Mid-Continent Section

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Cold War Geology - Lessons(?) From Nuclear Frac'ing


Between 1967 and 1973, the US detonated nuclear devices in NM and CO in an attempt to fracture-stimulate tight gas sands as part of its Plowshare Program. Three tests, all in U Cretaceous sandstones, were conducted - Gasbuggy (12/10/67, 29 kt), Rulison (9/10/69, 43 kt), and Rio Blanco (5/17/73, three simultaneous 33 kt). (For comparison, Hiroshima was 15 kt). The tests resulted in high-permeability rubble-filled cavities surrounded by fractured reservoir rock. The tests took place during a peak of weapons testing (60–90/yr) and at the beginning of a period of arms-control negotiations. Significantly, the last test occurred after the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 went into effect. Had the tests been successful, the required environmental impact statement proposed 5665 nuclear-stimulated wells with 3–5 devices/well for development of the Green River, Piceance, and Uinta Basins between 1978 and 2017. Plowshare ended in 1975; economics and public fear of all things nuclear contributed to its demise. Public-education efforts to explain new technologies, however, remain much the same even today. How did (do) geoscientists then (and now) address: 1) anti-nuclear (climate-change) issues; 2) full disclosure of radionuclide (groundwater) contamination; 3) mistrust of government (big oil) scientists; and 4) damages from test-triggered earthquakes (frac-induced pollution)? What lessons from the anti-nuclear-frac'ing movement of the 1960s and 70s can we learn from today?