Deepwater oil spill: will BP take nuclear option?
While BP pursues several delicate alternatives to plug the flow of oil, the Russians say: nuke it
Despite today's success in plugging one hole, a pipe damaged by the sinking of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig two weeks ago continues to leak 760,000 litres of oil daily into the Gulf of Mexico from two breaches. This despite repeated efforts to activate an emergency valve. The resulting oil slick is threatening fragile habitats around the Mississippi delta.
BP has said it is baffled as to why the 15-metre high blowout preventer valve at the top of the oil well did not seal when Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 people. Even if the oil rig workers failed to activate the valve, a 'dead man's switch' should have tripped it.
BP has taken full responsibility for cleaning up the pollution and staunching the flow of oil. They have several options, including the nuclear one...
• Replacement blowout preventer
After several failed attempts to operate the blowout preventer using remote controlled submarines with robotic arms, BP exec Doug Suttles said the company had concluded the valve has closed, but that it did not seal properly.
The company could now attempt to remove the damaged upper portion of the blowout preventer valve and replace it. However, this operation carries the risk of causing yet more damage to the well.
• 'Subsea oil recovery system'
BP is currently constructing a 113 tonne, 12 metre high, iron box in Louisiana. It will be transported to the source of the oil spill tomorrow, where it will be lowered into place with the help of robotic submarines over the largest leak.
The leak is 1.5km below the surface of the ocean and this kind of system has never been deployed at such depths before - so plenty could go wrong. Once over the leak, mudflaps on the box will plunge into the muddy seabed, creating a seal.
The idea is that oil from the well will then rise up the mile-long pipe to the Deepwater Enterprise, a ship that can process 15,000 barrels of oil a day. If all goes according to plan, 85 per cent of the oil spill should be contained.
• Relief well
The iron box is only a temporary solution. Something has to be done to stop the leak permanently. Another oil rig is currently drilling into the bedrock under the sea, in an effort to intercept the original well damaged by the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon. When the relief well makes contact with the flowing well, a heavy liquid, such as mud, will be pumped in to block the leak.
However, the relief well operation is very tricky - the well leaking into the Gulf of Mexico is less than 10 inches across - and it could take up to 90 days to succeed. A similar operation to plug a leak into the Timor Sea when an Australian oil rig caught fire last year took five attempts and 10 weeks.
• Nuke it
Russia has an old-fashioned and highly effective option for sealing oil leaks. Alexander Moskalenko, head of GCE, a Russian oil consultancy, tells the Moscow Times an underwater nuclear explosion could be used to bury the leaking oil well. The suggestion is not as bonkers as it sounds.
According to the Russian newspaper Komsomol Pravda, the Soviet Union used the method five times to seal off hydrocarbon spillages. The first time was in 1966, near Bukhara in Uzbekistan, when a 30-kiloton atom bomb was used to blow out and seal a burning gas well. (The bomb used in Hiroshima was 20 kilotons.)
The idea is simple: the explosion buries the problem under tonnes of rock, sealing off the flow of oil. According to Pravda, some of these nuclear bomb civil engineers are still alive: perhaps BP should give them a call.