Since the dawn of the nuclear age, much of the diplomatic and military strategies of nations have centered around preventing the world from going up in flames in a nuclear holocaust. Some scientists have suggested that nuclear weapons could be put to better use than reducing civilization to ashes. In fact, these fearsome weapons could prove useful in extinguishing fires.
More than 50 years ago, this theory was put to the test when the Soviet Union used a nuclear bomb as a fire-fighting device.
In December 1963, engineers were hard at work drilling a natural gas well in the Urta-Bulak gas field in southern Uzbekistan. Something went wrong when drills reached the depth of 2,450 meters (8,038 ft), and they lost control of the well. The mine burst into flames, consuming more than 12 million meters3 of gas each day — enough to supply the needs of a large city. The extremely high pressure of the escaping gas and the intensity of the blaze failed in all efforts to contain it.
For three years, engineers struggled in vain to extinguish the fire. Finally, in the fall of 1966, after all other efforts had failed, they turned to the nuclear option.
Engineers drilled a deviated well shaft to a depth of 1,500 meters (4,921 ft), coming as close to the burning well shaft as possible. After cooling the surrounding clay, technicians lowered a special 30-kiloton nuclear explosive to the bottom of the new shaft.
The explosive was detonated, and for several agonizing seconds, observers watched, hoping for the desired outcome. Twenty-three seconds after the underground explosion, the well fire went out.
The resultant pressure wave moved outward, causing the nearby mineshaft to collapse and seal, cutting off the flow of gas to feed the three-year-old flame.
The successful experiment at the Urta-Bulak gas field boosted Soviet scientists’ confidence in the procedure. A few months later, a similar approach was used to put out a fire at the Pamuk gas field. This time, the explosive device was designed to tolerate higher temperatures, thus negating the need to first cool the surrounding clay.
The process was repeated in 1972 at the Mayskii gas field in Turkmenistan and again that same year in eastern Ukraine.
The final time a nuke was used to put out a fire was in 1981 in the Kumzhinskiy gas deposit in western Siberia. This time, however, technicians failed to properly position the explosive, and it failed to seal the well.
The Ministry for Atomic Energy of Russia reported that all of the explosions were contained underground, and no radioactivity was released into the atmosphere.