Using nukes to mine natural gas? A tale from the '70s

Bomb, baby, bomb.

The U.S. sits on a trove of natural gas, but it’s trapped in shale and other rock formations. Using chemicals and pressurized water to force it out takes an environmental toll.

So here’s Plan B: Let’s plug some nuclear bombs into the shale, light the fuse and let the natural gas flow.

Don’t snicker. That was tried in the 1960s and ’70s. Three tests of the method detonated five nuclear bombs underground. And using hundreds more nuclear explosions to boost energy supplies came far closer to becoming U.S. policy than you probably can imagine.

Federal officials once expected to use nukes to blow sandstone and shale to smithereens to provide decades of natural gas to heat homes and run businesses.

One estimate calculated that 10,000 nuclear bombs could blast loose enough natural gas to meet 20 years of U.S. demand for the fuel. In just one gas field in Colorado, 140 bombs were to be set off.

As President Richard Nixon put it in 1971, the time had come for some “nuclear stimulation technology.”

He meant business. A couple of nuclear bombs had already been detonated in New Mexico and Colorado to test whether they could break loose the natural gas.

Both were deemed a success, so Nixon called for more — a test setting off three bombs together, buried more than a mile underground. They were triggered in western Colorado in 1973, unleashing the equivalent of 90,000 tons of TNT, or five times the energy from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.

But in the end, using nuclear bombs in the gas fields didn’t work as some hoped. One big reason was it produced natural gas that had radioactive particles in it, and there were problems with selling that, though proponents insisted it would be safe once it was blended with other gas.

The effort was the high point of the country’s hopes to use nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes.

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