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 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?
The idea has gained fans with each failed attempt to stem the leak and each new setback — on Wednesday, the latest rescue effort stalled when a wire saw being used to slice through the riser pipe got stuck.
“Probably the only thing we can do is create a weapon system and send it down 18,000 feet and detonate it, hopefully encasing the oil,” Matt Simmons, a Houston energy expert and investment banker, told Bloomberg News on Friday, attributing the nuclear idea to “all the best scientists.”
Or as CNN reporter John Roberts suggested last week, “Drill a hole, drop a nuke in and seal up the well.”
This week, with the failure of the “top kill” attempt, the buzz had grown loud enough that federal officials felt compelled to respond.
Stephanie Mueller, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, said that neither Energy Secretary Steven Chu nor anyone else was thinking about a nuclear blast under the gulf. The nuclear option was not — and never had been — on the table, federal officials said.
“It’s crazy,” one senior official said.
Government and private nuclear experts agreed that using a nuclear bomb would be not only risky technically, with unknown and possibly disastrous consequences from radiation, but also unwise geopolitically — it would violate arms treaties that the United States has signed and championed over the decades and do so at a time when President Barack Obama is pushing for global nuclear disarmament.
The atomic option is perhaps the wildest among a flood of ideas proposed by bloggers, scientists and other creative types who have deluged government agencies and BP, the company that drilled the well, with phone calls and e-mail messages. The Unified Command overseeing the Deepwater Horizon disaster features a “suggestions” button on its official website, and more than 7,800 people have responded, according to the site.
Among the suggestions: Lowering giant plastic pillows to the seafloor and filling them with oil, dropping a huge block of concrete to squeeze off the flow and using magnetic clamps to attach pipes that would siphon off the leaking oil.