Program Item Details
TITLE: Dr. Michael Payne, Head of Research and Publications, Historic Sites and Cultural Facilities Branch, Alberta Community Development
SUBJECT: #31 Project Oil Sands, Alberta's Experience with the Atomic Bomb
SYNOPSIS: In 1959-1960, the cabinet of Premier Ernest Manning seriously considered allowing the underground detonation of a 9 kilotonne atomic bomb in northern Alberta in an experiment to determine if nuclear power might help remove oil for the oilsands. The site chosen for the blast was Cheechum Crossing. Dr. Michael Payne sets the scene for this bizarre tale from Alberta's oilsands history. It began as part of Project Ploughshares, an American scheme to find peaceful ways to use nuclear bombs
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Intro: A step back in time and a blast from the past. Historian Michael Payne looks back at efforts to set off an atomic bomb at Cheechum Crossing. All in the name of getting oil out of the Athabasca Tar Sands.
With all the activity in Alberta’s oil sands, just be glad this isn’t the 1950s. Back then some very important people were absolutely convinced that they could release the oil by blasting it with atomic bombs and Cheechum Crossing near Fort McMurray was picked as the test site for the first detonation. Historian, Dr. Michael Payne, relates one of the more bizarre stories from Alberta’s oil sands history.
Dr. Michael Payne
MP: The story behind this project really begins in the 1950s when the American Atomic Energy Commission started to get interested in the possible peaceful uses of nuclear weapons in engineering projects of various sorts. They worked very closely with the University of California’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Livermore as well on these particular ideas. For a long time it had been known obviously that nuclear weapons can shift vast amounts of material and there had been a number of engineers and scientists who had done calculations that showed that for large scale engineering projects, the use of nuclear weapons to more material was actually cheaper than more conventional explosives like using dynamite simply because the cost of dynamite went up exponentially with the size of the project.
And there had been enough experience with both above ground and under ground nuclear tests since the Second World War to show for example that if you let off a nuclear device, you could move vast amounts of material and create what they like to refer to as harbours or it’s like that they’d blown up the better part of several atolls in the South Pacific and so on. And so there was some sense that you know that you could use nuclear weapons to excavate harbours, dig canals, some people had speculated that you could use them to clear under water obstructions in shipping lanes. In other words, you wouldn’t necessarily have to dredge harbours and so on any more. And, there was some other ideas as well that people thought that, you know, there are some other ways in which you could use this enormous power of atomic and hydrogen bombs for good in the world, whatever you like.
CC: WAS THERE SOME SORT OF NAME OR POLICY FROM THE GOVERNMENT THAT ACTUALLY LEGITIMIZED ALL OF THIS?
MP: Yes, there was. The United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1957 began to explore the possibilities of the use of nuclear devices in engineering projects and in 1958 they announced what they called Project Ploughshares. The program was announced by Edward Teller, who was then the Director of the Livermore Lab and a man who’s generally credited by nuclear historians as being the architect of the hydrogen bomb. He announced this program at a World Congress on the peaceful uses of atomic energy. It was held in Geneva in 1958 and the idea behind the program was that different groups would be able to come forward to the United States Atomic Energy Commission to suggest engineering projects that would test the value of nuclear explosions in various types of peaceful applications.
This program, actually, with its rather Orwellian name I think of Project Ploughshares was used to justify a total of, there is some debate as to how many explosions were actually took place under it, but there was between twenty-seven and thirty-five underground nuclear explosions took place between 1961 and 1973 testing various aspects of this program. And there were a number of engineering ideas that came forward for possible inclusion under this program. In 1958 actually the Financial Post in Canada published a very interesting article which detailed some of those ideas that grew out of American testing in the Pacific and in Nevada.
In addition to excavations, for example, they suggested that there was some potential for inducing various kinds of chemical reactions underground. Some people, they speculated for example, you could produce vast amounts, infinite amounts of slate lime, for example, setting off bombs underground. At least in theory anyhow. So, yes, and probably the biggest single project that was every proposed under this particular scheme was there was some initial planning went into the idea of trying to re-dig the Panama Canal down to sea level so they wouldn’t need the locks and all the expense of moving ships through the locks getting from the Atlantic to the Pacific or the Pacific to the Atlantic and some wags referred to this as the Pan-Atomic Canal.
CC: WELL GIVEN THE SIZE AND SCALE OF THE PANAMA CANAL PROJECT, THEN YOU LOOK TO THE SIZE OF THE ATHABASCA OIL SANDS, I GUESS YOU COULD BEGIN TO SEE THAT THERE IS A CONNECTION THERE CERTAINLY FROM A SIZE POINT OF VIEW. HOW WAS IT THAT THE ALBERTA GOVERNMENT GOT INTERESTED IN NUCLEAR POWER?
MP: At this time, in the late 1950s, there was a lot of interest in the potential oil reserves of the Athabasca oil sands but at the same time there was a very real concern that most of the oil sand was not really suitable for development by mining which at the time seemed to be the only, more or less feasible, and there was still certainly lots of technical problems that had to be resolved there. But at the time mining was seen as really the only feasible method of extracting bitumen from the sand. So the Alberta government and oil companies, at the time, estimated that some, maybe around you know 5-6% of the total amount of the oil sands was exploitable using mining.
So the other 95% or so would either have to be not developed at all or if it going to be developed, it would have to be developed some other way. At the time there were various methods of insitu production, that’s production in place, that were being used mostly involving the injection of steam into formations and there was some sense that maybe some of these could be applied in the oil sands but nothing very much had come of them to date. So, there was this huge resource sitting out there and there was this sense that they had to find some way to develop it.
CC: SO WHO WAS THE ONE WITH THE BRILLIANT IDEA WHO BROUGHT IT FORWARD TO THE ALBERTA GOVERNMENT?
MP: Well the key figure in this story is a man by the name of Dr. M.L. Natland who was the Manager for Production Research for an American oil company, the Richfield Oil Corporation. According to an article that Natland later on wrote for publication, about the development this engineering idea and his ongoing belief in its value and prospects, he came up with the idea and he first thought about the idea that using nuclear energy to release otherwise trapped oil while he was working in Southern Arabia and he recorded a rather dramatic description of how this all occurred.
He says he was sitting on a small hill and he watched the huge orb of the sun sinking below the sands and he thought to himself, ‘the sun is a thermal nuclear power source, maybe we could use something similar to develop oil resources around the world.’ He wasn’t alone in these ideas. The United States Atomic Energy Commission had also, there were other people working with them who had thought about this idea, and there are some suggestions in the literature that I’ve looked at that in the Soviet Union that they had experimented with something similar of using nuclear devices to stimulate oil and gas production.
And in fairness, it should be mentioned that in 1967 as part of Project Ploughshares the United States actually engaged in two things, two projects. One called Project Gas Buggy and the other called Project Rawlson which were underground nuclear explosions which were set off to stimulate gas production in gas reserves that were known and identified but which were difficult to exploit for one reason or another. And the idea was that this would break up the rock in which the gas was entrapped.
Historian Dr. Michael Payne is an historian and the head of Research and Publications for the Historic Sites and Cultural Facilities Branch of Alberta Community Development.
Part Two of the story continues in Program #32