Fracking Could Release Radiation from Old Nuclear Tests

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tags: nuclear weapons, fracking, nuclear tests, radiation, Scott Kaufman


Scott Kaufman is professor of History at Francis Marion University. He is the author or co-author of eight books, including "Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration" (Northern Illinois University Press, 2009), and, most recently, "Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America" (Cornell University Press, 2013).  He is presently editing "A Companion to Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter," which is forthcoming from Wiley-Blackwell.

Storax Sedan nuclear test, 1962, a part of Project Plowshare.

“Nuclear explosives” versus “nuclear power.” The former raises images of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, or the atomic tests held in the Pacific Ocean or at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). The latter is suggestive of civilian applications of the atom, specifically, atomic power plants that generate electricity. Yet the idea of using nuclear devices to find a way to meet Americans’ demand for energy received serious consideration during the Cold War. Indeed, tests conducted decades ago to stimulate natural gas production are once again making news.

Inspired by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in 1953 called for finding peaceful uses for the atom, scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the University of California’s Radiation Laboratory in 1957 came up with what they called Project Plowshare. Drawing the name for their program from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, they believed it possible to use nuclear explosives to dig harbors and canals, mine deeply-buried ore, create underground storage facilities, generate new elements and isotopes, and access underground oil and natural gas deposits.

While Plowshare’s champions talked of a “balanced program” that would seek to achieve all of these goals, most of the time and energy -- pun intended -- that they spent on the program focused on using atomic explosives to dig a sea-level canal in Central America. Of 25 nuclear tests conducted between 1961 and 1970, most of them at the NTS, the overwhelming majority had the purpose of developing a “clean” nuclear device, one that would generate little to no radioactivity. In so doing, it would be possible to dig the waterway while posing little to no threat to animal, plant, or human life. Moreover, a “clean” explosive would not violate the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), which came into effect in 1963, and which prohibited radioactivity from an atomic test from crossing over the border of another country. Opposition from scientists, business leaders, politicians, environmentalists, and laypersons, as well as a lack of funding, served to kill the canal program in 1970. Indeed, by that time, virtually every other proposed use for the peaceful atom had achieved little to no headway.

Except the stimulation of energy resources. By 1970, the United States imported one-quarter of its oil, and one-half of that came from Middle Eastern countries, some of which had ties to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Americans’ demand for petroleum and natural gas continued to rise. The United States had faced a three-month-long Arab oil embargo following the Six-Day War of 1967, and American officials, among them President Richard Nixon and Senator Clifford Hansen (R-Wyoming), warned of the country’s overdependence on foreign sources of petroleum.

Enter Plowshare. Defenders of that program argued that one could access deeply-buried domestic natural gas and oil deposits by placing a nuclear explosive near that deposit, sealing the hole, and setting off the device. There would be no violation of the LTBT, they argued, because all of the radioactivity would remain trapped underground. The explosion itself would create a hole (or “cavity”) and shatter the rock around it. Petroleum or natural gas would flow into the cavity, where it could then be pumped to the surface.

Between 1967 and 1973, the AEC and the Radiation Laboratory -- now called Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- with the support of several oil and natural gas companies, conducted three tests aimed at accessing deeply-buried natural gas: Gasbuggy, which was held in New Mexico, and Rulison and Rio Blanco, both of which were conducted in Colorado. Aside from arousing the enmity of many of the same groups which had opposed Plowshare all along, these tests ended up making the natural gas radioactive and, therefore, not saleable. Indeed, Rio Blanco, which took place in 1973, was the last Plowshare test. Shortly thereafter, the program came to an end. The U.S. government conducted cleanup efforts where Gasbuggy, Rulison, and Rio Blanco took place by sealing the holes and moving contaminated soil to the NTS. The Department of Energy prohibited drilling within a 40-acre radius around the Rulison and Rio Blanco sites, and the state of Colorado expanded that area to a half-mile.

Another means of helping the United States avoid dependence on foreign sources of energy, known as hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), has brought Plowshare back into the news. In hydraulic fracturing, a fluid is used to break up rock around underground deposits of natural gas or oil. In recent years, there have been ever-louder warnings that fracking is environmentally-hazardous and the cause of earthquakes. What is less well known is that over the past decade, both the federal and Colorado state governments have eased drilling restrictions near where Rulison and Rio Blanco took place. By 2006, Presco, Inc. had six wells drilling near the Rulison site, one about a half-mile away. In 2009 Washington announced that it would permit fracking within the half-mile restricted area until the drilling reached the forty-acre danger zone or the trapped radioactivity reached the surface. The Rulison and Rio Blanco test sites are located not far from Rifle, Meeker, and Grand Junction, Colorado, with a total population of approximately 70,000. The activities of companies like Presco moved a group called the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance in 2008 to petition for a public hearing to determine if the activity near the Rulison test posed a threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the public. In June 2012, the Colorado Supreme Court only partially sided with the petitioners: the court determined that the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had to hold hearings insofar as rules and regulations, but added that the Commission’s rules did not require hearings with regard to drilling.

According to Frank Smith, the Western Colorado Congress Director of Organizing for the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, no hearings have been held. In the meantime, gas wells have been dug directionally into the area around the Rulison test. Moreover, the Department of Energy has not released all of its files on Rulison, which makes it all the more difficult for the state of Colorado or individuals living near the blast site to know exactly what danger Rulison poses.

Whether drilling near the Rulison or Rio Blanco sites will allow radioactivity from those tests to enter the atmosphere is yet to be seen. It is significant, though, that a Cold War-era plan to help the United States achieve greater energy independence is once again raising environmental red flags as this country continues to seek means of avoiding overreliance on foreign sources of fuel.

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