The Bizarre Story of That One Time Alberta Tried to Nuke Itself

Spoiler alert: they were trying to get at all that sweet sweet oil.
December 22, 2015, 5:54pm

Why would a Canadian province want to do this to itself...? Photo via Wikimedia.

The plot to nuke Alberta was hatched in the Middle East.

However, it didn't originate as the thoughts of a radical jihadist nor a Bond villain dead set on taking over western Canada. No, it was dreamed up in the head of an oil man.

An American named Manley L. Natland was off on an expedition trip in what was then Southern Arabia, in the late 1950s, when the sun caught his eye. It was gorgeous and the image shook him to his core. It affected him so much that several years later he found himself waxing poetically about it in a paper he wrote in 1962.

"One evening as I sat watching a spectacular sunset from a small hill overlooking a flat, endless sea of sand, the sun looked like a huge orange-red fireball sinking gradually into the earth."

The sun reminded Natland of a massive nuclear explosion, and a little radioactive lightbulb popped up over his head. He had a brilliant idea: finally, a solution to the problem of how to get the oil out of those pesky oil sands in Alberta.

"As a synthesis of these thoughts took place, it became so apparent to to me that the energy released by a nuclear explosion deep underground could be used to produce oil," he wrote.

Natland believed that an underground explosion—a goddamn nuclear explosion—would effectively create an underground well and melt that tricky bitumen into a slurry making it far easier to extract. One hundred nukes or so would do it.

These thoughts most likely would have been written off as the ramblings of an over aggressive prospector with a hard-on for that black gold, but Natland was a well-respected geologist with Richfield Oil.

He also assumed that this would create a self-contained atmosphere that wouldn't allow radiation to escape, and thus eliminating any chance of irradiation of the land and geology—admittedly a considerate thought, but one that doesn't win much credence with modern day experts.

"The environmental impact of underground nuclear explosions depends on the geology of the soil, and how deep these explosions are carried out. With these experimental tests there would have been at least some risk of a serious release of the radioactivity," said Arjun Makhijanil, the President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, when VICE asked him about the decades old idea.

"The oil would have been contaminated with radioactivity without a doubt because you're talking about basically putting the explosions in the places where the oil sands are in order to transfer the heat directly to the oil sands."

It was a different time then, and the massive damage that could occur to the surrounding groundwater and the dangerous possibility of the radiation venting wasn't very well known. Still though, there is no way around the basic premise: Natland wanted to nuke Alberta. The Social Credit Party, Alberta's governing party at the time, was interested in what Natland had to say— most likely after hearing the ring of a cash register—and decided to move forward with the idea. The parties then headed out and started to collect research in anticipation of that wonderful day they would explode the oilfields.

The proposed plan was dubbed Project Cauldron, which was quickly changed to Project Oilsand—a name they described as "less effervescent." It was thought that Project Cauldron might freak out the public.

While the idea may seem asinine nowadays it's important to remember that hindsight is 20-20. The industrial utilization of nukes was something actively being explored at that time. It was an honest, albeit misguided, scientific endeavor. Project Oilsands wasn't alone, it was included as a program with Operation Plowshare, the umbrella term for United States development of nuclear weapons for peaceful usage. In total, 27 projects were performed under the Plowshare name.

Plowshare was proposed as an operation that would find peaceful uses of the atom bomb, which sounds all fine and dandy, but wasn't entirely that innocent. Lewis Strauss, the United States Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, said that Plowshare was to "create a climate of world opinion that is more favorable to weapons development and tests." Essentially Plowshare was an attempt to normalize nuclear weapons for Americans society.

"What happened was in 1953, the Soviets tested a thermonuclear bomb. Prior [to that], the United States did a test at Marshalls Island that evaporated the island. Eisenhower was going to make a speech about the horror bomb." said Makhijanil. "He told his advisors, give me something good to say, and 'atoms of peace' was derived from that. In my opinion, that was a sort of fig leaf to cover the horror of the atomic bomb. "

Fast forward to Alberta, where Project Oilsands got as far as the initial testing phase. The plan was to place a nine kiloton nuclear bomb 372 meters underground, just below the oil sands deposit at a location 100 kilometers south of Fort McMurray. The project had received all the relevant approvals from both the provincial and federal government, and once testing concluded, it would be game time for the bomb and Fort Mac would of been known as a boom town for a very different reason.

At the last minute, the whole endeavour was ruined by Minister of External Relations Howard Green, who strongly opposed both Canadian nuclear testing and the country's acquisition of nuclear weapons. The Diefenbaker government put a halt to all nuclear testing in Canada before any significant projects got underway.

The US phased out Operation Plowshare in 1977 after public backlash, but the effects of the tests remain. Earlier this month, the US government paid $5.5 million to people who are suffering from medical problems arising from Project Dribble, a 1964 underground nuclear test in Mississippi similar to the one proposed in Alberta. Workers have been diagnosed with cancer, well water was contaminated, and the list of nasty shit that occurred is lengthy.

So yeah, probably for the best that Alberta never got the chance to nuke itself.

The current extraction of oil sands isn't ideal—not in the least. It is an extreme pollutant, and the process wastes an incredible amount of energy, but it's arguably the best method that we have. Companies are investing in finding both a cleaner and more energy efficient manner of extracting the oil sands. Hopefully, with modern technology we can find a process that pleases both the capitalist and environmentalist in us.

Or we can just say screw it and nuke the shit out of Alberta for that sweet, sweet oil.

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