50 years ago this week, a nuclear explosion was detonated deep underground in Garfield County in Western Colorado. It was Project Rulison and it was part of an effort to find peaceful uses for nuclear weapons. It was an effort to unlock natural gas. Ultimately that gas was unusable due to radiation contamination and it wasn’t pursued as a means of a fossil fuel extraction. Chester McQueary is one of the organizers of an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Project Rulison happening in Garfield County this week.
“In the mid to late 1960s, the Manhattan project scientists who had created the bomb put forward a set of proposals that they called the Plowshare project. And this is using the ancient biblical term about beating one swords into plowshare. And so this was to demonstrate the peaceful and constructive use of nuclear explosives, was the language that they used. And so they put forward a whole set of, of potential projects, reading them over then or even now, one sometimes wonders if these then aging atomic scientists might’ve been indulging in a bit of the sixties drug culture because some of the proposals are rather fantastic. One, for instance, was to show that an instant harbor could be created by doing such a thing up on the Northwest coast of Alaska that was called project chariot. It was never carried out, but it was planned and projected and explored.”
McQueary says that Project Rulison used nuclear gas stimulation technology, which put a nuclear device deep into the rock formation that held the natural gas and exploded it. This created a large cavity and a whole set of fracture lines from this tremendously powerful explosion, which would intercept the little gas pockets in the surrounding rock. The idea was that the gas would slowly seep over into the cavity that had been created and one could tap it again and have natural gas.
“It produced a massive explosion – a 5.5 reading on the seismograph at the Colorado School of Mines. And so then some time later why they of course wanted to tap into it and see what they had gotten in terms of gas. The issue about it being radioactive gas had been raised many times in the public discussion and forums that were held through the summer of 69. And their usual response was that they would put that gas into the ordinary gas supply and thus thereby dilute the radioactive content such that the exposure of any person are heating their home and cooking food with natural gas, would be well within the parameters permitted by the radioactive exposure standards of that time of, so then there was another legal battle over the flaring as it was called when they wanted to tap into the cavity.
Ultimately the test succeeded in freeing large amounts of natural gas, however the gas had been contaminated and was deemed unusable for public application. The site remains under active monitoring by the Department of Energy, with regular tests for radioactivity.