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SPECIAL REPORT-Should BP nuke its leaking well?

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Not everybody is so sanguine about the Soviet experience. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an expert from Russia's largest oil exporter Rosneft

ROSN.MM

, urges the United States to ignore calls for the atomic option. "That would bring Chernobyl to America," he says.

Vladimir Chuprov from Greenpeace's Moscow office is even more insistent that BP not heed the advice of the veteran Soviet physicists. Chuprov disputes the veterans' accounts of the peaceful explosions and says several of the gas leaks reappeared later. "What was praised as a success and a breakthrough by the Soviet Union is in essence a lie," he says. "I would recommend that the international community not listen to the Russians. Especially those of them that offer crazy ideas. Russians are keen on offering things, especially insane things."

Former Minister Mikhailov agrees that the USSR had to give up its programme because of problems it presented. "I ended the program because I knew how worthless this all was," he says with a sigh. "Radioactive material was still seeping through cracks in the ground and spreading into the air. It wasn't worth it."

"Still," he says, momentarily hard to see through a cloud of smoke from his cigarettes, "I see no other solution for sealing leaks like the one in the Gulf of Mexico."

The problem, he goes on, is that "Americans just don't know enough about nuclear explosions to solve this problem ... But they should ask us -- we have institutes, we have professionals who can help them solve this. Otherwise BP are just torturing the people and themselves."

RADIATION RISKS

Nordyke too believes the nuclear option should be on the table. After seeing nine U.S. nuclear explosions and standing behind the control board of one, he estimates that a nuclear bomb would have roughly an 80 to 90 percent chance of successfully blocking the oil. According to his estimates, it would have to be an explosion of around 30 kilotons, equivalent to roughly two Hiroshima bombs or three times as big as Mikhailov's estimate. The explosion would also need to remain at least 3 to 4 miles away from other offshore wells in the area.

The bomb, says Nordyke, would be dropped in a secondary well approximately 60-70 feet away from the leaking shaft. There it would create a large cavity filled with gas. The gas would melt the surrounding rock, crush it and press it into the leaking well to close it shut.

Although the BP well is thousands of feet deeper than those closed in the Soviet Union, Nordyke says the extra depth shouldn't make a difference. He also says that so far below the ground, not much difference exists in onshore or underwater explosions -- even though the latter have never been tried.

Nordyke says fears that radiation could escape after the explosion are unfounded. The hole would be about 8 inches in diameter and, despite the shockwave, the radiation should remain captured. Even in the case of radiation escape, he says, its dispersed effect would be less than that of floating oil patches.

A LAST RESORT

But don't expect an explosion under the Gulf of Mexico any time soon. Even a conventional blast could backfire and cause more problems. There is a chance any blast could fracture the seabed and cause an underground blowout, according to Andy Radford, petroleum engineer and American Petroleum Institute senior policy adviser on offshore issues. The U.S. Department of Energy has no plans to use explosives "due to the obvious risks involved," according to a DOE spokeswoman.

There's also the question of time. Preparations for a nuclear explosion could take up to half-a-year; BP has said it will have a relief well in place to stop the leak by August. "I think it has to be considered as only the last resort," Nordyke says. But "they ought to be thinking about it."

Would he be willing to work on such an operation? "I'd be happy to help," he says. (Reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Ben Judah in Moscow and Alina Selyukh in Washington; editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)

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