05.16.10

Nuke the Oil Spill

On Monday, the Interior Department's top offshore drilling regulator announced he will be stepping down, after criticisms of his cozy relationship with industry officials. The White House will also be creating an independent panel to investigate the spill.

On Day 1 of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, my gut instinct was to nuke the well shut. This was not simply an aggressive urge to brandish the most beastly of weapons in our mighty American arsenal, but a serious way to snuff out an enormous problem that grows worse by the day.

For more than 100 years, explosives have been used to break the necks of runaway oil wells, snapping the long, narrow columns and sealing them shut with tons and tons of rock. Over the last several days, our 24-hour news cycle has pumped us full of excruciating details about the failed efforts to siphon, cap off, and ultimately recover the oil that is gushing into the Gulf. The latest nonsense and false hope, a mile-long pipe designed to divert some of the oil flow, is like putting a 4-inch straw into a 22-inch-diameter fire hose. It's a sordid attempt by BP at drinking its own milkshake. But the problem with this disaster response is that the ideas BP has brought to the table all seem to ignore the simplest solution: permanently destroying the well.

The ideas BP has brought to the table all seem to ignore the simplest solution: permanently destroying the well.

BP’s incentives are obvious. A deep-sea oil well costs hundreds of millions of dollars to drill, so the company prefers to bumble through never-before-tried recovery efforts than destroy its investment. Furthermore, BP is probably hedging its bets—if it loses this well, lawmakers will likely ban it from drilling there again. In other words, if BP loses the well, it loses both the enormous sunk costs of drilling it and the expected cash flow from all the remaining oil. Thus, even in the midst of this crisis, BP appears to be just as concerned with protecting its shareholders as with stopping this catastrophe.

Enough is enough. It’s time to destroy the well and put the matter to rest.

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BP is probably not equipped for this kind of demolition. However, there are two major organizations in the world that have highly developed skills at demolishing things—the U.S. and Russian militaries. On Thursday, my gut instinct for nuking shut the well was confirmed when CNN reported that the Soviet military had used nuclear explosives on four separate occasions, beginning in 1966, to seal off runaway oil and gas wells under water. The practice was well documented by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of our nuclear-weapons facilities.

But using nuclear weapons, even for peaceful purposes, would be problematic for a president who stood in Prague and declared that the world should rid itself of such devices. If President Obama were to use a nuke to close this well, he would give other states an excuse to seek nuclear weapons of their own. After all, it was an argument for “peaceful nuclear explosions” that allowed India to justify its acquisition of nuclear weapons in the 1970s. We don’t need Iran making the same argument tomorrow. The dilemma seems clear: Either Obama leaves BP in charge of managing its own short-term interests, or he can take charge and stop this spill immediately by pulling the trigger on a nuclear option with severe political and environmental aftershocks.

But there could be be a third option that Obama might bring to the table, once we recognize that BP is just as concerned about salvaging its precious asset as it is about stopping the spill. Our military could potentially use a carefully placed combination of conventional explosives to collapse the well. Our technology is much better than that of the Soviet Union in 1966, so we should be able to make this work without having to go nuclear. I’m confident that the U.S. Navy, the Army Corps of Engineers, and some private-sector organizations could come together and make this happen. The only question is whether Obama will be bold enough to take charge of this problem at the risk of his presidency slipping down the deep, dark well.

Christopher Brownfield is a former nuclear submarine officer, an Iraq veteran, and a visiting scholar on nuclear policy at Columbia University. He is the author of My Nuclear Family, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in September.