Remember The First Time Colorado Tried Fracking With A Nuclear Bomb?

The metal plaque that marks Surface Ground Zero of the Rulison blast that took place Sept. 10, 1969. (Photo by Jim Hill/CPR News)

DENVER – On Sept. 10, 1969, six and a half miles south of Rulison, Colorado, a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb exploded in the subterranean depths of the Piceance Basin.

The device, more than twice as powerful as the weapon at Hiroshima and with muscle equivalent to 40,000 tons of TNT, was an unorthodox tool in a grand experiment to free natural gas and kickstart a boom. The nuclear age wanted to give the oil and gas age a hand up.

“It felt like a very slow-moving tremble,” Parachute resident Judy Beasley said. “It was like a flowing of energy [underground].”

Miles closer to the blast zone it “was like a train rushing up the canyon,” Lee Hayward told Look Magazine in 1970. Hayward’s family owned the land where the experiment took place.

“Cliffs started pouring rocks. It was quite a show, really,” Hayward said.

Go back 50 years and the scene in Parachute (in 1969 it was referred to as Grand Valley) felt almost festive. Enterprising types peddled souvenirs. While a few dozen activists protested, most locals like Beasley had the afternoon of the blast off work. Everyone was told to be outside at the 3 p.m. detonation time for fear the shot would damage buildings and cause injuries. Roadblocks were setup and a throng of reporters, G-men, scientists, congressmen and foreign observers descended on this sleepy section of what is now the I-70 corridor to bear witness.

Judy Beasley, who has a long history in Parachute, Colo., shares some of her stories in her home, Aug. 27, 2019. (Photo by Jim Hill/CPR News)

“We were whooping it up,” Beasley said. “We were really fortunate that we didn’t have that much damage.”

In the end the blast caused few problems for the locals. Some chimneys lost bricks, including Beasley’s. A few pickle jars fell to the ground in her pantry.

Several couples who lived within five miles of Hayward’s land ignored the evacuation and rode out the detonation. The wife of William Rankin told the Associated Press they planned to get their dogs into the station wagon and then “have a picnic down in the corn patch.”

As much as times change, the promise heard in many rural towns remains the same. There are much needed jobs and economic development underfoot, we need only unlock the riches from tight shale and other stubborn rocks. Rulison was perhaps the grandest vision of that ever put forward on the Western Slope.

In Hindsight, This Wasn’t a Job for an Atom Bomb

Drill rigs and well pads dot the landscape today. Garfield and Mesa counties — along with state-leading Weld on the Front Range — transformed into energy powerhouses thanks to advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a process where a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced underground to free the fossil fuels within.

But in the 1950s, the idea was that a bomb might be better.

Left: The Project Rulison 40-kiloton nuclear device is lowered into its 8,442-foot deep emplacement hole on Aug. 14, 1969. Right: A government-prepared map from 1969 for the day of the detonation.

Project Rulison was part of a much larger government initiative called The Plowshare Program. It was an effort focused on peaceful and commercial applications for nuclear explosives after World War II.

“It boggles the mind that people would believe in this stuff, but if you put yourself in the minds of the Plowshares people, this is progress, this is modernity, this can be done,” said Scott Kaufman, the author of “Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America,” a 2013 history book.

“They saw [Rulison] as an alternative to fracking that in their minds would be cheaper, it would do a better job, and therefore companies involved in the effort would make a lot more money.”

Houston, Texas-based Austral Oil and CER Geonuclear Corporation footed 90 percent of the freight while the federal Atomic Energy Commission, now the U.S. Department of Energy, picked up the remainder of the trial balloon’s cost. In a community thank-you advert found in the archive at the Rifle Branch of the Garfield County library, the chairman and president of Austral practically gushed about the possibilities.

“We are proud to be a permanent part of this community, and in the months and years ahead, we will do our best to be good neighbors and merit the support you have generously given us. We are confident — that as our program progresses — we will be able to produce natural gas from Rulison Field by nuclear stimulation, safely and economically, to benefit your communities, your state and our nation.”

Rulison wasn’t the first attempt to give oil and gas development an atomic lift. Plowshares tried the concept first in New Mexico. Project Gasbuggy used a 26-kiloton thermonuclear bomb just 4,200 feet underground but there was too much contamination in the result. The scientists behind Rulison hoped a device that relied on nuclear fission instead of fusion would produce far less of the radioactive element tritium. No radiation was released into the air after the Sept. 10 shot and the initial results indicated a success — and Plowshares gave the greenlight to another test.

That next experiment took place May 17, 1973 in Rio Blanco County, 35 miles northwest of Rifle with three bigger bombs — but that’s another story.

Modern Rural Living at Surface Ground Zero

Today the Rulison site is mostly forgotten. A small, tombstone-like monument stands sentinel in an open field behind a fence that says “No Trespassing.” As it was in 1969, Surface Ground Zero remains in private hands. The test was never on government land.

Coreen Hamilton owns the 26-acre stretch of land where the blast cavity lurks underneath. A previous landowner built the log cabin that Hamilton lives in, which she purchased last summer.

“We find surprises every day,” said Hamilton. “That’s cable wire,” she said as she pointed to black cord jutting out of the dirt that used to bring electricity to the site. She pointed to a second slab of concrete. “There’s a pad.” That’s where the generator stood.

Continue reading the original report by Colorado Public Radio here.