BP is clearly struggling to get the Macondo well under control, and it’s latest attempt at a “top kill” has unfortunately failed. Last night I was watching BP’s live video feed from the ROVs which are on the bottom of the sea around the well (Yes, I need to get a life. Or a job. I’m working on it, okay? Watching ROV feeds is free, drinking beer all night long costs money) and I watched an ROV attempt to cut a clamp fixing one of the pipes to the BOP with a circular saw. They managed to drop the thing and break it, and without a spare in the toolbox a mile under the sea they had to go back to the surface (a 30 minute trip) to either get it fixed or get another one. For anyone interested in subsea engineering it was pretty interesting stuff, and it is rare you get to see a live feed of this work going on. A bunch of like-minded folk, or geeks, have set up a live chat page where the activities of the ROVs can be commented on in real time. It’s far more amusing than you think. Clearly, I was not the only one who thought the ROV wielding a circular saw in the eerie light of its headlamps looked like an outtake from Terminator, and when the saw was dropped everybody chorussed “Butterfingers!” Well, it was funny at the time. I guess you had to be there with an engineering degree and a healthy interest in subsea well-head repair.
Anyway, BP’s struggles to regain control of the Macondo well has given license to various nutters to come out with bright ideas on how to fix it.
First we have this (currently just a rumour):
Hayride sources indicate that today’s effort at a “top kill” of the Macondo gusher carries with it gigantic stakes for BP – as if no measurable progress is made on the spill through that method, President Obama will announce when he comes to New Orleans on Friday that the federal government will seize control of the response from BP and turn it over to the U.S. Navy.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has reportedly floated the idea of sinking a battleship directly on top of the Macondo well in order to drop 80,000 tons on it and crush the drill pipe and the blowout preventer alike.
Yes, one way to improve a situation where you have a leaking well, a damaged BOP and a broken riser is to change things whereby you have a leaking well, a damaged BOP, a broken rise, and a ruddy great 80,000 ton battleship sat on top of it all. That’ll really test the skill of the ROV operators! I am almost certain that Mr Mabus is contemplating no such thing, but it hasn’t stopped people in various comments threads around the internet nodding their heads enthusiastically at the simplicity of it all.
But some of these suggestions are more than just rumours and are being made in all seriousness. There is a chap called Matt Simmons who thinks the “only thing we can do” is to explode a nuclear weapon in the well to seal it up:
Simmons said the US government should immediately take the effort to plug the leak out of the hands of BP and put the military in charge.
“Probably the only thing we can do is create a weapons system and send it down 18,000 feet and detonate it, hopefully encasing the oil,” he said.
So kick BP off the job and then “create a weapons system”. Then let it off “hopefully encasing the oil.” Like all good ideas, it’s obvious when pointed out. And of course, the effects of letting off a nuclear bomb in an enormous oil and gas reservoir beneath the seabed are all known and quantified, are they? Somebody said the oil would just evaporate, presumably thinking “evaporate” means “cease to be” instead of “turn from a liquid into a gas”. Then where would the gas go? We’re not told.
“If you’re 18,000 feet under the sea bed, it basically wont do anything [on the surface],” he said.
Well, that’s reassuring. Mr Simmons is … wait for it … an investment banker. An investment banker?!! Aren’t these the chaps who created a global toxic mess all of their own a while back? Why the hell is anyone listening to him?
The problem is the story has gained traction because apparently nukes have been used to collapse a well before by, you guessed it, the Russians. Whenever there is some batshit daft idea floating about that involves nuclear weapons doing something that nuclear weapons are not meant to do, somebody always digs up a story where the Russians have done it. One would be forgiven for thinking the Russians spent three decades playing a huge episode of Mythbusters where they tried to do all kinds of crazy stuff with nukes. The story originated in Komsomoloskaya Pravda, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the editor had seen Borat and thought he too could make westerners look like ignoramuses by peddling a story about the Soviet Union that would be swallowed whole.
Weapons labs in the former Soviet Union developed special nukes for use to help pinch off the gas wells. They believed that the force from a nuclear explosion could squeeze shut any hole within 82 to 164 feet (25 to 50 meters), depending on the explosion’s power. That required drilling holes to place the nuclear device close to the target wells.
A first test in the fall of 1966 proved successful in sealing up an underground gas well in southern Uzbekistan, and so the Russians used nukes four more times for capping runaway wells.
“The second ‘success’ gave Soviet scientists great confidence in the use of this new technique for rapidly and effectively controlling ran away gas and oil wells,” according to a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report on the Soviet Union’s peaceful uses of nuclear explosions.
A last attempt took place in 1981, but failed perhaps because of poor positioning, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report.
Sadly, a search of the Department of Energy’s website using a variety of terms, including the sentence supposedly quoted from a DoE report, reveals nothing of Soviets blowing up their wells with nuclear weapons. Still, the story has legs because there is a small but vocal group of people (which includes some Americans) who think all Americans are as thick as pigshit and everybody else, especially the Russians, are ten times smarter.
Komsomoloskaya Pravda suggested that the United States might as well take a chance with a nuke, based on the historical 20-percent failure rate.
Somehow I doubt the Americans are thick enough to be taking advice from a Russian newspaper on the use of nuclear weapons in oilfield applications.
I stand corrected: it seems there is a DoE report describing Soviet use of nuclear weapons in peaceful applications, including for shutting off runaway gas wells. Fascinating stuff. Although I think the use of such a device at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico on the Macondo well would be insane. That the Soviets did something is not usually a reliable indicator that it was a good idea.