Time To Nuke The Gulf Oil Spill ?

ixtox1A former nuclear submarine officer is suggesting what seems at first glance like a rather unorthodox solution to the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

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.


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.

As Christopher Brownfield, the author of the piece, goes on to admit, though, using nuclear weapons in this context would pose some political problems for President Obama, and may be seen as a the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to kill a fly, so he also suggests an alternative:

[T]here 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.

Brownfield also appeared yesterday on Fox’s Studio B discussing this idea:

I’m not enough of a weapons or engineering expert to know if this is really as viable an option as Brownfield makes it out to be, but as a last resort it’s certainly better than nothing.

FILED UNDER: Environment, Military Affairs, National Security, Science & Technology, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    Kind of amusing for people to trot out the nuclear option, but aren’t there crazy-big conventional bombs they drop out of C-5s that would do almost the same thing? If I recall correctly one made a screen appearance in that old frightener flick, “Outbreak” (1985).

    I’d think the danger with either though would be that it would create a rubble field that seeps widely. I guess a geologist could answer that risk.

  2. JKB says:

    What last resort? The last resort is the option now well underway which is to drill a relief well, intersect the damage hole and fill it with concrete. An option well within experience and skill of the oil field workers. Problem is it takes time but only a month or so.

    If you could pinch off the well, they would do it with shaped charges meticulously placed by the ROVs. The only reason to use nukes would be a widespread fissure leaking over a large area that could only be sealed by high intensity heat fusion, i.e, melted rock.

    As excellent as the US Navy divers and the USACE are, they do not exceed the skills available in the oil patch when working with high pressure piping and chemistry at the sea floor.

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    I would need a lot of convincing that a nuke can do this that sufficient conventional explosives couldn’t do it.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I saw them close off a shaft on last season’s Lost with a nuke. Warning: Creates alternative time lines.

  5. Wayne says:

    As anyone who is familiar with my posts, I am not one that is quick to bash Big OIL\Bank\Company type. However in this case they have seemed more interested in recovery than shutting down the leak.

    It is funny though that this option has come up when I was bashed in another post for suggesting something similar a week ago.


    I also have been wondering that if they can place a long tube down the pipe then why they can’t place a bladder on the end then expand it to close off the leak. Perhaps they can’t find a strong enough bladder for that amount of pressure but it would be interesting to see the numbers on that.

  6. jwest says:

    Nuke it? Sure.

    What could possibly go wrong?

  7. Lawrence Baker says:

    BP and Obama are lying. To add further insult they suggest that the American public is so stupid that we can not estimate the flow of oil and are helpless in stopping it. Of course, scientist and engineers need to see video of the TOTAL damage before we can do that! How about “Transparency Now” by releasing All of the video of the leaking wellhead, preventer and pipe string. TODAY!
    We need a STOP THE Oil FLOW TASK FORCE today that is independent of BP command to stop the flow of oil tomorrow. This ecological and economic genocide should be responded to as a terrorist attack against the American people and our Democracy.

  8. Anderson says:

    Ah yes. We must counter the dangerous environmental effects of the oil by exploding a nuclear weapon.

    Leaving aside whether we haven’t signed some treaty or other prohibiting such, it sounds like an environmental/political non-starter.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    Anderson, as I understand it, some environmental scientists believe that the oil is going to kill off some of the algae causing the dead zone in the Gulf. There has to be some combination of oil spill, dead zone, and nuclear explosion that could solve all of our problems at once.

    Then there’s the old lady who swallowed a fly . . .

  10. john personna says:

    There has to be some combination of oil spill, dead zone, and nuclear explosion that could solve all of our problems at once.

    And create a whole in the very fabric of time!

  11. ptfe says:

    And this was suggested previously — and apparently done previously:


    Komsomoloskaya Pravda is the winner of the nuke line by almost two weeks. Sorry, Mr Brownfield!

  12. It may be time to NUKE THE WELL….Better to destroy the Gulf Coast now, than let this massive reservoir of putrefaction poison slowly kill off life on Earth…I’m on the beach in NW Florida and nobody even takes this oil problem seriously…They don’t know anything about the carcinogenic crude oil vapors on the way here soon…Nor the plans to evacuate Tampa if they decide to torch the spill..Dogs in a pound know their lives are in danger, but humans seem ignorant..Better to lose Florida,Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Cuba, than the total PLANET..Got a couch I can crash on?

  13. Glen says:

    All you need are shaped high explosive charges to crush whatever length of the pipe that you desire (or that is reasonably accessible). By sandwiching the oil pipe between two steel plates, and then using a few hundred pounds of HE (high explosive), one can easily crush the pipe, in much less than a second. The ROV subs can be used to place the explosives collars. This can be practiced on land, with real sections of piping, to get the right amount of charge. You definitely don’t need a nuke to do the job.

  14. Using a Nuke would only create a big mardi gras celebration. The gulf would boil for a few days, the cajuns would add oil tankers full of taters and seasoning…the gumbo be’d readied by all dem seafood and bayou creatures(pre-cooked)…they’d be dere paradin’ roun’ da streets all hyped up on dem fumes (benzene, hydrogen sulfide) ..and the food be all but gone fore us yankees gets there from NYC.. that’s my oil too, I got three stolen tanker trucks full of bootleg canadian mob whisky and I wanna party too. don’t nuke w/o me please….