MOSCOW/WASHINGTON, July 2 - His face wracked by age and his voice rasping after decades of chain-smoking coarse tobacco, the former long-time Russian Minister of nuclear energy and veteran Soviet physicist Viktor Mikhailov knows just how to fix BP's oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
"A nuclear explosion over the leak," he says nonchalantly puffing a cigarette as he sits in a conference room at the Institute of Strategic Stability, where he is a director. "I don't know what BP is waiting for, they are wasting their time. Only about 10 kilotons of nuclear explosion capacity and the problem is solved."
A nuclear fix to the leaking well has been touted online and in the occasional newspaper op-ed for weeks now. Washington has repeatedly dismissed the idea and BP execs say they are not considering an explosion -- nuclear or otherwise. But as a series of efforts to plug the 60,000 barrels of oil a day gushing from the sea floor have failed, talk of an extreme solution refuses to die.
For some, blasting the problem seems the most logical answer in the world. Mikhailov has had a distinguished career in the nuclear field, helping to close a Soviet Union program that used nuclear explosions to seal gas leaks. Ordinarily he's an opponent of nuclear blasts, but he says an underwater explosion in the Gulf of Mexico would not be harmful and could cost no more than $10 million. That compares with the $2.35 billion BP has paid out in cleanup and compensation costs so far. "This option is worth the money," he says.
And it's not just Soviet boffins. Milo Nordyke, one of the masterminds behind U.S research into peaceful nuclear energy in the 1960s and '70s says a nuclear explosion is a logical last-resort solution for BP and the government. Matthew Simmons, a former energy adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush and the founder of energy investment-banking firm Simmons & Company International, is another calling for the nuclear option.
Even former U.S. President Bill Clinton has voiced support for the idea of an explosion to stem the flow of oil, albeit one using conventional materials rather than nukes. "Unless we send the Navy down deep to blow up the well and cover the leak with piles and piles and piles of rock and debris, which may become necessary ... unless we are going to do that, we are dependent on the technical expertise of these people from BP," Clinton told the Fortune/Time/CNN Global Forum in South Africa on June 29.
Clinton was picking up on an idea mooted by Christopher Brownfield in June. Brownfield is a one-time nuclear submarine officer, a veteran of the Iraq war (he volunteered in 2006) and now a nuclear policy researcher at Columbia University. He is also one of a number of scientists whose theories rely not on nuclear bombs -- he did toy with that thought for a while -- but on conventional explosives that would implode the well and, if not completely plug it with crushed rock, at least bring the flow of oil under control. "It's kind of like stepping on a garden hose to kink it," Brownfield says. "You may not cut off the flow entirely but it would greatly reduce the flow."
BLASTS FROM THE PAST
Using nuclear blasts for peaceful ends was a key plank of Cold War policy in both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the middle of last century, both countries were motivated by a desire to soften the image of the era's weapon of choice.
Washington had big plans to use peaceful nuclear explosions to build an additional Panama Canal, carve a path for an inter-state highway through mountains in the Mojave Desert and connect underwater aquifers in Arizona. But the experimental plans were dropped as authorities learned more about the ecological dangers of surface explosions.
The Soviet program, known as Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy, was launched in 1958. The project saw 124 nuclear explosions for such tasks as digging canals and reservoirs, creating underground storage caverns for natural gas and toxic waste, exploiting oil and gas deposits and sealing gas leaks. It was finally mothballed by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989.
The Soviets first used a nuclear blast to seal a gas leak in 1966. Urtabulak, one of its prized gas-fields in Uzbekistan, had caught fire and raged for three years. Desperate to save the cherished reserves, Yefim Slavsky, then Minister of Light Industry, ordered nuclear engineers to use the most powerful weapon in their arsenal.
"The Minister said, 'Do it. Put it out. Explode it,'" recalls Albert Vasilyev, a young engineer and a rising star in the project who now teaches at the Lenin Technical Institute in Moscow.
Vasilyev remembers the technology behind the program with obvious pride. "The explosion takes place deep underground," he says. "We pinch the pipe, break it and the pipe collapses." According to Vasilyev, the blast at Urtabulak sealed the well shut leaving only an empty crater.
JUST DOING A JOB
In all, the Soviets detonated five nuclear devices to seal off runaway gas wells -- succeeding three or four times, depending on who you talk to. "It worked quite well for them," says Nordyke, who authored a detailed account of Soviet explosions in a 2000 paper. "There is no reason to think it wouldn't be fine (for the United States)."
But not everything went smoothly. Vasilyev admits the programme "had two misfires". The final blast in 1979 was conducted near the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. "The closest houses were just about 400 meters away," Vasilyev recalls. "So this was ordered to be the weakest of the explosions. Even the buildings and the street lamps survived." Unfortunately, the low capacity of the device failed to seal the well and the gas resurfaced.
Alexander Koldobsky, a fellow nuclear physicist from the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, insists the peaceful nuclear explosions were safe. The people who worked on the program "were brilliant professionals", he says. "They had a culture of safety, which did not accept the word 'maybe', but only accepted the words 'obligation' and 'instruction.' Any derivation from these in nuclear technologies is a crime."
Still, he concedes, "there were different scenarios of what happened after an explosion." At his first blast in a Turkmen gas field in 1972, "the stench was unbearable," he says. "And the wind was blowing toward a nearby town." He closes his narrow lips into a smile as if refusing to say more.
Koldobsky shrugs off any suggestion of fear or emotion when the bomb exploded. "I felt nothing. I was just doing my job."