Gulf gusher: Marine Corps expert says bomb it

Forget nuking the BP oil well. There is a better, safer way to seal the gusher, according to a U.S. Marine Corps expert.  One that won’t turn the Gulf of Mexico into a radioactive swimming pool or risk starting World War III.

Franz Gayl, a civilian science and technology advisor to the Marine Corps, wants to drop one of the Pentagon’s giant bunker-buster bombs, the kind that would be used to destroy Iranian or North Korean nuclear site buried deep inside mountains. The GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb is 30 feet long and weighs 10 tons. There are also leftover Vietnam-era BLU-82B “Daisy Cutter” bombs containing nearly eight tons of high explosive.

In an email to Uncommon Defense, Gayl explained that the bombs can be used like a depth charge used against submarines. Instead of being dropped by C-130 transports, the giant bombs would be encased in a simple pressure shell and lowered to a few feet above the leaking well head.

If you explode such devices above ground the released energy would be observed as a huge blast that moves outward through the low pressure and “squishy” (i.e. highly compressible) air. However, at a depth of 5,000 feet the blast bubble will be quite small in volume, even at detonation, and as the gases rapidly cool they will of course shoot towards the surface 5,000 feet above.

So, the obvious question is what becomes of the tremendous amount of released energy in the detonation, if there is no huge blast, as one would get above ground? The answer is an absolutely incredible shock wave that will in a fraction of a milisecond crush every volume that it encounters that is less than the pressure of the water shock front through which it is propagating.

That devastating shock wave will treat any metal cavity like soft Play Doe, sealing every perceived cavity with a crushing force thousands of times greater than even the ambient water pressure. The oil plumbing is filled with rapidly flowing oil that has at any moment a lower density than the surrounding and effectively incompressible water through which the shock wave moves. Not only is crude oil less dense, but it also is compressible, unlike the water surrounding it. At 5,000 feet depth the shock wave will therefore have the effect of a concentric fist crushing every inch of plumbing and instantaneously sealing the full length of exposed pipe, but seal it permanently.

Gayl calls the big bombs an environmentally “green” way of sealing the well.  I’m not enough of a physicist or explosives expert to judge whether the idea is genius or insane. One obvious concern is that the blast might rupture the pipes around the well and worsen the leak. But Gayl argues that detonating the bomb a few yards from the well head will be far enough to avoid destroying the plumbing. I’m also hesitant to call dropping giant bombs a “green” solution, although it’s much greener – and much saner – than underwater nukes.

Gayl previously caught public attention for blowing the whistle on delays in mine-resistant Marine Corps armored vehicles. Then-senator Joe Biden demanded that the Marine Corps cease retaliating against him.

Gayl notes that one party that won’t be keen on the “green bomb” idea is BP. “BP wouldn’t like that option because they wouldn’t be able to reopen that particular well. Fortunately I think the President and the public are at the point of saying this is a national emergency (actually international) and the the business case for preserving the well is trumped by the emergency.”

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11 Responses to Gulf gusher: Marine Corps expert says bomb it

  1. Zach Hensel says:

    “One that won’t turn the Gulf of Mexico into a radioactive swimming pool or risk starting World War III.”

    We conducted one deep water nuclear test: wigwam. It was detonated at 2000 feet, whereas the sea floor was at several tens of thousands of feet, I believe. Not perfectly analogous, obviously, but radiation was not a problem in that blast. Radiation would, however, make a nuclear blast politically impossible regardless of what might actually happen. I don’t know what sort of experience we have with conventional explosions at that depth. Nuclear would confer an advantage in that the temperature at the center of the blast is much higher than with a conventional explosive. It could conceivably fuse the sand/mud into glass (this the extreme naivety of someone who spent a few months studying materials science before become a physicist; a field in which everything works every time on paper).

    In terms of BP wanting to save the well, it’s ridiculous on its face. Macondo holds 50 million barrels, I believe, and the cost of recovering deep sea oil is high… I looked it up and found $50/barrel. That’s only a $20/barrel profit or $1 billion for the whole field (assuming everything they’ve found is even producible). The spill is going to wind up costing BP roughly a billion a day. Furthermore, any explosive solution wouldn’t be within the well, but above it… either at the sea floor or buried at some depth next to the bore hole. BP could always spend a few tens of millions of dollars to build another well.

    Anyway, discussions of explosive solutions are interesting in retrospect, but don’t make any sense now that we’re so much closer to having a complete relief well and are producing much of the oil and containing much of the rest. I was wondering why no one was considering it a few days after the spill began, but don’t think it makes sense at all now.

    • Michael Peck says:

      Operation Wigwam was conducted in 1955. I don’t know how sophisticated the radiation measurement devices were, or at least whether they were sophisticated enough to determine whether a nuclear detonation in the Gulf of Mexico would affect the food chain. I have a feeling that the Gulf states wouldn’t appreciate the jokes about jumbo two-headed shrimp.

      The U.S. Navy should have a fair amount of data on the effects of conventional explosives on underwater metal objects (otherwise known as submarines).

  2. Mr. Peck,

    Mr. Gayl may be an expert on blowing things up but he is no expert on sealing an oil gusher thousands of meters deep. How do I know this? Because there are no experts on this topic, no one has ever done it before. He is, at best, guessing. These devices are not designed for this purpose and what they would actually do at 1,000 meters down is completely unknown, assuming that it would even get down that deep. There is enormous water pressure that would most likely crush the device before even got down even close enough to the gusher. The walls of the device would have to be considerably thickened which would have a dampening effect on the explosion.

    • Michael Peck says:

      David, Mr. Gayl believes that the bomb can be encased in a shell strong enough to withstand the pressure. It’s true that 5,000 feet is much deeper than Navy combat submarines dive (which I think is to 1,000 feet), but there are deep-diving submersibles like the Alvin class that can do this. The bomb would only have to remain at depth for a short time, so the pressure shell would only have to be temporary.

      I agree that no one has experience in blowing up deep-ocean oil wells. But there is quite a bit of data out there on blowing up underwater objects (submarines), including how to create and channel underwater shock waves. I should add that Mr. Gayl did say that this idea would need to be mathematically modeled first.

  3. ncfrommke says:

    Would a Fuel-Air bomb even work underwater?

  4. jake brodsky says:

    As an ex-military friend of mine likes to say: There ain’t much in the world that you couldn’t fix with a few pounds of C4.

    I don’t know what it would take to close up this well, but I have a feeling that it might be a bit more than just detonating a bomb next to it.

    Deep water operations have many problems that one does not encounter in daily life. Before deploying that much high explosive, it might be a good idea to try modeling it on a computer. It may well make things worse.

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