Tristin Hopper (Canada.com):
It’s often forgotten what a technological feat it was to pump oil out of the Fort McMurray area.
While it’s long been known that the Athabasca region is swimming with petroleum, geologists spent decades banging their head against the problem of how to turn oily sand into something that could be refined into gasoline.
Which makes it all the more fortunate that — just before science figured it out — Alberta kiboshed a plan that would have simply thrown nuclear bombs at the problem.
“Nuclear miracles will make us rich,” declared famed physicist Edward Teller in a 1959 syndicated editorial.
As the first seeds of the anti-nuclear movement began to show themselves, Teller was trying to assure a worried public that they should welcome atomic bombs as bringers of “as rich a harvest as man’s ingenuity ever has produced.”
A veteran of the Manhattan Project, the Hungarian born Teller had been instrumental in the development of the hydrogen bomb. Now, he was the point man for Operation Plowshare, a U.S. scheme to supply nuclear weapons for civilian purposes.
Canals, the project vowed, could be effortlessly dug around the world. Deserts could bloom thanks to nuclear-blasted wells. And one day, promised Teller, nuclear explosions “may be able to squeeze oil from rock.”
As the story went to press, in fact, a plan to A-bomb oil from rocks was already taking shape in Northern Alberta.
At a site four hours north of Edmonton, the plan was to detonate a nine-kiloton blast (roughly two-thirds the power of the bomb that levelled Hiroshima) to heat the ground, causing oil products to seep loose from the sand where they could then be piped to the surface using conventional oil rigs.
“At a single stroke,” Richfield planners promised, Project Oilsand could “double the world’s petroleum reserves.”
The Athabasca detonation was to be only one of a roster of late 1950s explosions planned under Plowshare.
It was a cluster of Plowshare hydrogen bombs, for instance, that were to be used in an Edward Teller-championed plan to blast an artificial harbour for the Alaska town of Cape Thompson. A similar string of detonations were planned for a highway project in California.
Both of those projects, however, were ultimately shelved.
Plowshare planners liked the Athabasca plan. So did Alberta premier Ernest Manning. The Federal Mines Branch also got on board with its director soon talking up the benefits of nuclear mining to MPs and reporters alike.
But Meneley’s brother was among those staunchly opposed to the unfolding plan.
There was too many unknowns, explained Meneley: a blast could have sent radioactive groundwater shooting towards Edmonton, it could have sparked a forest fire.
With several years to plan, engineers could potentially have worked out the math needed for a safe blast. But Operation Plowshare was only handing out bombs to shovel-ready projects.
“So (the engineers) made the decision in their natural way; conservatively. They said ‘don’t do it,’” said Meneley.
World affairs turned out to be on the engineers’ side. In 1958, Russian and U.S. negotiators had begun coming together in Switzerland to hash out what would become the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and American planners ratcheted back their ambitious itinerary of nuclear-assisted construction projects.
Ottawa, which had never been particularly keen on the idea of nuking Alberta, soon saw their opening. “The government … does not want to do anything that would prejudice … talks at Geneva on banning nuclear tests,” reported the Ottawa Citizen in 1960.
But regardless of the risks, there are [who] engineers still think Project Oilsand would have worked.
The bomb would have been detonated about 370 metres underground. For a split second, the power of the explosion would vaporize a massive underground pocket jacket by a hollow orb of glass. Then the orb would have imploded, ripping a crater in the boreal forest above.
As heat radiated through the chilled Northern Alberta soil, oil rigs would have sprung to life to churn out warm, slightly radioactive Alberta bitumen. As with nuclear fallout, the radiation would then have dissipated over time.
Nevertheless, a senior Alberta petroleum engineer contacted by the National Post said a nuclear blast would have compromised the “reservoir integrity” of the oil sands — leaving surrounding oil rigs dry.
“Some stupid politicians, who were excited by the ‘glamour’ of it all, almost destroyed Canada’s largest natural resource,” he said.
In either case, if the concept behind Project Oilsand had entered commercial production, it would have required a regular stream of atomic explosions to keep the heated oil from congealing.
Atomic bitumen mining would also have been incredibly wasteful: untold barrels of oil would need to be blasted into oblivion for every barrel piped to the surface — and at a time when many Alberta oilmen already saw themselves as drowning in an oil glut. Billions of dollars of the provinces’ most easily accessible oil could have been needlessly vaporized.
“It was a wise decision,” said Meneley. “We’ve found other ways to do this job.”
In 1967, Suncor opened the Great Canadian Oil Sands Project. Renowned as the first commercial oil sands facility, it dug up sand using conventional mining techniques and used a hot water process to separate the oil.
A few years later, Canadian engineers invented SAGD (steam-assisted gravity drainage). Now the oil sands’ most common extraction method, underground oil sands deposits are separated using superheated steam instead of an atomic weapon.
Veteran Alberta oilman Dan Claypool remembers the reaction at the time to Project Oilsand. “People were very, very nervous; at that time we knew nothing about (nuclear),” he said.
The primary reason that Canadian oil is shunned as “dirty” is because of the high energy cost of extracting it.
Conventional oil producers such as Saudi Arabia need to do little more than drive out into the desert and stick a spigot in the ground.
The Fort McMurray area, by contrast, requires a remote network of plants and work camps gobbling up huge amounts of natural gas.
The argument has often been made that if somebody simply put a nuclear power plant in Fort McMurray, all this heavy industry could have been powered by emissions-free Saskatchewan uranium.
This was the plan examined by Ontario’s Bruce Power when, with the backing of the Alberta government, they began sussing out a nuclear power plant to be built near Peace River. But any plans for Western Canada’s first nuclear facility were shelved in 2011 amid vocal opposition from locals. “I think a nuclear power plant is an atomic bomb under control,” said one campaigner at the time.
The nuclear history of Alberta can be distilled into two distinct megaprojects planned for oil country, but killed before they could reach fruition.
One, most agree, was a narrowly dodged piece of post-war recklessness. The other still causes engineers to erupt in anti-environmentalist rants. But in the end, the public opposed both projects for pretty much the same reason.
Said Claypool, “when humans don’t know something about an item, they’re automatically against it; that’s you and I included.”