THE CANADIAN ATOMIC BOMB PROJECT

by BERNARD A HODSON

The Alberta tar sands are reputed to contain more oil than the entire Middle East oil fields combined. The problem is how to extract the oil.

The tar sands cover many square miles of territory and slope downwards at an angle from near the surface. At the surface it is possible to strip the 'overburden' and treat the tar sands with chemicals and hot water, a process that took many years of experiment to get working economically. The end product is liquid crude oil and beautiful sand, so much sand that it could supply all the beaches of the Riviera and still have lots to spare.

Further down there were experiments to see if setting the tar sands on fire could liberate the oil from the sands. Two wells were drilled a number of metres apart. Air was blown down one, with the other well being ignited by some incendiary device. As the fire moved along from one well to the other it would cause oil to be liberated, which could then be extracted normally. The process is known as 'reverse combustion'.

At the beginning of the 60s an investigation was made as to whether it was feasible to explode a pattern of nuclear bombs underneath the deep sands and release the oil. The theory was that the shock wave from the nuclear explosions would crack the oil, making it more fluid, and the heat generated would cause the oil to flow conventionally. The project was a joint venture between Imperial Oil and Richfield Oil of Los Angeles. The Richfield senior engineer involved lived next door to Richard Nixon, who later became President.

Several unclassified documents on atomic weapons were given to the investigating team (which created several anxious moments crossing the border as McCarthyism was strong). These explained how a one kiloton device, when exploded, would create a cavern of 200 feet diameter and that more than 99% of the radiation would be trapped in the rock glass created by the explosion. After the explosion the cavern would collapse inward from the weight of the rocks above it.

An experiment was conducted in Nevada to establish the theory of whether nuclear explosions could generate oil from tar sands. It involved placing a bomb at the end of a tunnel shaped as a letter j. In the straight part of the j, samples of tar sands were placed at known intervals. When the bomb explodes the curved part of the j is sealed by the explosion. The experiment proved the feasibility of the theory but there were still several questions that needed answering. One of these was whether conditions in the tuff rock of Nevada would be equivalent to Alberta's limestone.

The project team often had bizarre conversations. Rocks behave very differently under extreme heat and pressure so it was necessary to ask a number of questions in relation to these conditions, asking for what are known as 'equations of state'. The respondents to whom the questions were addressed were in a catch 22 situation. If a question was asked and they replied, either negatively or positively, either way could be interpreted as giving away classified information. The problem was solved by the team being given access to a non classified but undocumented FORTRAN program involved with the equations of state for tuff, the parameters of which could then be converted to those relating to Alberta rock formations.

It was necessary to calculate how far under the tar sands the bombs should be placed, to avoid any contamination of the oil, and whether there was any danger of environmental contamination with the less than 1% radiation not contained within the rock glass (including a study of underground rivers beneath the sands).

Each nuclear device, with all the needed preparation, cost on average $1 million at the time and it was necessary to determine how much oil might be produced. The statistics were very rough, the best being that one bomb would produce 1 million barrels of oil, the worst that it would produce 250,000 barrels. Oil was under $4 per barrel in those days but $1 per barrel was feasible.

The project was almost all set to go ahead when someone or other in the USA released the nature of the experiment before Canadian permission had been received. The then Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, was so incensed at this early release of information that he killed the project immediately (adding to his dismal record of also killing the Arrow supersonic plane and the worlds most powerful jet engine, the Iriquois). Once again ill informed politicians had killed a project which could have been of immense benefit to Canada, one which might well have made North America independent of Middle East oil.

Although the politics of atomic weapons has changed since then, oil could still be safely produced more cheaply than Middle Eastern oil if the will was there.