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Nuking The BP Gulf Well: In Theory, It's An Option

Crews try to clean an island covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the South part of East Bay, south of Venice, La. (AP via Greenpeace)
Crews try to clean an island covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the South part of East Bay, south of Venice, La. (AP via Greenpeace)

Scientists, engineers and the U.S. government are still trying to figure out how to plug the BP oil well that's gushing thousands of barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico.

The dome didn't work. The diversion tube isn't doing enough. Engineers are looking into a "junk shot" — launching rope, tires and golf balls into the oil well to plug its holes — but are still thinking about what else they can do.

What about nuking the oil well?

Andrew Revkin, The New York Times' environmental reporter and senior fellow at Pace University's Institute for Applied Environmental Studies, told On Point's Tom Ashbrook Monday that using a nuclear explosion to collapse the leaking oil well is a scientifically — if not politically — viable option.

"Crimping a pipe, even 5,000 feet under the sea, in the sea bed under a mile of deep ocean, is doable," Revkin said.

Earlier this month, Revkin blogged about how the Russians used this strategy first, and Shell almost did to stop the Mississippi H2S well blow-out.

The basic idea is that a second, shallower well is drilled near the first one. Munitions are placed at the bottom and detonated so that they collapse both wells. The rest is up to water pressure.

"Once you've done a concussion down there, (the sea floor) will sort of push inward," Revkin said. "The deposit of oil is sort of three or four miles farther down in the earth, so it's not like you're going to suddenly create some sort of unmitigated oil outflow."

Steve Werely, a fluid dynamics professor at Purdue University, agreed that, in theory, a massive explosion could close the well.

"If you can somehow disrupt the straw, the pipe to the surface of the ocean, it can seal off the well," Werely said. "But what level of munitions would be required to accomplish that, I can't say."

Renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle objected to the use of nuclear weapons underwater.

"What are the consequences to the ocean, of any such action?" Earle asked. "Yes, stopping the oil is a desirable thing, but that would seem to be at the far end of last resorts."

Revkin pointed out the possible political ramifications of such an explosion make it highly unlikely to actually be used.

"The key thing here, though, is the politics," Revkin said. "If it doesn't work, then you have this real big sense of 'Oh my God, we really blew it.' "

This program aired on May 24, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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