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Obama Sends Nuclear Experts To Tackle BP Oil Spill 389

Posted by kdawson
from the step-aside dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The US has sent a team of nuclear physicists to help BP plug the 'catastrophic' flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico from its leaking Deepwater Horizon well, as the Obama administration becomes frustrated with the oil giant's inability to control the situation. The five-man team — which includes a man who helped develop the first hydrogen bomb in the 1950s — is the brainchild of Steven Chu, President Obama's Energy Secretary." Let's hope this doesn't mean they actually try the nuclear option. In other offshore drilling news, reader mygoditsfullofdoom informs us that a Venezuelan gas rig has sunk in the Caribbean (with no loss of life). This one is being laid at the feet of Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA, which hasn't exactly been regarded as uber-competent "after President Hugo Chavez fired half the company's managers and senior engineers following a 2002 strike."
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Obama Sends Nuclear Experts To Tackle BP Oil Spill

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  • by jayveekay (735967) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @04:46PM (#32222278)

    They are planning to use the LHC to create a small black hole and drop it into the gusher to suck up all the oil.

    I think that would silence the critics of both the LHC, the oil drilling industry, and Apple's restrictive rules about apps!

  • Nuclear physicists? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Flavio (12072)

    Has the oil industry become so corrupted that the only way to get a useful opinion is to recruit a team from a completely different field?

    • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @05:00PM (#32222380)
      The people in charge were obviously told that in order to fix a problem of such scale, experts with new clear perspective were needed.
    • by RockoTDF (1042780)
      It probably has more to do with the fact that people think physicists can solve anything. I don't know where this comes from.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by maxume (22995)

      No.

      There are dozens or hundreds of industry people working to solve/address the problem (at a minimum, they are working on the relief well, which has a very high probability of success, it will just take 2 months to complete).

      These 5 people had a meeting where they were briefed in on the specifics of the problem.

      Corruption and lack of imagination are not the problem, the sheer difficulty of the situation they have put themselves into is the problem.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Artifakt (700173)

        There's at least three "The Problem"s here.

        1. Stopping the existing leak.
        2. Cleanup and damage mitigation.
        3. Figuring out what is and isn't reasonable to attempt for oil drilling in the future.

        Maybe there's a meta-problem, which is that people will eventually do one, but then act like two is solved as well, and not even bother to address three.

        • by SharpFang (651121)

          That's our viewpoint.
          BP's viewpoint is

          1. disclaim all responsibility efficiency
          2. reduce litigation and repair costs
          3. restore production at the leak point

          They don't want it plugged permanently, but to rebuild the platform and reuse the shaft
          They don't care about environmental impact outside of how much that costs them. So they prefer to shift the blame than to repair the damage.
          Also, what brings more money than it costs money is reasonable. If the platform brought in more money than it cost BP to solve cur

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by thegarbz (1787294)
      Recruiting a team from an unrelated field is quite different from them doing anything bloody useful.

      How is it that you translate the fact that no one has every tried to plug a leak like this in these depths to mean the oil industry is corrupted?

      Or do you think BP's shareholders would be contempt with standing around and doing nothing while millions are wiped off the company's value?
      • > Or do you think BP's shareholders would be contempt with standing around
        > and doing nothing while millions are wiped off the company's value?

        Why, yes of course: everyone knows that the sole purpose of a "corporation" is to do as much evil as possible. Business men only make money in order to have it available to spend on evil (and, of course, because making money is evil in and of itself).

  • "Let's hope" (Score:2, Interesting)

    by shogun (657)

    I'm curious at the usage of the phrase "let's hope". A correctly placed nuclear device in the that seals off the oil as well as causing a collapsing void that traps any fission products generated sounds a lot better than pouring yet more megagallons of oil into the ocean.

    (your milage may vary in practice a fair bit from theory of course)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      I've always liked the phrase "In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is". I think it's rather pertinent here!

    • Just a while ago we were warned by a computer scientist (whatever that is) that this huge oil reservoir is under so much pressure that if 3 miles or rock spits, it could blow up the planet and end life as we know it...

      Presumably kdawson read this slashdot story... oh wait... editor reading story... I see where I went wrong there.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bug1 (96678)

      +whatcouldpossiblygowrong

      Using nukes will make it a small problem for a long term rather than a big problem for a small time.

      Sounds like something are shortsighted business and political leaders would be interested in.

      Oh yea, and +whatcouldpossiblygowrong

  • Why the bias? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by pongo000 (97357) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @04:55PM (#32222338)

    Let's hope this doesn't mean they actually try the nuclear option.

    Thanks for the environmental message. A little late for that, don't you think?

    At this point, a small controlled nuclear explosion to simply fuse the entire mass together into a big piece of molten glass and metal might be what's needed.

  • by retech (1228598) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @05:01PM (#32222392)
    Blowing something up is always the best option. Detonating a large fuel reserve to stop it from leaking makes perfect sense to me. Absolutely nothing to worry about.
    • by alvinrod (889928)
      So how long do we wait for a better option? If you've got one I'd certainly like to hear it, because we've already passed the point where people's livelihoods are being ruined. This isn't exactly a problem where we can afford to spend several years debating the optimal solution. If no one else has a solution, then yes, "blowing something up" is certainly the best option.
  • Someone showed me this [youtube.com] demonstration today and I don't see any reasons it could not work. It's using hay to soak up the oil. What do you think?

    • by Sir_Lewk (967686)

      We're talking about an absolutely ludicrous amount of crude oil here. I'm not convinced at all that enough hay could be procured in the time-frame needed to effectively act.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by SharpFang (651121)

        Mow Your Lawn For Saving The Sea action?
        Every white picket fence house donating some hay? ...in no time.

    • by Dynedain (141758)

      They're using 5-6 big handfuls of hay to cleanup about 1/2 cup of motor oil (not crude).

      There's 672 cups in a single barrel of oil (1 barrel = 42 gallons).

      The lowest estimate is that there's around 5,000 barrels of oil being released EVERY DAY. The difference in scale is why this, and the hair idea, don't work. They may work for localized cleanup on a specific beach, but like people washing birds with detergent, this isn't a large-scale solution.

    • Re:Hay for Cleanup? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by DotSlashReader (1812462) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @06:53PM (#32223086)
      well, doing some quick back of the napkin math
      he put no more than 1/20th of a gallon of oil into that container and said it took 1 pound of hay to clean that up.
      The explosion and resulting leak happened 25 days ago.
      It's been leaking about 50k barrels per day according to recent (non-computer scientists) estimates.

      At that rate, it's going to require ~525,000 tons of hay.

      According to a quick search for some kind of US hay production values, in 2008 we produced about 145,000,000 tons in 2008
      http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Missouri/Publications/Brochures/Hay_Facts.pdf [usda.gov]

      Although noting is said about how much of that was used to feed livestock. However I suspect that it was most of it.

      So this would be less than half a percent of the US annual hay production. That doesn't seem completely unrealistic to me. Difficult and our infrastructure is likely not set up for this kind of thing, sure, but not flat out unrealistic from some 10 minutes worth of estimating. Add in other realistic aspects of the situation however, and things could get out of control pretty easily, but I would at least say this warrants further exploration of this idea.
  • why not nuclear? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jipn4 (1367823) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @05:06PM (#32222428)

    I'm sorry, but I don't see a big problem with the "nuclear option". Underground nuclear explosions have been used quite a bit and they are not a significant radiation hazard. The geology of the area is presumably also fairly well understood. I wonder, though, if they even need a nuclear bomb. The drill hole is tiny compared to the 3 miles of rock it goes through. I would think even a conventional explosive placed some distance to the drill hole about a mile or so down into the rock might be enough to shift the rock and seal it off with little risk of making things worse. In any case, it's good to see people besides BP employees are on the case.

    • I'd prefer to try MOAB before nukes. The hole is pretty small, do we *need* that much power that a nuke is necessary*?

      *if the math says nuke to collapse the tube, then so be it, I'm just wondering if it really requires that much.

    • by goodmanj (234846)

      The problem is there's a hole in the seafloor. Explosives are not known for making *fewer* holes in things.

      • by roman_mir (125474)

        The hole is much deeper than the sea-floor, USSR has done this, they exploded bombs to stop leaks like that, it collapses the shaft by applying a lot of pressure from above.

        However they did it 6 times and only succeeded 5 times doing that.

        I lived in this city [wikipedia.org] from 86 to 91 and there is at least something to say about living in a place you know is only a few kilometers away from a nuclear crater. In case of the Gulf of Mexico there would be no visible crater though, and the radiation most likely will not ma

        • by jipn4 (1367823)

          However they did it 6 times and only succeeded 5 times doing that.

          The Russians used it to extinguish gas, which sounds harder to me.

          The only problem is that if it does NOT work or even makes the situation worse

          Well, BP is interested in making money, the administration is interested in getting reelected, which gives me some confidence that they'll try to avoid making things worse. And they could still drill a relief well, as before.

    • > I would think even a conventional explosive placed some distance to the
      > drill hole about a mile or so down into the rock might be enough to shift
      > the rock and seal it off with little risk of making things worse.

      Drilling that hole would probably take as long as drilling the relief well.

    • by wkcole (644783) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @11:45PM (#32224816)

      I'm sorry, but I don't see a big problem with the "nuclear option".

      Look more closely...

      Underground nuclear explosions have been used quite a bit and they are not a significant radiation hazard. The geology of the area is presumably also fairly well understood.

      Understanding the geology (which is put in question by the accident) is necessary but not sufficient. Sites for underground nuclear tests are not simply understood, they are selected and prepared. They are not selected under a mile of water, and test chambers are not prepared by connecting them to large high-pressure oil and gas deposits.

      I wonder, though, if they even need a nuclear bomb. The drill hole is tiny compared to the 3 miles of rock it goes through. I would think even a conventional explosive placed some distance to the drill hole about a mile or so down into the rock might be enough to shift the rock and seal it off with little risk of making things worse.

      The risk of making things worse is quite real. The root cause of the accident according to some reports was the destabilization of an unrecognized clathrate layer, and setting off a large explosion in that sort of formation would be a crapshoot. Even if the clathrate is a small localized issue, the concept of trying to plug the hole by shattering the cap layer around it carries the risk of trading one pipe of known characteristics in a known location for a giant sieve leaking more gas and oil from a myriad of unknown random seep points.

      There isn't much relevant history to look at for troubleshooting accidents like this one but in general, throwing high-energy chaos at a piece of complex engineering gone wrong is a tactical class that has a vanishingly small success rate. .

  • Wrong team! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Ruvim (889012)
    Where is Bruce Willis and his team? I am sure they'd do it at the last second!
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crack_in_the_World

    Worked fine, the last time it was tried on the silver screens in the 60's . . .

  • Bad reporting (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Clsid (564627) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @05:37PM (#32222608)
    I am in Venezuela and can tell you that the rig incident in Venezuela was handled much more gracefully than what they show in that link. They managed to break the main pipe and close it before the platform leaned over. The captain of the platform, who is American by the way, was congratulated by Chavez in public TV since he stayed until the very last moment on the platform, only jumping into the water after the platform was over a 45 degree inclination angle. The Venezuelan navy also did a pretty good by-the-book rescue operation, so I don't know why is there so much negativity in the reports I see in the links posted. As far as the problem in the US, I kind of disagree bringing a nuclear physicist to do what can probably be solved by an emergency contract with the Norwegians, by far the best of the world in that field. But I guess when there are no tried solutions, a good idea counts no matter where it comes from.
    • Re:Bad reporting (Score:4, Interesting)

      by phantomfive (622387) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @06:30PM (#32222968) Journal
      Let me guess, you heard about it on one of the official Venezuelan TV channels? The article doesn't say that it was worse than the BP leak, it just says that sort of thing is becoming more common in Venezuela. Relevant quote:

      After an explosion in 2005 killed five workers at PDVSA's 955,000 barrel per day Paraguana Refining Complex -- one of the biggest refinery complexes in the world -- the manager conceded that the frequency of fires, blasts and oil leaks had almost doubled compared with the previous year.

      Not good.

  • The problem until now was that they didn't really want to stop the flow. They wanted to continue production. The government is now forcing them to stop the flow and abandon production.
  • risk and reward (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fermion (181285) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @05:47PM (#32222674) Homepage Journal
    My main problem with this is that BP and Transocean seem to be more conerned about limiting liability than solving the problem. BP doesn't seem to be interested in releasing video so the experts don't know if they are dealing with a situation that is 5 or 5 million barrels a day. For planning such a number is important. Transocean is in court trying to claim it is a cruise line so that it can cap liability to a few tens of million. Of course most of BP actions are intended to limit charges of negligence so they can limit liability to $75 million. Total exposure for both companies if all the effort succeed is $100 million.

    So the oil still flows, and the government has to step in for what should be a problem solved by the private sector that has claimed they are more than capable of regulating themselves. The private businesses that are destroyed from Louisiana to Florida due to BP negligence will be limited to fighting over the $75 million dollars, hardly enough when all your memorial weekeend guests have cancelled.

    Here is the thing. I am one of the few people not in the oil industry that will actively defend the high price of gasoline, and even say it go higher. Oil production is risky, and the rewards should be commiserate. What I find maddening is that when the risk does manifest, the executives claim they have no money to pay for liabiliy. BP has made a profit of 5.5 billion this quarter. It is only natural that all that is forfiet to pay for the accident. That is how the free market works. As long as one is efficient and keeps one nose clean, one can make a huge profit. On big mistake an put one out of business. We should not be making laws to protect incompetent firms, any more than we should have laws to protect incompetent employees.

    And for those who think there is a greater competency issue in the Venezuela explosion, remember that BP is responsible for the death of 11 good people, while no one died in the Venezuela situation. If you think that killing people is competent, something is wrong.

  • Dust off and nuke the site from orbit.

    It's the only way to be sure.

  • by BudAaron (1231468)
    I spent a number of years as part of a team testing nuclear devices. They could be used as Russia has done to cut this off but at a mile deep I'd be worried to death about the potential for unexpected side effects. It may be the only option we have given the current failures but the chance of a catastrophic failure is far more likely than the LHC producing a large black hole.
  • by zogger (617870) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @06:02PM (#32222758) Homepage Journal

    Are they trying to plug the leak, or are they really trying to salvage the bore there and get back to pumping oil?

    The reason I ask is..why not a chernobyl style containment effort. Drop a 200 (whatever, hugemongous, the biggest they can move) ton solid concrete and steel cube on that thing, then add to it, until the leak totally stops. The first big chunk would smash the pipe flat, effectively sealing it.

    It has looked to me right along as more an effort to salvage what they did so far, not actually just plug it up.

    • by Animats (122034) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @06:56PM (#32223106) Homepage

      Are they trying to plug the leak, or are they really trying to salvage the bore there and get back to pumping oil?

      They're trying to plug the leak. At the same time, there's another drilling platform nearby drilling another well, which will be used to take the pressure off and get back to pumping oil. But that will take months.

      Bear in mind that this is all going on a mile down. That's 160 atmospheres, and at that pressure, the water temperature is forced to 4C because that's the lowest density of water. Under those conditions, methane is a solid, and methane ice from escaping natural gas is clogging up the repair operation.

      Once the hole is plugged, or at least slowed down, it takes about four months to four years for natural processes to dispose of the oil. The heavy components like asphalt sink; the light ones like gasoline evaporate off. Fishing and tourism might suffer for a while, but that's not a big deal.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by auLucifer (1371577)
      Concrete of that size would take a hell of a long time to cure so isn't feasible. I remember watching the documentary about the Hoover damn and if they poured it all at once it'd take centuries and as it was the blocks they were pouring was taking days to cure with coolent running through the slabs. Plus concrete is brittle and pourous and there's no gaurantee it'll survive the 5000 feet descent.
      I think I'll leave the guessing to those that are smarter then I am and are employed to do it to fix the problem
  • Yes I get that they're wicked smart, they're nuclear physcists and all. However since probably none of that is applicable what does having a bunch of super smart newbies get you? (I'd rather have one smart guy with relevant experience than a bunch of geniuses who are trying to learn it while they're working.)
  • by Shag (3737) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @07:11PM (#32223160) Homepage

    As a far better article over at PopSci [popsci.com] notes, the team includes a variety of physicists and engineers, only two of whom have done anything in the nuclear field.

    While Richard Garwin did design the first proof-of-concept H-bomb way back in 1951, he spent most of his career at IBM, and held a symposium after the first Gulf War on how to close all those burning oil wells in Kuwait.

    And although Tom Hunter has a couple degrees in nuclear engineering and is (until he retires in July) director of Sandia National Lab, his strengths appear to be more in the area of managing "big science" these days.

    George Cooper, Alexander Slocum and Jonathan I Katz, though? Not nuke guys.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Thing 1 (178996)

      George Cooper, Alexander Slocum and Jonathan I Katz, though? Not nuke guys.

      Wait, what? No, really? He's back?

  • by wiredlogic (135348) on Saturday May 15, 2010 @10:51PM (#32224496)

    Obama should just issue an executive order dissolving the corporate charters of Transocean and the US subsidiaries of BP using his authority to protect our territorial waters.

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