His face wracked by age and his voice rasping after decades of chain-smoking coarse tobacco, the former long-time Russian minister of nuclear energy and veteran Soviet physicist Viktor Mikhailov knows just how to fix BP’s oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
“A nuclear explosion over the leak,” he says nonchalantly puffing a cigarette as he sits in a conference room at the Institute of Strategic Stability, where he is a director. “I don’t know what BP is waiting for, they are wasting their time. Only about 10 kilotons of nuclear explosion capacity and the problem is solved.”
A nuclear fix to the leaking well has been touted online and in the occasional newspaper op-ed for weeks now. Washington has repeatedly dismissed the idea and BP execs say they are not considering an explosion — nuclear or otherwise. But as a series of efforts to plug the 60,000 barrels of oil a day gushing from the sea floor have failed, talk of an extreme solution refuses to die.
For some, blasting the problem seems the most logical answer in the world. Mikhailov has had a distinguished career in the nuclear field, helping to close a Soviet Union program that used nuclear explosions to seal gas leaks. Ordinarily he’s an opponent of nuclear blasts, but he says an underwater explosion in the Gulf of Mexico would not be harmful and could cost no more than $10 million. That compares with the $2.35 billion BP has paid out in cleanup and compensation costs so far. “This option is worth the money,” he says.
And it’s not just Soviet boffins. Milo Nordyke, one of the masterminds behind U.S. research into peaceful nuclear energy in the 1960s and ’70s, says a nuclear explosion is a logical last-resort solution for BP and the government. Matthew Simmons, a former energy adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush and the founder of energy investment-banking firm Simmons & Company International, is another calling for the nuclear option.
Even former U.S. President Bill Clinton has voiced support for the idea of an explosion to stem the flow of oil, albeit one using conventional materials rather than nukes. “Unless we send the Navy down deep to blow up the well and cover the leak with piles and piles and piles of rock and debris, which may become necessary … unless we are going to do that, we are dependent on the technical expertise of these people from BP,” Clinton told the Fortune/Time/CNN Global Forum in South Africa on June 29.
Clinton was picking up on an idea mooted by Christopher Brownfield in June. Brownfield is a one-time nuclear submarine officer, a veteran of the Iraq war (he volunteered in 2006) and now a nuclear policy researcher at Columbia University. He is also one of a number of scientists whose theories rely not on nuclear bombs — he did toy with that thought for a while — but on conventional explosives that would implode the well and, if not completely plug it with crushed rock, at least bring the flow of oil under control. “It’s kind of like stepping on a garden hose to kink it,” Brownfield says. “You may not cut off the flow entirely but it would greatly reduce the flow.”