Rio Arriba County New Mexico Map

Project Gasbuggy Test Site, Rio Arriba County

Like Project Rulison (see entry under COLORADO), Project Gasbuggy was designed to stimulate production of natural gas and other hydrocarbons by using an underground nuclear explosion to shatter subterranean rock formations and free the gas. That was the theory, at any rate.

Project Gasbuggy was the second attempt after Project Gnome to stimulate production from a natural gas field by using an atomic weapon to shatter the underground rock in which the gas was trapped. In retrospect, the whole concept seems more than a little crazy: atomic bombs would be exploded, on a regular basis, inside subterranean salt formations, the salt would melt from the heat, water (either groundwater or piped in) would be converted to steam by the melted salt, and the resulting steam used to drive turbines and generate electricity. The Project Gasbuggy test used a 29-kiloton weapon placed 4,222 feet underground inside an already existing, but low-producing, natural gas well.

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The bomb was exploded on December 10, 1967. The test had been scheduled several weeks earlier but was delayed for unspecified “technical reasons.” A 1973 investigation by the New York Times uncovered those “reasons.” Things began to go wrong almost immediately after the nuclear weapon had been placed into the well and the well sealed off with concrete. A water pump used for cooling the well failed, causing the temperature inside to soar and water inside the well to boil. Workers were pulled back from the area because no one even the project scientists knew what might happen next. (Apparently none of them had ever wondered what would happen if we stuck an atomic bomb in some boiling water.)

When the bomb was finally detonated, a ground wave seven feet high rose above the well. Observers two and a half miles from ground zero were knocked off their feet by the force of the wave. An underground cavern measuring approximately 160 feet in diameter and over

300 feet in height was created by the explosion, and fractures extended several hundred feet away from the cavern in various directions.

At first, Project Gasbuggy looked like a huge success; the amount of gas flowing was over five times greater than initially predicted. But a byproduct of the explosion was radioactive krypton which contaminated the gas as well as the soil and groundwater of the test area. The gas was burned away at the site, and soil and water was hauled away in barrels. Today the site is safe to visit, according to the Department of Energy.

What’s There: A plaque on a concrete base sits in an open field. The plaque gives a brief history of Project Gasbuggy (although it incorrectly states it was the first attempt to stimulate production of natural gas through a nuclear explosion). It also states that any drilling, excavation, or removal of any materials is prohibited within a 600-foot radius from the plaque location.

Getting a Look Inside: The test site is on public land and you’re free to visit and explore anytime.

Getting There: Take the F.S. 357 exit from Highway 64 and travel south for approximately seven and a quarter miles. You will then reach a fork in the road; go right and continue on F.S. 357 until you enter the Carson National Forest. The site is another six-tenths of a mile ahead.

Back in 1961, the old Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) decided to detonate an atomic bomb here at a depth of over 1100 feet to see if nuclear explosions could be used to generate electricity from the resulting steam. You get one guess as to the outcome of this experiment.

Project Plowshare was a program by the old Atomic Energy Commission to find peaceful uses for atomic weapons (for more details about Project Plowshare, see the entry for “Project Rulison” under COLORADO). Several tests in the Project Plowshare program were conducted outside the Nevada Test Site, and, like Project Gasbuggy, Project Gnome was one of them.

Project Gnome was essentially identical to Project Gasbuggy. The Project Gnome test used a 3.1-kiloton weapon located 1184 feet underground inside a massive rock salt formation. The shaft drilled to place the weapon was meant to be self-sealing after the bomb exploded.

It wasn’t. The test was conducted on December 10, 1961 at noon local time. Steam started to vent from the shaft two minutes after the explosion, followed five minutes later by a cloud of gray “smoke” that was laden with radioactive particles. The venting continued for a half hour, although steam continued to vent for another day. Radiation levels remained high enough to prevent the start of recovery operations until six days after the test. The salt chamber itself was not sampled until May 17, 1962. The temperature level inside the salt chamber had dropped to 140 degrees Fahrenheit by then and salt samples taken from the chambers were colored various shades of green, violet, and blue.

So what did we all learn from Project Plowshare? This: nuclear weapons are not suitable for everyday use.

What’s There: A large plaque mounted on a concrete foundation marks the site and gives a sanitized history of Project Gnome that omits any reference to that unfortunate venting and release of radioactive materials. A second, smaller plaque tells you that any digging, drilling, or other excavation to any depth is prohibited within the test area. In other words, don’t take a couple of shovels of the soil here as a souvenir it might be “hot.”

Getting a Look Inside: The Project Gnome test site is on public land and you’re free to visit and explore anytime.

Unusual Fact: A report titled by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology titled “A Proposal for Addressing Major Concerns for the Gnome/Coach Site in Eddy County, New Mexico” has this to say about a potential problem at the Project Gnome site: “Vandalism has been documented at this site and it would be very easy for an individual to cut the chain and open the valves allowing unabated access to the radioactive materials. Hazardous waste could then be removed from the cavity by pumping or by the use of a simple tethered bail.” In other words, this is the ideal site to visit if you’re a terrorist looking for the raw materials to make a radiological (“dirty”) bomb.

Just remember you didn’t read the above here, okay?

Getting There: The Project Gnome site can be reached from Carlsbad by taking Highway 285 south toward Loving. Take the Route 31 exit until it comes to a junction with Highway 128, turn east (right) and proceed for a little over seven miles until the intersection with County Road 795 (Mobley Ranch Road) is reached; turn right onto this road. Continue 4.4 miles to a dirt road on the left. Take the dirt road and the site is about a quarter mile ahead. This is an isolated area. Be sure your car is in good mechanical condition before visiting, and don’t leave for the site without a full tank of gas and a spare tire. The road may be impassible in winter or in rainy weather.

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