It’s the first of a series of nuclear denotations conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission to test the feasibility of using nuclear explosions to release natural gas trapped in dense shale deposits. This is “fracking,” late 1960s style.  

Scientists lower a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear warhead into a well in New Mexico. The experimental 29-kiloton Project Gasbuggy device will be detonated at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alamos Lab photo.

The underground detonation was part of a bigger program begun in the late 1950s to explore peaceful uses of nuclear explosions.

In December 1967, government scientists – exploring the peacetime use of controlled atomic explosions – detonate Gasbuggy, a 29-kiloton nuclear device they had lowered into a natural gas well in rural New Mexico. The Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons.

Project Gasbuggy included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and El Paso Natural Gas Company.

Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 feet – and lowered a 13-foot-long by 18-inch-wide nuclear device into the borehole.

Plowshare Program

The 1967 experimental explosion in New Mexico was part of a wider set of experiments known as Plowshare, a program established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957 to explore the constructive use of nuclear explosive devices.

From 1961 to 1973, researchers carried out 27 separate experiments under the Plowshare program – setting off 35 nuclear detonations.

Most of the experiments focused on creating craters and canals. Among other goals, it was hoped the Panama Canal could be inexpensively widened.

Tests, mostly conducted in Nevada, also took place in the petroleum fields of New Mexico and Colorado. Project Gasbuggy was the first of three nuclear fracturing experiments that focused on stimulating natural gas production. Two later tests took place in Colorado.

Gasbuggy: “Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs.”

In 1969, Project Rulison – at a site near Rulison, Colorado – detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear device almost 8,500 feet underground to produce commercially viable amounts of natural gas.

A few years later, project Rio Blanco, northwest of Rifle, Colorado, was designed to increase natural gas production from low-permeability sandstone.

The May 1973 Rio Blanco test consisted of the nearly simultaneous detonation of three 33-kiloton devices in a single well, according to the Office of Environmental Management. The explosions occurred at depths of 5,838, 6,230, and 6,689 feet below ground level. It would prove to be the last experiment of the Plowshare program.

Although a 50-kiloton nuclear explosion to fracture deep oil shale deposits – Project Bronco – was proposed, it never took place. Growing knowledge (and concern) about radioactivity ended these tests for the peaceful use of nuclear explosions. The entire Plowshare program was canceled in 1975.

Project Gasbuggy

“There was no mushroom cloud, but on December 10, 1967, a nuclear bomb exploded less than 60 miles from Farmington,” explains historian Wade Nelson in an article written three decades later, “Nuclear explosion shook Farmington.”

The 4,042-foot-deep detonation created a molten glass-lined cavern about 160 feet in diameter and 333 feet tall. It collapsed within seconds. Subsequent measurements indicated fractures extended more than 200 feet in all directions – and significantly increased natural gas production.

Government scientists believed a nuclear device would provide “a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerin” for fracturing dense shales and releasing natural gas. Los Alamos Lab photo.

A September 1967 Popular Mechanics article had described how nuclear explosives could improve previous fracturing technologies, including gunpowder, dynamite, TNT – and fractures “made by forcing down liquids at high pressure.”

An illustration from Popular Mechanics shows how a nuclear explosive would improve earlier technologies by creating bigger fractures and a “huge cavity that will serve as a reservoir for the natural gas.”

Scientists predicted that nuclear explosives would create more and bigger fractures “and hollow out a huge cavity that will serve as a reservoir for the natural gas” released from the fractures.

“Geologists had discovered years before that setting off explosives at the bottom of a well would shatter the surrounding rock and could stimulate the flow of oil and gas,” Nelson explains.

“It was believed a nuclear device would simply provide a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerine, up to 3,500 quarts of which would be used in a single shot,” Nelson notes.

The 1967 nuclear detonation produced 295 million cubic feet of natural gas – and Tritium radiation contamination.

“Today, all that remains at the site is a plaque warning against excavation and perhaps a trace of tritium in your milk,” Nelson adds in his 1999 article.

Nelson quotes James Holcomb, site foreman for El Paso Natural Gas, who saw a pair of white vans that delivered pieces of the disassembled nuclear bomb.

“They put the pieces inside this lead box, this big lead box…I (had) shot a lot of wells with nitroglycerin and I thought, ‘That’s not going to do anything,” reported Holcomb.

A series of three production tests, each lasting 30 days, was completed during the first half of 1969. Nelson notes that records indicate the Gasbuggy well produced 295 million cubic feet of gas.

“Nuclear Energy: Good Start for Gasbuggy,” reported the December 22, 1967, TIME magazine.

The Department of Energy, which had hoped for much higher production, determined that Tritium radiation contaminated the gas. It  flared – burned off – the gas during production tests that lasted until 1973.

Tritium is a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen. A 2012 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission report noted, “Tritium emits a weak form of radiation, a low-energy beta particle similar to an electron. The tritium radiation does not travel very far in air and cannot penetrate the skin.”

According to Nelson, radioactive contamination from the flaring “was miniscule compared to the fallout produced by atmospheric weapons tests in the early 1960s.”

From the well site, Holcomb called the test a success. “The well produced more gas in the year after the shot than it had in all of the seven years prior,” he told Nelson.

In 2008, the Energy Department’s Office of Legacy Management assumed responsibility for long-term surveillance and maintenance at the Gasbuggy site. A marker placed at the Gasbuggy site by the Department of Energy in November 1978 reads:

A plaque marks the site of Project Gasbuggy in the Carson National Forest, 90 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs.

A 29 kiloton nuclear explosive was detonated at a depth of 4227 feet below this surface location on December 10, 1967.

No excavation, drilling, and/or removal of materials to a true vertical depth of 1500 feet is permitted within a radius of 100 feet of this surface location.

Nor any similar excavation, drilling, and/or removal of subsurface materials between the true vertical depth of 1500 feet to 4500 feet is permitted within a 600 foot radius of t 29 n. R 4 w. New Mexico principal meridian, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico without U.S. Government permission.

Today, hydraulic fracturing – pumping a mixture of fluid and sand down a well at extremely high pressure – stimulates production of natural gas wells. Read more in “Shooters — A ‘Fracking’ History.” 

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