Aug '13

Project Oilsand

An atomic answer to Alberta’s oil sands

By Aaron Fitzpatrick

In the late 1950s, Dr. Manley Natland, a passionate, life­long geologist working for the Richfield Oil Corporation, hatched a gonzo idea to harness the power of a nuclear explosion for the benefit of bitumen extraction in Alberta’s oil sands. He proposed a plan to plant an atomic bomb deep below the oil sands, set it off and start pumping the oil freed up by the intense heat of the explosion.

At the time, excavation of the Alberta oil sands was moving at a measured pace. Bitumen extraction was in its early days; people thought traditional mining could recover only about five per cent of all extractable oil. In situ methods in the oil sands were still unproven, with the concept of steam-assisted extraction considered a radical and costly concept to apply.

In the vaporizing power of a nuclear explosion, however, Natland saw the potential for a cleaner, safer and more economic bitumen extraction method. He spoke persuasively of his “eureka” moment: sitting in a desert in Saudi Arabia, watching the setting sun crest the horizon, “sinking” its nuclear energy deep underground. The image proved impossible to shake.

Natland’s pilot plan provided for a single nine-kiloton (KT) test explosion (Hiroshima and Nagasaki are estimated to have been 15KT and 21KT, respectively) to be detonated six metres below the Beaverhill Lake Limestone layer – 372 metres underground – at a well site in Pony Creek, near the town of Chard, roughly 100 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray. Natland estimated the explosion would generate nine trillion calories of heat, which would vaporize the rock and create a cavernous underground well, with the bitumen superheated to a liquid slurry – all the easier to be extracted through traditional means. Dubbed “Project Oilsand,” Natland proposed detonating multiple bombs along an oil sands formation, “thus establishing across the entire horizon of the formation a multiplicity of heated areas, thereby stripping the petroleum from the entire formation.”

Imperial Oil owned the land proposed for the project. Backed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which had been looking for projects that promoted the peaceful use of nuclear energy, it approached Alberta Premier Ernest C. Manning in June 1958. He enthusiastically appointed a committee of high-level provincial bureaucrats to oversee the proposal, including Alberta’s Economic Affairs and Mines and Minerals ministers.

Despite efforts to downplay the risk of the project, the plan to detonate the bomb in an isolated area sparked genuine fear. The town of Chard, with its 12 residents, was just 10 kilometres northwest of the site. The plan for a test explosion was approved by both Alberta’s technical committee and the Federal Mines Department in 1959, but in the meantime the growing tension of the Cold War dampened the enthusiasm for nuclear explosions of any kind. In the midst of a rapidly changing political climate, planning for the detonation of U.S.-owned nuclear weapons under Canadian soil proved too controversial; the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties of the 1960s were the scheme’s ultimate undoing.

Vestiges of the plan linger, however. Natland filed a patent on January 3, 1958 – not officially approved until October 26, 1965 – which called not for the use of a nuclear bomb but instead of a nuclear reactor. The concept was to involve “nuclear reactors which are operational below the surface of the earth,” with the reactors providing heat-­generative support to the extraction systems we are accustomed to today. Recently, Toshiba Corporation has been developing its line of “4S” nuclear reactors – “Super Safe, Small and Simple” – as a potential means to power steam extraction in the oil sands.

And so, while Natland’s ambitious plan was eventually buried, the decades-old atomic approach to bitumen extraction may yet prove its worth to Alberta’s oil patch.

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