We often think of nuclear bombs as extreme weapons of destruction. While they are certainly that, in the 1960s the world's superpowers began investigating more practical uses for these powerful devices.
The US and the Soviet Union were in the heat of the Cold War in the early 1960s. Both countries had stockpiled nuclear weapons, with thousands of them sitting idly across their respective countries. The US subsequently created Operation Plowshare and the Soviet Union a program named "Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy".
Operation Plowshare was formed in the US to explore the possibility of using nuclear explosions for excavation or natural gas fracturing. The evidence of this project's tests can still be seen in craters in the Nevada desert. Surprisingly, this research project persisted for nearly 20 years, from 1958 to 1975.
The Soviets were also researching practical uses of nuclear explosions, and, like the US, their research was focused on natural gas and mining. Unlike the US, however, little concern was given to the environmental impact of these Soviet nuclear tests. Soviet engineers behind the project once contaminated a densely populated region along the river Volga. They also decided to use nukes to blow up a river to create a reservoir – which they succeeded in doing – except it's still radioactive to this day.
During this nuclear research, scientists realized that they might be able to solve a problem that had been raging on for years.
The gas fire in Uzbekistan
In 1963, a gas well in Southern Uzbekistan suffered a blowout at a depth of 2.4 kilometers. The natural gas caught fire and burned steadily for the next three years. This seemingly unquenchable fire was causing the loss of more than 12 million cubic meters of gas each day. That's enough to supply the needs of many major cities, and roughly the equivalent volume of 12 Empire State buildings.
No one in the country knew how to put the fires out, and by 1966 all attempts to do so had failed. It was at this point of desperation that dropping a nuclear bomb on the fires seemed like a pretty great idea to engineers and officials.
Physicists calculated that if a nuclear bomb was detonated at a depth of around 1500 meters and close to the shaft of the well, the resulting pressure could blow out the fire. Researchers ultimately calculated that the bomb needed to be 30 kilotons, or double the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
After confirming the calculations, officials decided that a nuclear explosion was the best way to stop the raging fire. In 1966, two boreholes were drilled, sloping towards the blowout region, determined to be at a depth of 1.4 kilometers. The 30 kiloton bomb was lowered into the most promising borehole and then the well itself was backfilled with cement.
Then, they detonated the bomb.
There's no better way to understand what that day was like other than this account from the Soviet newspaper Pravda Vostoka of Tashkent:
“On that cold autumn day in 1966, an underground tremor of unprecedented force shook the [ground] with a sparse grass cover on white sand. A dusty haze rose over the desert. The orange colored torch of the blazing well diminished, first slowly, then more rapidly, until it flickered and finally died out. For the first time in 1,064 days, quiet descended on the area. The jet-like roar of the gas well had been silenced.”
In 20 seconds, a 3-year-long fire had been extinguished using a nuclear explosion, much to the satisfaction of Soviet engineers.
The results of the test
The test was a success, but soon engineers were presented with another case to test their experiment. A few months later, a fire broke out at the Pamuk gas field and spread to the surface through various bore holes. Engineers determined that in order to stop this fire, they would need to lower a 47 kiloton bomb to a deeper depth of 2.44 kilometers. The bomb was lowered into the well, backfilled with cement as before, and detonated. After a few days, the fire had stopped.
It was after this second successful attempt at putting out large gas fires that the Soviets had found what they considered a highly practical use for nuclear explosions. They used nuclear bombs to stop a fire in May 1972 in the city of Mary in Asia. In July of that same year, they also used a nuclear explosion to stop a leaking well in Ukraine. The last known attempt to use this practice was in 1981, on a well on the Northwestern coast of Russia.
Of all of the explosions, the second one, at the Pamuk Gas Field, was the deepest and most powerful.
And that's the story of how excess nuclear weapons, curious Soviet engineers, and rampant natural gas fires lead to the underground detonation of massive nuclear bombs during the Cold War.