The Nuclear Option?!

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 2, 2010 9:19 pm

On the road somewhere in Tennessee tonight, I read the present top story at the NYTimes:

Nuclear Option on Gulf Oil Spill? No Way, U.S. Says

The chatter began weeks ago as armchair engineers brainstormed for ways to stop the torrent of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico: What about nuking the well?

Decades ago, the Soviet Union reportedly used nuclear blasts to successfully seal off runaway gas wells, inserting a bomb deep underground and letting its fiery heat melt the surrounding rock to shut off the flow. Why not try it here?

Of course this won’t happen, but the idea isn’t actually all that far fetched. Furthermore, does anyone have a better suggestion? Now go read the article and let’s get an interesting discussion going in comments…


Comments (12)

  1. I think they should do it. The problems this spill is causing are getting bad.

    Just because weapons can do some really awful things doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to use them for serious good they may be able to do.

  2. GM

    The problem with the nuclear idea is that it is useless in this case and it seems surprising to me that people like Matt Simmons are talking about it on national TV. I am definitely not a petroleum engineer but from what I have seen the Soviets had to use bombs to seal the gas wells because of the way the gas simply couldn’t be contained, but the way they did was to drill a horizontal well coming very close to the initial well, place the nuke there and blast it to seal the rock.

    It is useless or will not work here for a number of reasons:

    1. If you drill an interception well very close to the original hole, you just drill a little more and you have a relief well that will take care of the blowout, which is what we’re waiting for right now. There is no point nuking it once you have it

    2. There aren’t any nuclear bombs right now that can fit the size of the pipes – the pipes are too small, so new bombs will have to be manufactured.

    3. The bombs will not only have to be manufactured, but they will also have to be designed, as none of the currently available bombs is capable of withstanding such pressures

    So in summary, the nuke was appropriate in the Soviet case because it was gas and not oil, and it was the only option left because of that. What is forgotten is that it took them 3 years from the moment of the blowout to successfully stopping it with a nuke the first time they used. In that period they tried a number of other options, which failed, and they planned and produced the bomb. Once it had been done once, it was quicker and easier the next time. This is not the case right now and the fastest solution will be to wait for the relief wells

  3. Bill

    I suppose a small nuke is an option,the last time there was a leak in the gulf of mexico ca 1969? in 160 ft of water it took 9 plus months and 2 relief wells to stop it. 3 million plus gallons of oil leaked. I thought of the floating harbors made of concrete they used at Normandy for D-day but they already tried something like that that failed.

  4. Bill

    correction 1979 ,140 million gallons

  5. Tuatara

    It seems like you could use the hole of one of the relief wells currently being drilled. They may be deep enough already, since you want the explosion to centered below the sea but well above the oil reservoir. I believe that small “suitcase” bombs might be available. Put the small bomb in a case that can withstand the pressure and drop it in the hole.

    Even if this all worked, the geopolitical fallout could be devastating. Iran could simply justify pursuit of nuclear weapons on the grounds that they are an insurance policy for dealing with domestic problems such as this oil spill.

  6. Eric the Leaf

    Ideas to plug the hole or stem the flow are a dime a dozen these days and the question of nukes has been thrown around and around already. Why not focus your attention and energy on outcomes that you might influence in a positive way? Find out ways to help or support the cleanup efforts, lobby for a more vigorous response, c’mon on down and take the Audubon course to clean birds. Even take a short trip to the LA, MS, AL, and FL coast, have fun, and spend a little money. They’re losing business even in areas not yet affected. Or post a really thought provoking essay on the larger issues surrounding the Deepwater Hozizon Incident like that of my friend Richard Heinberg today in the Oil Drum (, and see what your readers think. I bet your readers would find it controversial and you might have a really great discussion.

  7. Nullius in Verba

    I have seen petroleum engineers comment on this already, and they said the geology is completely wrong for this to be able to work.

    But if it was possible, I’m sure you could buy one of the Russians.

    (Actually, I’m pretty sure the US do have such tactical weapons. But details are liable to be classified so I can’t easily check.)

  8. GM hits the main points, but there’s also the problem that the cavity is likely to collapse under the pressure.
    Top ten list here:

  9. Guy

    I don’t know about putting any kind a bomb down an oil well. It would be technically difficult and high risk. You could make the problem a lot worse if something goes wrong. Definitely a last resort option.

  10. Sorbet

    The nuclear option seems doable, given the magnitude of this event. But unfortunately the magnitude of the geopolitical fallout would be so much greater that it seems untenable. Moreover, if the pipe caves in without getting plugged, it would make the situation much, much messier than it is right now. I think a nuclear option should be considered only as a last resort after every other option has been exhausted.

  11. Sean McCorkle

    I had a problem, so I used a nuke. Now I have two problems.

    Or, as a friend put it:

    “What could be worse than a giant underwater oil leak?”

    “A giant underwater radioactive oill leak – thats what.”

  12. Brian Too

    I just have visions in my head of a bedrock cap on the reservoir. Instead of a nice clean seal after the explosion, what if you get massive bed fracturing?

    Instead of one vent for the reservoir, you might end up with millions of vents spread over a large area. If that happened there is a decent probability that there would be no Plan B. The entire reservoir would empty into the Gulf, at least until the reservoir pressure dropped off.

    It might work but you’d want to be fairly sure that it wouldn’t make things worse.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


See More

Collapse bottom bar