Garfield County officials want to take a closer look at Rulison blast site |

Garfield County officials want to take a closer look at Rulison blast site

John Colson
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Garfield County officials believe the best way to gauge the Rulison nuclear blast site’s potential danger is to get in close and drill, inside the half-mile boundary set by the U.S. Department of Energy as the closest that drilling should be allowed.

But the DOE has yet to respond to the idea, which was first suggested to a federal official more than a year ago.

The Rulison blast site is where, in 1969, the U.S. Department of Energy detonated a 43-kiloton atomic device at a depth of 8,426 feet in an effort to free up deeply buried fields of natural gas and oil. The blast, which took place about 30 miles west of Glenwood Springs, was hailed as a potential peaceful use for nuclear energy.

The blast produced less gas than expected when it fractured the sandstone formations, though, and the gas that was produced was unusable because it was radioactive, and the contamination could not be removed.

The Garfield County commissioners, along with several Colorado congressmen, recently asked the DOE to determine how close drillers can come safely to the radioactive cavern created by the blast.

Judy Jordan, the county’s liaison to the oil and gas companies, noted that “the DOE seems … real comfortable with doing a lot of modeling without any empirical data” obtained directly from tests at the site.

“That’s not how we approach things from a public-health protection standpoint,” she added, referring to Garfield County’s preference for testing at the site to determine how far radioactive materials might have migrated from the blast chamber itself, which Jordan said is about 350 feet across.

“The DOE needs to actually perform a search,” Jordan said, saying that the DOE’s method of analyzing material brought up by commercial drilling rigs has not proven fruitful.

“Data from three miles out tells me nothing about what goes on closer in,” she declared.

Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, who has been hired by the county for several oil-and-gas related studies, said it is generally accepted that with such a subterranean blast some of the radioactive material is pushed into the surrounding rock before the actual blast chamber “glassifies” itself as molten rock cools and solidifies.

“Our question has always been, what about the ‘prompt injection?'” Thyne said in a recent interview. Prompt injection, he said, is the name for the phenomenon of escaping radioactive materials, and the critical question is, how deep into the surrounding rock did the materials penetrate?

“I don’t think there’s ever been an answer to that question,” he said.

Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said the questions about “prompt injection” and other issues were behind a recent series of letters to the DOE, first from Garfield County and later from several members of Colorado’s congressional delegation. The letters demanded that the DOE take more direct steps, such as having a drilling company deliberately sink a shaft into the ground closer in than the half-mile zone.

The exploratory shaft, Martin stressed, would be “under the direct supervision of the DOE” and would involve safeguards to protect the workers on the project as well as the surrounding environment from radiation contamination.

With the data from such experiments, Martin said, the DOE could determine how far from the blast the radiation has traveled, which should indicate how close to the site drilling can be permitted.

“They need to establish a boundary,” Martin said, and “people need to be compensated for their mineral rights.”

If the action of the government ruined the oil and gas reserves owned by local ranchers and others, “the U.S. government needs to compensate those people.”

Efforts to reach Jack Craig, the DOE representative in charge of the Rulison blast site and other nuclear test sites around the country, were not successful.

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