Oil and gas fracking is big business in America, with more than two million hydraulically fractured wells across the country producing 43 and 67 per cent of our national oil and gas outputs, respectively. These wells also nearly played a secondary role as nuclear waste storage sites, had the Atomic Energy Commission had its way with Project Plowshare.
Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) is the process of pumping water deep into the Earth, specifically into underground oil and gas reserves, at tremendous pressures in order to break apart the surrounding rock and free the energy product, which can then be pumped out and used.
However in the mid 1950s, scientists from the Atomic Energy Commission and officials from the US Bureau of Mines began experimenting with an alternative method of fracking, one that employed nuclear bombs more powerful than anything we dropped on the Japanese.
Dubbed Project Plowshare, this insane undertaking explored two industrialized — or “peaceful” — applications for nuclear explosives:
Conceptually, industrial applications resulting from the use of nuclear explosives could be divided into two broad categories: 1) large-scale excavation and quarrying, where the energy from the explosion was used to break up and/or move rock; and 2) underground engineering, where the energy released from deeply buried nuclear explosives increased the permeability and porosity of the rock by massive breaking and fracturing.
In 1967, the AEC teamed up with the US Bureau of Mines and El Paso Natural Gas Company for what would be the first of a series of underground experiments. In a remote gas well outside of Farmington, New Mexico, researchers lowered the 29-kiloton “Gasbuggy” nuclear device 1200 metres into the Earth and set it off. The results were spectacular.
“The 4042-foot-deep detonation created a molten glass-lined cavern about 160 feet in diameter and 333 feet tall,” according to the American Oil and Gas Historical Society. “It collapsed within seconds. Subsequent measurements indicated fractures extended more than 200 feet in all directions — and significantly increased natural gas production.”
This initial success led to numerous additional tests in the following years — 27 experiments and 35 nuclear explosions in total. While most of the experiments were small, above-ground explosions were detonated in Nevada with the goal of forming craters and canals. Indeed, two additional underground tests in ’69 and ’73 proved even more massive than Gasbuggy.
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U.S. Experimented With Nuclear Fracking
A few weeks ago, a reader wrote to me asking how we can be sure the government isn’t slyly getting rid of nuclear waste by injecting it into shale rock that’s been fracked for oil or gas. Jon Abel’s questions will seem far-fetched to some of you, worrisome to others, depending on how much you trust government and the energy industry:
I wanted to mention something that might be getting missed with the whole radioactivity issue surrounding fracking waste water,” my reader wrote. “Has anyone tested for other radioactive metals – such as cesium or plutonium (not just NORM elements)? And, has anyone tested the frack water for radioactivity BEFORE it goes down the frack production wells? Is it possible that the government is getting rid of nuclear waste in this manner?”
Far-fetched or not, no sooner had Jon posed the question than someone proposed it.
At the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Leonid Germanovich of the Georgia Institute of Technology suggested that nuclear wastes deposited in shale rock would never return to the surface.
“It’s basic physics here — if it’s heavier than rock, the fracture will propagate down,” said the physicist and civil and environmental engineer.
Jens Birkholzer, head of the Nuclear Energy and Waste Program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Livescience the idea is impractical, largely for safety reasons, but in fact, the government has already disposed of nuclear wastes this way, as you’ll read below.
Jon Abel’s questions had me wondering whether these two explosive forms of energy extraction had ever been combined.
And indeed they have.
In December, 1967, scientists from the Atomic Energy Commission and officials from the U.S. Bureau of Mines and El Paso Natural Gas Company gathered at a gas well in northern New Mexico, near Farmington. They lowered a 29-kiloton nuclear device more than 4,000 feet down the shaft and set it off.
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