projects” for natural gas production were planned and executed. Project Rulison was a part of this program.

The first of the four was called Project Gasbuggy. Before analyzing the Rulison blast, it useful to examine Gasbuggy, because it set the stage for Rulison and the blasts that would follow at Rio Blanco, all a part of the same overall program.

Project Gasbuggy – In December 1967 government scientists detonated Gasbuggy, a 29-kiloton nuclear device, nearly twice as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb (15 kilotons) in a natural gas well in rural northwestern New Mexico. A December 22, 1967 Time Magazine article headlined “Nuclear Energy: Good Start for Gasbuggy.” In fact the site remained so polluted for decades that the resulting natural gas reservoir was useless and both the reservoir itself and the grounds above seriously contaminated.

The blast site was near three low-production natural gas wells. The blast took place in a 4240 ft hole drilled into the surface into which a 13 foot-long by 18-inch wide nuclear device was placed. The hole was then backfilled before the bomb was set off. The test was carried out by the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory and El Paso Natural Gas Company with funding from the Atomic Energy Commission.

As a NY Times article on Gasbuggy noted: “The shot…proceeded without incident except for brief protests from the few Indians living nearby.” A few Indians?

While it is true that at the time of the blast that no radioactivity was released into the environment from Gasbuggy, a month later the hole was uncapped and “large quantities of radioactivity were deliberately released onto the nearby grounds and into the surrounding atmosphere by flaring. Underground radioactive contamination – the creation of radioactive cracks in the area of the blast itself – appear to have been somewhat contained, at least that is what the A.E.C. has argued.

While when a nuclear weapon is properly tested underground no radioactive contamination is released into the atmosphere. However, as the 1970 New York Times article on Gasbubby  noted:

When a natural resource such as the natural gas in Project Gasbuggy is in intimate contact with the radioactive by products of a nuclear explosion, unavoidable exchange reactions occur which cause the natural gas it self to become radioactive—far too radioactive for use. This radioactivity is chemically an integral part of the gas, not simply carried along with it. Accordingly, the gas must be disposed of. The most convenient way to get rid of it is flaring. The radioactive natural gas, along with most of the gaseous radioactive by products of the explosion, is thus re leased into the environment, krypton 85 passing out unchanged, while the tritium (radioactive hydrogen) and radioactive natural gas are converted, by burning, into radioactive water. Krypton 85, chemically inert, goes on to add to the ever increasing global burden of atmospheric radio activity, while the radioactive water follows the route of all water, entering the food chain and eventually ourselves. The solid radioactive products produced by the explosion remain in the hole; the worry is that they may contaminate underground ware sources

As with Project Rulison, predictably, the gas that was released was too radioactive to ever be used and the ground above was so contaminated that much of it had to be hauled away.

As a U.S. Department of Energy Fact Sheet on the Gasbuggy test notes

“AEC decommissioned and demobilized the site in 1978. Structures and equipment used for the test were decontaminated, if necessary, and removed; liquid radioactive waste was injected into the cavity formed by the nuclear explosion; solid radioactive waste was removed to the Nevada Test Site; and test wells were decommissioned and plugged. Soil sampling was performed in 1978, 1986, 2000, and 2002. Cultural resources, endangered and sensitive species, and floodplain and wetlands surveys were performed in 1993. Final surface remediation was completed in 2004.:

After an initial surface cleanup effort the site sat idle for over a decade. A later surface cleanup effort primarily tackled leftover toxic materials. In 1978, a marker monument was installed at the Surface Ground Zero (SGZ) point that provided basic explanation of the historic test. Below the main plaque lies another which indicates that no drilling or digging is allowed without government permission.

Finally, El Paso did not sell a cubic centimeter of Gasbuggy natural gas.”Even if Gasbuggy posed no health threat, it remained too radioactive for the market” as would the gas produced by the Rulison blast nearly two years later.

 

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1. Hayward initially declined the federal government’s first financial offer of $100 a month for the rest of his life but later agreed when the terms were upped to $200 a month and a bottle of whiskey.

2. Tom Lamm is former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm’s brother

3. https://aoghs.org/technology/project-gasbuggy/

 

 

6 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    August 15, 2019 8:47 pm

    Excellent, you were about a half-century ahead of the rest of the world in paying attention to this issue. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem that humans have the ability to understand the consequences of their behavior and to control the psycopaths they put into power. I don’t know if the few who understand consequences can make a difference in the results but we have to try anyway. Keep on keeping on!

  2. Phil Jones permalink
    August 16, 2019 2:11 pm

    Early on I anticipated reading the name Edward Teller somewhere in this article, and -vooila – eventually there it was. I wonder if these crazy notions about using A-bombs for such uses would have been pursued if Teller hadn’t been so weirdly influential.

    • August 16, 2019 2:13 pm

      Phil of course Teller was behind much of this; am putting together done material on his roll; more soon

Trackbacks

  1. A Blast from the Past – Project Rulison Fifty Years On – A Series on Project Plowshares – Nuclear Fracking Colorado – 3 – Chester McQueary’s Account of the September 10, 1969 Blast | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
  2. A Blast from the Past – September 10, 1969 – Project Rulison Fifty Years On – A Series on Project Plowshares – Nuclear Fracking Colorado – Two Government Propaganda Filsm | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
  3. A Blast from the Past – Project Rulison Fifty Years On – A Series on Project Plowshares – Part One. | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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