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Why Frack, When You Can Nuke Them?

May 12, 2017




Guest Post by Joe Public



The test well for the Wagon Wheel project in Sublette County, 1972. Casper College Western History Center.

The test well for the Wagon Wheel project in Sublette County, 1972. Casper College Western History Center.

We know anti-frackers & enviro-whingers have apoplexy at, and seismophobics are triggered by, the thought of the modern fracking process of merely squirting water and sand underground to expand fissures to obtain shale gas.


Suppose a detailed survey of a particular area has been carried out, and determined that there’s 15 billion cu metres of gas in place per square km. Its value would supplement anyone’s pension.

However, there were certain geological challenges to be overcome – such as low-permeability rock, and modern fracking technologies had yet to be invented. The tantalising prospect of that pension pot enhancement would surely stimulate a degree of lateral thinking, well before lateral fracking wells were conceived.

A Eureka moment truly is when some guy in a brainstorming session suggests detonating nukes underground but above a gas field, to stimulate it.


And so it came to be …. in 1958 "Project Gasbuggy” was conceived and its practicality investigated in conjunction with the US the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The first test detonation, in New Mexico, was in 1967, and apparently experienced little local resistance and a great deal of support, especially from the state’s political leaders, (!!)

Three more "Project Gasbuggy” test detonations occurred in other states.

By 1972 enough practical experience had been gained to ‘go for gold’ (or rather CH4). The "Wagon Wheel Stimulation Project” was for not just one, but five 100-kiloton nukes in series vertically, to be detonated underground but amidst a gas field containing 15bn m^3 of gas per square km. [Remember – Enola Gay’s "Little Boy” delivered to Hiroshima was a mere 15 kilotons]

Strangely, there was some resistance. Locals feared the effects of the explosions & fallout on vegetation, wildlife and livestock, and on bridges, roads, reservoirs and concrete irrigation canals.

A minor technical challenge presented itself. For the U.S. government to comply with the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, atomic bombs larger than 150 kilotons were forbidden, yet Wagon Wheel involved 500-kilotons of explosive power. Consequently, for technical compliance they needed to be exploded in sequence rather than simultaneously, and AEC had not at that time perfected the technology of sequential detonation. [1×500-kt = bad; 5x100kt = OK]


[Why, oh why does this clip spring to mind ?]


Modern day anti-frackers fret about disposing of a few golf-course waterings-worth of flow-back fluid. Wagon Wheel was expected to release three billion cubic feet of radioactive gas to be flared/burned off during the test (translation: ‘explosions’), leaving radioactive tritium, krypton-85, and argon-37 in the local atmosphere. "These unavoidable radiation levels would be very low and of no danger to humans" the AEC maintained (presumably with a straight face).

Some local humans weren’t convinced; but the project killer (possibly a forerunner of anti-energy protest tactics ever since) was probably Wyoming Game and Fish Commission pointing out the absence of wildlife and ecological considerations. … "[T]he impact on fish and wildlife …has had been grossly understated.”

The pragmatic solution for locals was an unofficial referendum. There was overwhelming opposition to the project, but no reports of disillusioned supporters demanding a referendum rerun.

At a later news conference an executive of the energy company considered the vote “premature” because the company hadn’t actually decided to carry out the project, it had only ‘considered’ doing so. This led to questions about the reason for the 19,000-foot deep bore hole for a project that didn’t exist; and, what non-project had his company & AEC spent $8 million and issued two environmental impact statements for?

Local opposition escalated to Washington. The forerunner of "Project Gasbuggy” had been AEC’s Plowshare Program, a post WW2 project to help the US develop nuclear energy for peaceful uses. [The AEC’s version of the dictum ‘When all you’ve got is a hammer, every problem is a nail’ seems to have been ‘When all you’ve got is a nuke, every problem needs a blast.’] In the grand tradition of public-private partnerships squandering taxpayers’ dosh, AEC’s track record of revenue generation relating to atomic exploitation of natural gas from one of the Gasbuggy tests generated gas worth $1.4m, with expenses of $11m.

In the end, political machinations meant the ‘Big Bang’ never occurred.

  1. May 12, 2017 2:20 pm

    In the interests of nuclear reality:

    Deaths caused by Tsunami wave & govt evacuation order. Zero radiation deaths.

    A book I recommend:

    Merchants of Despair, by Robert Zubrin, a PhD nuclear engineer with 9 patents granted or pending.

    Zubrin shows the antihumanists who have hijacked the environmental movement, & that safe clean nuclear has been demonised by our fake news mainstream media.

    John Doran.

  2. May 12, 2017 3:54 pm

    Very interesting. I used to have a book describing all the interesting and potentially dangerous things that nuclear scientists and engineers were doing in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Quite fascinating. Unfortunately I don’t know what happened to the book.

  3. Nigel S permalink
    May 13, 2017 7:41 am

    This project sounds like the sort of thing that would have unleashed the worms in ‘Tremors’.

    “Broke into the wrong goddam rec. room didn’t you, you bastard!”

  4. Bloke down the pub permalink
    May 13, 2017 9:37 am

    When they carry out underground nuclear tests, if done properly, the heat from the blast melts the rock which then solidifies to seal in any radiation. Rather than releasing the natural gas, I suspect the blasts would’ve made it harder to get to.

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