Should the U.S. Navy blow up the Macondo oil well?

Military archival photo of the blast from an underwater nuclear weapon detonation, as taken from above the surface of the water. Is this what it will take to blow up the Macondo oil well?

While it may not require a nuke, underwater demolitions could be used to blow up the Macondo well, suggests Christopher Brownfield. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled “Blow Up the Well to Save the Gulf,” former nuclear submarine officer Christopher Brownfield draws our attention to what could be a better alternative for dealing with the BP oil spill. BP CEO Tony Hayward admitted to Congress that his company has no intention of plugging the ruptured Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico any longer. Instead, BP is going to take months to build a relief well that some experts predict may not even work. In light of BP and the Coast Guard’s inability to stem the tide of the oil leak, Brownfield makes a suggestion that gives the thinking human being pause. Why not give command of stopping the oil leak to the U.S. Navy?

‘Blow up the well,’ suggests Brownfield

Now is not the time to hesitate, suggests Brownfield; we should blow up the well. Thousands of barrels of oil are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico each day, and BP and the Coast Guard lack the resources and expertise to deal with high-powered demolitions of the sort needed to deal with the Macondo oil well effectively. Thus far, billions of dollars have been thrown at the problem, to only small effect.

According to Brownfield, BP and the Coast Guard would still have an important role to play, namely cleanup on the surface. But the U.S. Navy has resources like special submarines that could have obtained real-time info on the well – well in advance of the schedule BP chose to follow. Engineers from Naval Reactors – “the secretive program that is responsible for designing nuclear reactors for nuclear submarines,” says Brownfield – could have already dealt with how to blow up the well, if they’d been given leave to do so by President Obama.

Then conventional Navy demolitions could commence

This is not to say that a submarine fires a torpedo at the well and the blast seals off the oil well. No, Brownfield claims that it would require drilling a hole parallel to the Macondo well. Explosive charges (non-nuclear) could be lowered down into the new hole and detonated from a distance. Tons of explosives creating a “pressure wave hundreds of thousands of pounds per square inch” strong would implode BP’s big problem easily, sending so much rock into the well that the flow would be stopped like a giant foot stepping on a garden hose. Brownfield writes that the “expansion and collapse of explosive gases inside the hole would act like a hydraulic jackhammer, further pulverizing the rock.” Nuclear devices wouldn’t even be necessary; they’d be overkill, in Brownfield’s view, though Soviet Russia has used them successfully for this purpose before.

Best and worst case scenario

At best, if the Navy were to blow up the well, the flow would be stopped and long-term cleanup could progress toward an endgame. At worst, the explosions could punch a larger hole and increase the oil flow. But as former Naval nuclear sub officer Brownfield believes, “It’s virtually inconceivable that an explosive could blast a bigger hole than already exists and release even more oil,” when the geological features of the ocean bed around the Macondo well are taken into consideration. Considering how much money could be saved by abandoning ineffective capping techniques (not to mention stemming the tide so that damage to nature and the cost of long-term cleanup can be lessened), it seems the course is clear for politicians with the foresight and courage to give the green light.


New York Times

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