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Innovation Alberta: Article Details

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TITLE: Dr. Michael Payne, Head of Research and Publications, Historic Sites and Cultural Facilities, Alberta Community Development

SUBJECT: #32 Project Oil Sands, Alberta's Experience with the Atomic Bomb

SYNOPSIS: The 1950's were a time when people had faith in technology and were optimistic about efforts to find peaceful uses for nuclear power. Children read books called "The Friendly Atom". That was before the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Part Two of the Project Oilsands story, historian Michael Payne looks further into the scheme that proposed to detonate a 9 kilotonne atomic bomb under the oilsands at a spot 60 km south of Fort McMurray. The idea was to create an underground cavern where oil separated from the oilsands due to the blast could be pumped out by conventional means.

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Intro: After the United States government announced Project Ploughshares in the 1950s, one of the proposals that came forward for the peaceful use of nuclear energy was suggested by Dr. L. M. Natland of the Richfield Oil Company. He figured he could detonate a small atomic bomb under the Athabasca Oil Sands and then pump out the oil. Historian Dr. Michael Payne continues this tale of technological absurdity.

Dr. Michael Payne

MP: Well the Alberta government was actually approached for the first time along with the federal government in June, 1958, with this idea. Richfield Oil and Natland were in partnership with Imperial Oil and City Service Athabasca Incorporated because those were the leaseholders on the area where they wanted to engage in this experiment. And, the companies together approached both the provincial and the federal government in June, 1958. The first meetings were really technical. They took place between Natland and representatives of Richfield Oil and essentially senior civil servants and government regulators at both the federal and provincial levels. It wasn’t until January, 1959, that the idea was formally presented to Premier Manning and his Cabinet. And, later that month their federal counterparts were also briefed on what was being discussed as well. Alberta appointed a technical review committee almost instantaneously which consisted of the leading scientists in this area in Alberta. It also included the Minister of Economic Affairs, the Deputy Minister of Mines and Minerals and, I think rather interestingly, for a very brief time before he resigned from this committee, Grant MacEwan, who was there as a representative of the official opposition. MacEwan actually would resign in June, 1959, and had nothing further to do with this particular scheme.


MP: Well, let me explain a little bit of what they were thinking about here. The site that was proposed was a wellsite on Pony Creek, not far from the railway siding at Chard which was on the Northern Alberta Railway line going up to Fort McMurray. The general theory behind it was that you set off a small nuclear device. This was, we should probably note, a very small device that they were talking about relatively speaking at nine kilotons. It was supposed to be set off in the rock underneath the oil sands and the idea was like the underground explosions in Nevada, that the explosion would essentially vaporize the rock and create a large cavity into which heated oil sand material would tumble and by the mixture of kind of the heat and the creating of this cavity, it was hoped that in fact you would be able to pump the bitumen out using conventional technology as opposed to trying to use steam assisted gravity drainage or any of the other current insitu methods that are being used away from the mining areas of the oil sands. So, the idea was essentially to create something that roughly parallel more conventional oil well. And, they did think, based on some initial work that had been done with the underground explosions in Nevada, that problems of things like radiation would be not insurmountable technologically. There was some feeling and it comes out in the reports that much of the radiation would be caught and entrapped in the vaporized rock which would then become like a glassy film or ceiling or seal in the cavity and that a lot of the radiation would actually be captured there and would not come out into the bitumen, and so on. And, that most of the remaining radiation would be relatively unstable and therefore would not remain around. It would have short half life. Whether or not they were accurate in those assumptions is another matter.


MP: There are a couple of reasons, I think, for why the federal government began to kind of back away from this idea. One was increasing debate in Canada over radiation and the negative consequences of nuclear power. Part of it was the climate of the times. The huge public discussion and enormous anxiety over the threat of nuclear war in the early 1960s as it leads up to the Cuban missile crisis. And, then a whole series of international agreements from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaties to the banning of underground nuclear testing, and so on, in the 1960s as well that really did-in the project politically if not technically.


MP: In the early 1970s, this idea was reinitiated. There is, in fact, a patent which was applied for which is entitled, ‘The Process for Stimulating Petroliferous Subterranean Formations with Contained Nuclear Explosions’. And, the patent was granted in 1971. And, in 1973 there was a brief flurry of interest lead by a Canadian oil company called, Phoenix Oil, which proposed to do something similar to Project Oil Sand in the Athabasca formation. But this time round the project really went nowhere.


MP: My pleasure

Dr. Michael Payne is historian with Historic Sites Services, Alberta Community Development.

This segment was sponsored by the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation.

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