Sunday, June 13, 2010

How Many Barrels of Oil Equal One Suitcase Nuke?

The answer will surprise many.

There is much debate - growing debate - about the viability of using the "standard" method - explosives - to shut down the Deep Horizon (BP) oil well runaway.  I think that there are many of us scientists who think that between American ingenuity using conventional explosives, and the Russian success using subterranean nukes, there has to be a viable answer using explosives.  Empirically, this has always worked for shutting down runaway wells, and I tend to advocate going with what has worked before.  But the Russian data is rather old, flaky, and skewed from the exact situation at hand.  Moreover, there are a lot of oil cognoscentes over at "The Oil Drum" who are very skeptical about a nuclear option, much less a hastily constructed one, and those folks seem content to opt for the slow process of drilling relief wells.

I'm not sure which way to go at this point.  But one thing is very apparent.  Except for the physical scientists and well-read-in-science lay people, almost everybody posting has a very screwy view of nukes.  While some of the realistic suggestions involve using nukes up to the size of "Little Boy" (about 15 kilotons) - basically to melt rock and seal the entire region of the top of the well - most folks are suggesting the use of much smaller devices to shift rock and decapitate the oil well, exactly along the lines of standard practice with conventional explosives.  However, all of the more sensible ideas are getting lost in a witches brew of misconceptions about nukes.

An uncomfortably large majority of people seem to think that nukes are all huge and produce prodigious amounts of radiation that will destroy the Gulf for generations.  Were this the case, they would be entirely correct that all nuclear options are basically Strangelovian.  However, reality differs.  And that's what this post is all about.  Putting it in perspective.  I'm not going to deal with the more technical questions of whether the geology of the Gulf allows for particular types of bursts to produce particular types of effects without particular risks.  There is a lot of opinion here, and it's easy to see why the extreme lack of concensus would scare Obama away from any kind of gutsy option.

But there are simple facts about the size of nukes that are making people dismiss nuclear options as totally unworkable, when it's likely that they not only ARE workable - they may very well be needed in the future for faster action on oil well runaways.  What might be a hasty option now could be a much better option in the future.  Spills like this will happen again, and we really can't afford to go through months of relief-well-drilling and mega-pollution every few years.  A faster method of emergency shutdown is advisable - if only as a trusted last resort.

Anyway, let's look at nukes.

Time for science class.  How big is a nuke?  Hiroshima?  Bikini Atoll?  Well, not necessarily.  Consider a backpack nuke.  Or a suitcase nuke.  Remember the old encyclopedia picture of the nuclear artillery shell?  Well, that was actually about as big as the Little Boy device dropped on Hiroshima - roughly 15 kilotons of TNT.  The energy released by one of these smaller guys can be much less - as little as 10 tons of TNT, or as high as 1000 tons, meaning one kiloton, for one particular model.  You can actually dial it down even smaller with a custom device, but let's just work with 10 tons for now.  These are small devices, designed to take out a cluster of buildings, a dam, a really big bridge, or something similar.  At their lowest setting, they are only moderately bigger than really huge truck bombs.  You could use one to, say, demolish Mount Rushmore or Bear Lodge (that's Devil's Tower to most folks), or obliterate all of Times Square, or some revered building or buildings in Mecca.  Now you see why we should ALL be afraid of these things falling into the wrong hands.  They're VERY usable, particularly against small, sacred landmarks.  But in the right hands, you could do something useful.  Like the Russians did when they stopped their wells.  Or, say, move a bunch of rock 20 feet outward in a circle.  You might even do that to, say, chop off the head of an oil well on the sea floor and bury the rest under a bunch of rock..

You still don't believe me?  You're still seeing Bikini Atoll in your mind?  Big fireball in the Pacific?  Hiroshima being flattened?  I understand.  Would numbers make you feel better?

Let's compare.

One ton of TNT is 4.184 × 10^9 Joules (meaning 4 billion Joules)
Ten tons of TNT is therefore 41.84 × 10^9 Joules (or 42 billion Joules)
One barrel of oil is 6.1 × 10^6 Joules (meaning 6 million Joules)

Now, you would have a valid argument that this is looking at the volume of apples and doughnuts compared by caloric content.  Which is true.  But I'm trying to show you the BIG PICTURE.  I'm trying to show you BIG OIL SPILL versus SMALL NUKE.

The reliable mainstream media estimates coming out now about the rate of the Deepwater Horizon spill - BEFORE they cut the pipe - are on the order of 20,000 to 40,000 barrels PER DAY.  Put another way, they think that - by June 3 - 1.76 million barrels escaped.  We can do lots of fun math with this.

Spilled Oil Daily (20,000 bbl) is 1.22 × 10^11 Joules (or 122 billion Joules)
Spilled Oil Daily (30,000 bbl) is 1.83 × 10^11 Joules (or 183 billion Joules)
Spilled Oil Daily (40,000 bbl) is 2.44 × 10^11 Joules (or 244 billion Joules)

At the upper limit there - which is less than some estimates of 50,000 bbl/day - we are basically talking a QUARTER TRILLION JOULES PER DAY.  But let's just take the middle value of 30,000 bbl/day.  That means...

4.37 nukes per day on the lowest setting.

Or better still...

Total Spill by 6/3 (1.76 × 10^6 bbl) is 10.7 × 10^12 Joules (or 11 trillion Joules)

which would be...

256 nukes on the lowest setting

2.5 nukes on the highest setting (for that model of small nuke device)

Now that's just the energy equivalent of the oil coming out versus the energy which would be partially used to move some rock over, crush the well, and stop it.  It isn't designed to truly provide some magical parameter for choosing options.  It doesn't really look at the apples-versus-doughnuts environmental costs of oil versus radiation - both of which have prompt and long-term costs.  It doesn't even let you know if using a small nuke would work.  It very well might not - even if it was without risk to the geology or the environment.  But I hope that I've educated you as to the MAGNITUDE of small nukes.  As in SMALLER THAN OIL.  That is something that you are most likely not familiar with, as opposed to oil spills, which you CAN get your mind around for historical reasons.  And you can also see that, even if the environmental damages are comparable (which they're not, but you have to get into a lot of nuclear mumbo-jumbo to understand that), something that's about 4 thousandths of the other just ain't that big.  In fact, I would say that something that's a QUARTER of the other on the first day isn't exactly scary.

What's the point?  Perspective.  The nukes we're talking about are not the Godzilla-creating behemoths that vaporized entire islands in the Pacific Ocean.  We're basically talking about things which range between super-truck-bomb and multi-block-buster size - and which are more viable than conventional explosives, because instead of being a mountainous pile of dynamite in the middle of a football field, they fit into something the size of a briefcase or an artillery shell.

If anything, these devices are MORE scary than big nukes, simply because they are so small.  So portable.  So...... usable.

And THAT may be Obama's real reason for not even going there.

PS - Since we actually explored a more interesting variant of the title question, because I just boggle at the idea of using nukes as a unit of measurement, the reciprocal problem of determining barrels is left for the reader. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Theory, Experiment, and Our n00bie President

Everybody needs to be able to make at least one big mistake.  One of my Spiritual Advisors, a dude named Jesus, says people should be able to make an infinite number of mistakes, of any size, and still be forgiven.  I have to be honest - granting that one is a pretty tough act for me.  But I'll try.  So I'm going to start with the President, who I will admit voting for.  And who, I will admit, may not get my vote again.  Nevertheless, I have FAITH and HOPE that he can learn from his mistakes.  Hopefully, he won't be making another one like the BP oil spill again.

One of the problems with this President is that he is a very smart guy.  Not everybody believes it.  Some people, in a backhandedly racist way, will tell you that Barack Obama is really just Bill Ayers.  Well, he's not.  Admittedly, Obama does have a very smart entourage who - quite literally - put words in his mouth.  But it's just as as much of a mistake to believe that EVERY word came from somebody else, as it is to believe that they ALL come from Barack Obama.  The crew knows how to speak "Obama" - not vice versa.  And they do it well.  In any case, the President is quite smart.  And he makes the classic mistakes of smart-guy Democrat presidents.

Obama likes to do his homework.  That's why he didn't cut and run in Afghanistan.  That's good.  It means he doesn't knee-jerk those big, long-term, trillion-dollar decisions.  But the problem with doing your homework, like a good Boy Scout, is that if you're not a real Boy Scout, then you don't realize that homework isn't the only thing Boy Scouts do.  When the sirens go off, the real Boy Scout doesn't keep doing his homework.  He doesn't try to figure out how to seed the clouds and make it rain.  He drops his homework like a goddamn hot potato and runs for the fire extinguisher.

And THAT is what Obama should have done.

Scientists like to let you think that they can solve all your problems.  Well, given an infinite amount of time, they - we - whatever - probably can.  In theory.  The trouble is, theory is NOT king.  Experiment is.  And, as the brilliant theoretician Richard Feynman liked to say, more or less, the test of truth is experiment.  Feynman was a great theoretician because he knew the limits of theory.  He knew that experiment is what really counts, and he pounded that message home whenever he could.

Whenever you try something you never tried before, what you are doing is controlled by theory.  That is how you VALIDATE theory.  It's risky.  But when you try something that has already been tried before - and worked - you are merely confirming an outcome that you can predict easily.  You have experiment on your side.  And experiment is king.  Hail to the king, baby.

We have experimental data on the stopping of runaway oil wells.  Lots and lots of data.  In fact, over a hundred years of data.  They've been stopped on land, and under the sea.  They've been stopped quickly, effectively, and with little environmental consequence.  And the data is crystal clear.

You blow the fuckers up.

It's simple, effective, and almost ALWAYS works.  And when it doesn't work, you just do it again.  And that's it.  It's over.  It's been done on land countless times with conventional explosives.  And it's been done at least 4 times with nuclear explosives, when people apparently didn't want to fuck around.


That's right - small nukes.  There is such a thing, and they are DAMN useful.  When you can't use multiple semi-truck-loads of chemical explosives, stacked up in a huge pyramid, you just use a small nuke.  It gives an explosion which is marginally bigger, and it's a whole lot easier to set up.

Why does blowing up a well work so well?  Simple.  The difficulty of drilling a well shows you just how problematic it is to create a reliable connection between the surface (on either land or seabed) and some place under thousands of feet of rock.  Getting that connection is very, very difficult.  And if there is just one little shift of the rock, somewhere along the way....  BAM.  No more connection.  It's not like breaking a straw - it's like breaking a thread, or a hollow fishing line.  If you don't care about saving the connection, it's very easy to fuck it up intentionally.  And explosives - of any kind - are a great way to fuck things up.  It has been tested, experimentally, over and over and over.  On oil wells, I mean.

Of course, redrilling an oil well is expensive.  Very, very expensive.  So don't think for a minute that there isn't a lot of incentive to try something risky.  To stall.  To delay.  To NOT do the one thing that was damn near guaranteed to shut down the spill.  Commercial concerns made it easy to say - essentially - save the money and screw the environment.

Obama could have shut this sucker off the old-fashioned way, with almost certain success, from the very beginning.  Whether he used a nuke or a bunker-buster, it would have been immaterial.  It would have worked, and it almost certainly would have worked the first time.  And, most ironically, it would have even worked politically.  But it takes the courage to do the right thing, in order to get the downhill slide that the right thing always offers in the end.

Imagine if Obama had called in the small nuke immediately.  Trust me - it would have worked.  Then what?

Well, he goes to press conference, crediting the Russians for bailing us out, since they told us what we had to do.  He credits the military for pulling it off.  He thanks BP for standing down and letting him take charge.  He GLORIES in how tough he has just been on big oil, who lost a ton of money, but - hey - better that than a spill.  Right?

He talks about how tough of a decision it was - to weigh the limited, quickly dissipating radiation against the far worse possibility of [fill in what is happening now].  He talks about the seriousness of this incident - a situation so bad that it made us use a nuke.  He immediately gets as much political capital against offshore drilling as he will get with the mega-spill - but without the damage to the gulf economy.

And, coincidentally, the schemers in China realize that they're up against a guy who will go to nukes when he has to do it, to save the people.  Which you'd damn well better hope is the case.

You see, when you are faced with a dangerous situation like this, you have to ask yourself one thing - does delaying make things better or worse?  Clearly, Obama's dithering did not pay off.  In a military standoff with both sides poised but staying sane - where the threat is something of a constant - delaying is likely to make things better as tensions ease.  But when you're up against a linearly escalating threat like this oil spill, you can't sit around and wait for a room full of eggheads to bail you out, 'cause it ain't gonna happen.  You identify the threat and you deal with it.  Using KNOWN methods that work.

There have been reasons floated for not using explosives, but those reasons are crap.  They are not only politically motivated - they are designed to perform CYA for Obama's first REALLY big blunder.  Well, screw that.  You can't learn from your mistakes unless you face them.  So let's dispatch those false reasons using EXPERIMENT.  We will use the simplest of thought experiments and the history of real experiments to show that those reasons are pure crap.

(1) If you use a nuke, it's environmentally unacceptable.

Sorry, the real experimental data says this is bullshit.  Remember - the Russians did this at least 4 times.  Which one of the 4 times created a greater ecological disaster than this oil spill?  Which one made the evening news?  Which one did you even hear about?  Which one was as bad as ANY nuclear test, which, BTW, used to be done by the HUNDREDS - a few miles from major cities like Las Vegas?

Exactly.  In terms of long-term or widely spread ecological damage, nukes just aren't that bad - and the modern ones are even less damaging than what the Russians probably used way back when.  Surprising, but not so surprising.  Just like nuclear power plants are cleaner than corresponding coal plants, a quickly dissipating nuke in water or deep earth ends up being a lot cleaner overall than a gulf full of oil.

And you don't even have to use a nuke anyway...

(2) Conventional explosives wouldn't work.

Sorry - they work on land, and you could almost certainly scale up the explosion if you needed to make it bigger underwater.   Plus, we have some modern conventional stuff that would most likely blow the doors off a nuke in terms of precision placement in 3 dimensions.

Still, if you're worried, why not try conventional first, and use the nuke immediately afterwards if that doesn't work?  Agreed, there might be some trickiness to a bomb underwater that we're not prepared for, but if you have the tried and true, experimentally validated mini-nuke method as a back up, what's the harm?

(3) Explosives might somehow "open up" the oil reservoir and make things worse.

Fear-mongering.  That's all this is.  It's propaganda of the highest order.  It's bad geology from the word go, designed to scare people who might question the administration's loopy reasoning.  No, children - the oil is not just waiting for us under a few yards of rock.  IT'S WAY THE  HELL DOWN THERE.  You will not be strip-mining this oil any time soon.  Thank goodness.

But the most important thing is the experimental data.  The idea that it "might" make things worse is not supported by the data.  Blowing up oil wells works.  That's what the data says.

So - what the hell is going on?  Why aren't they doing the obvious thing?  At first, I was thinking it was some kind of cynical ploy by Obama to milk this thing for all it's worth, in an effort to magnify the pain, and to once and for all end offshore oil drilling.  However, as I watch him squirm, it's pretty clear that he's not capable of such commie sickness.  He really wants this over.

BP, of course is hoping for a recovery somehow.  I question, however, whether Obama is giving them the option to blow the well.  If Obama is NOT giving BP the option to blow the well, then I hate to say this, folks, but BP walks off scot free in the end.  If blowing it up was kept off the table by Obama or his crew, then it is NO LONGER the fault of BP.

So what's the deal?

My only guess is one speculation that I read somewhere else - that Obama is simply incapable of ordering the nuke because of message conflict with all his big anti-nuke projects.  The idea is that Obama is SO COMMITTED to nuclear disarmament, and his various pet ideas associated with it, that his mind simply won't allow pushing a peaceful nuke option.

Obama may have Nobel Prize-winners at the table, but he has no Russian oil riggers.  As far as this branch of science is concerned, he has all theoreticians and no hardcore experimentalists.  He needs somebody pounding the table, saying "DO WHAT WORKS, DAMN IT!", and walking out of the meeting on the spot.  Somebody who might actually disagree with him.  ON NUKES.  Obama was smart enough to pick Clapper for DNI because, as Obama tells it, Clapper tells him what he doesn't want to hear.  That's smart.  But Obama doesn't always do that, and now he's paying for it.

There was a physicist who was cut from the oil spill team for political reasons.  His name is Jonathan Katz.  The guy has writings on the side, unrelated to physics, and some of his opinions are quite rightly characterized as homophobic.  I don't know what this Katz fellow might have done on the team, but it's entirely possible that HE would have been the one guy who would have pounded the desk and said "DO WHAT WORKS, DAMN IT!"  I mean, any guy or gal who has the guts - however unenlightened - to be a religious homophobe in today's ridiculously politically correct climate, probably has the guts to say "use the nuke - it's the only thing that we know works".  In fact, now that we're being completely honest about things, there are certain analogies.  Bear with me and you'll see...

In more primitive times, when medicines were crude and our understanding of science was small, the science of common sense probably told people that male homosexuality was a bad idea due to STDs.  I mean, it's almost stated that bluntly in biblical verse.  Which is still Katz's point.  Knowing nothing about "left-handed" sexual orientations, nor the simple but easily overlooked logic that MARRIAGE is designed not only for procreation, but to protect us from things like STDs, it's clear why religions of yore became homophobic.  So there IS some truth in Katz's homophobic writings, and through it I am led to what I believe is a better conclusion - that this is precisely WHY we need gay marriage - to provide gays with the same moral, emotional, and physical protections that marriage gives the rest of us.  I would argue, as a scientist who believes deeply in God, that we must be careful to consider the extraordinary possiblity that DENIAL of marriage to gays may be the affront to God.  That if certain men and women are born innocent in their attractions toward their own kind, then denying them the protections of marriage may be the real sin.  Denying protection from death and suffering to gays may very well be the beam in our moral eye which dwarfs the mote in their genetic makeup.  A mote which - I might add - may even have specific purpose for the preservation of our species against Malthusian crisis.

And this is why science suffers from political correctness.  We must face ALL TRUTHS.  Even the ones we don't like.  The truths that bother us almost invariably are the ones that have the answers we need.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Greetings, Fellow Users

Greetings, amigos. This is Wolf Moon, part-time assistant to America's Help Desk, and full-time crazy person. I've been tasked with user education for our most difficult user group - those at the pinnacle of power. As you can see from some of our recent user issues, such as the Gulf of Mexico Keyboard Spill, there is no shortage of material for incident reports. Given that the Help Desk appears to be completely unmanned, except for a few Nobel Prize winners who stopped the spill in a different universe, I have decided that somebody needs to start making sense.

I do not take this responsibility lightly. The most important people in the universe right now are a tribe of barely Indians living near the gulf in Louisiana - the Houma people. They are rightly worried that this spill will destroy their ecologically dependent way of life. As a fellow barely Indian, I am most sympathetic with their situation. But I will be honest - I am not terribly sympathetic with the perfect storm of left-wing and right-wing political and commercial interests which have resulted in this debacle. This spill could have been stopped immediately by some more decisive leadership and a more humble scientific community.

I am particularly offended by the fact that the politicization of science is, ultimately, at fault here. I'm a scientist, and like all the rest of them, I have an opinion. But as the world's worst scientist, I am free to say whatever I want. Including some very uncomfortable truths.

And that will be my first real post. Coming right up.