US & World

Stopping A Spill? There's Always The Nuclear Option

Capping out-of-control oil wells and snuffing gas leaks around the world have produced strange results, and equally strange efforts to fix them. The Soviets nuked some leaking wells. In other parts of the world, the oil is simply allowed to ooze.

Capping out-of-control oil wells and snuffing gas leaks has been a challenge since humans began tapping underground energy resources.

Robots a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico positioned a "top hat" device over the main pipe on the leaking BP well Thursday night. But it was unclear how much oil could be captured by this latest attempt.

How to stop the oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico?

The Soviets nuked several out-of-control gas wells, according to reports. In the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan, a fire has raged for nearly 40 years after a drilling rig ignited underground gas. And in some places on earth, leaking and oozing oil has been blithely ignored for decades.

Here are some examples of oil and gas blowouts around the world that have produced strange results -- and equally strange efforts to fix them:

Algeria, 1961 -- The Devil's Cigarette Lighter

This gas well blowout in the eastern Algerian desert (watch this video) produced a whoosh of flame 800 feet high that roared for six months. The force of the gas coming out of the ground was so great that workers who got too close risked being sucked up in the column of flame.

The flare was so big that American astronaut John Glenn could see it as his space capsule orbited over the Sahara Desert.

The fire was finally put out by a fire-fighting team led by Red Adair, an expert from Texas, who used a charge of nitroglycerin to blow it out. The feat brought him world-wide fame. A 1968 movie called Hellfighters, with John Wayne in the leading role, was loosely based on Adair's exploits.

Soviet Union, 1966-72 -- The Nuclear Option

News reports from Russia say the Soviets used atom bombs to seal off oil and gas blowouts. The Russian newspaper Komsomol Pravda says a nuclear blast was first used in 1966, to put out a gas well fire in Uzbekistan. The explosion supposedly crushed the leaking well under tons of earth.

Recent news reports quoted Russian scientists suggesting that an underwater nuclear blast could be used effectively to seal off BP's Deepwater Horizon well.

Turkmenistan, 1971 -- The Gates of Hell

For nearly 40 years, a crater in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan (watch this video) has blazed with flames fed by an underground reservoir of gas. The pit, more than 60 yards wide and 20 deep, was created when the ground caved in beneath a drilling rig. The pit filled with methane gas, which Soviet geologists tried to burn off, thus igniting a blaze that no one has yet managed to put out.

The pit has become a minor tourist attraction for travelers in that remote part of the world.

Nigeria, 1970s-present -- The Delta

Over the decades, aging and ill-maintained pipelines in the Niger Delta of Nigeria have been estimated to spill more than the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. It's a slow-moving disaster (read this article from National Geographic magazine) that local people say is poisoning drinking water and ruining fisheries and farmland.

Oil companies say many spills are caused by insurgents or thieves who cut the pipelines. They say insurgent violence has kept them from doing normal cleanups when spills occur.

Russia, 1970s-present -- The Arctic

Like Nigeria, the former Soviet Union has a system of aging and ill-maintained oil pipelines and other facilities inherited from the former Soviet Union.

One incident in 1994 spilled more than 2 million barrels of oil onto the tundra in the Komi region of north Russia. The spilled oil was contained by a dike that later collapsed, allowing oil to flow into nearby rivers.

Russia's state-owned oil company claimed the spill was far smaller than reported by the Western media, and said it was cleaned up. Greenpeace called the environmental damage "irreparable." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit