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50 years ago a nuclear bomb was detonated under the Western Slope to release natural gas. Here’s how poorly it went.

The Rulison explosion was larger than the one that devastated Hiroshima. “They truly believed they could play God,” said a man who protested the experiment.

High in the mountains southeast of Parachute, a plaque located on private property behind a split rail fence marks the site of the Project Rulison nuclear test that took place on Sept. 10, 1969. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Long-time Parachute resident Judy Beasley has witnessed nearly all the failed attempts to wrench hydrocarbons from the dusty, high ridges and deep, desert valleys of the Piceance Basin.

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But they all pale in comparison to the stab taken on Sept. 10, 1969, when the United States government asked the 270 residents of Parachute to leave their homes during the day while scientists detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear bomb 7 miles away and 8,400 feet below an arid, windblown site called Rulison.

The hope was the bomb — equivalent to 43,000 tons of TNT and larger than the one that devastated Hiroshima in World War II — would force commercially marketable quantities of natural gas from the fine-grained, low-permeability sandstone of the Williams Fork Formation of the Mesaverde Group.

Beasley, then an English teacher at the town’s K-12 school, stood outside her home with some friends who came from nearby Rifle to witness the blast. Students got out at noon and by midafternoon, Beasley and her friends were standing around and getting ready for … nobody knew for sure.

“We didn’t know what would happen, and then the ground seemed to ripple around and it flowed, like a fluid,” said Beasley, now 77. “My chimney fell down, and there was some canned goods in the pantry that I didn’t think to put away, all fell. But that was about it.”

From the comfort of the family room in her home, Judith Beasley gazes out the window toward the area where the 43 kiloton Project Rulison was detonated about 8 miles to the southeast on Sept. 10, 1969. Beasley was teaching at the nearby Grand Valley School at the time, and she said that the teachers and students were evacuated before the underground blast was exploded. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Pretty much everyone in town believed they were safe from any deadly repercussions of the blast, Beasley said. “I don’t remember anyone being particularly upset one way or another. We just presumed the government wouldn’t do something that would injure us in any way.”

“I can’t imagine anything like that happening today,” she said. “There would be so many protesters, so much press coverage. So yeah, that was a little weird.”

“They truly believed they could play god”

There was a smattering of newspaper and television coverage of the event. It also drew a small group of protesters, including Chester Mcqueary and his partner, who hid in the foothills above the Rulison site. They hoped their presence would halt the experiment.

Mcqueary, an early environmental activist and member of the American Friends Service Committee, said his group was appalled by Rulison and the ultimate designs of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to develop 317 trillion cubic feet of gas by using 13,000 underground nuclear explosions.

“It was part of the thinking at the time,” said Mcqueary, 81. He said those behind Rulison were guilty of deadly hubris. “The scientists believed they could set off atomic bombs to make the Mediterranan Sea rise to irrigate the Sahara Desert and blast a new harbor on the northwest Alaska Coast.”

“They truly believed they could play God with what they invented,” he said.

The plaque marking the Project Rulison nuclear test reads, in part, “one 43 kiloton nuclear explosive was detonated in this well, 8,426 feet below the surface on September 10, 1969.” (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Rulison “stimulation” experiment was the second by the $770 million Operation Plowshare program, initiated by the Atomic Energy Commission to develop industrial applications for nuclear explosion. Several detonations occurred in the late 1960s and early 70s, most in Nevada using smaller devices, said Rex Cole, professor of geology at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.

One other experiment was conducted in Colorado, on May 17, 1973, 15 miles north of Rulison in Rio Blanco County. It involved three devices detonated simultaneously.

Then-state Rep. Richard Lamm went to federal court to block both the Rulison experiment and subsequent testing. Lamm, who staked his political career as an environmental activist, lost in every round of his court fight, Mcqueary said. (Lamm was elected governor in 1974.)

All the attempts unleashed pockets of natural gas. At Rulison, a re-entry well produced 450 million cubic feet of natural gas in four separate production tests from October 1970 through April 1971.

The problem was, the freed gas was so contaminated by radiation it could not be sold for use on the market, Cole said. “It was an unqualified failure. It didn’t pan out economically or environmentally.”

It also left residents of Parachute — which today has a population of about 1,100 — scratching their heads over the attempt, with many leaving the memory quickly behind.

Residents of the tiny town 42-miles west of Glenwood Springs have learned to quietly ride out the boom-and-bust cycles of the Piceance Basin.

They endured “Black Sunday,” when Exxon abruptly abandoned its oil shale operations west of Parachute in 1982, costing thousands of people their jobs and causing a mass exodus from the Western Slope.

They rolled on when oil prices tanked in the mid-to-late 2000s and drove out several big drilling companies. Their departure came even as hydraulic fracturing techniques, using sand, water and chemicals, were perfected, making natural gas extraction easier.

“You live here long enough you see the whole boom-and-bust cycle of the area and you get used to it,” said Beasley, who moved to the Piceance Basin in 1967 with her husband, Dave. “It’s all part of what goes on when you live near all these reserves of gas. You see new people move in with the latest boom, make good friends with them and then you say goodbye when activity takes a dive. You live with it and just enjoy living here.”

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Not much of a legacy left by Rulison

Current Parachute Mayor Roy McClung said his grandfather put wire across the shelf where he stored all of the family’s canned goods for fear the blast would throw them all around the basement. The blast was less intense than anticipated, and the only victim was a plastic aspirin bottle that fell over in the bathroom.

“There really hasn’t been a ‘legacy’ around this project,” McClung said. “No abnormal cancer rates, no contaminated groundwater. It has pretty much quietly slipped into history as an idea that sounded better than it actually was and has been left at that.”

Parachute Mayor Roy McClung’s grandfather feared the Rulison test would destroy the canned food stored in the family’s basement, so he put wire across the shelving. Fifty years later, McClung says, the nuclear experiment is barely a memory for most people. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Families who lived inside the 5-mile blast zone were paid $8 to move out of their homes on the day of the blast. Mcqueary said he and his companion tramped through the foothills toward the site and were monitored by government helicopters.

Just before the bomb went off, the couple lay down on the ground, heard a loud thump, and a long rumble moved through the earth, lifting them at least  -inches from the ground.

In the distance, they saw a cloud moving their way. At first, they thought it was nuclear venting, but it turned out to be dust from one of the many fallen cliff faces, he said.

“All we could say about the whole thing was, ‘What the hell was that?’” Mcqueary said.

Former Parachute mayor Judith Beasley describes how the ground rose “like a tidal wave” when the Project Rulison nuclear test was detonated. She and some other teachers, including several from the neighboring city of Rifle, gathered near the power pole outside her house to watch the blast. The wave from the explosion collapsed the chimney on her home, but the original power pole, behind her, still stands. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Today’s scientists say their counterparts back then thought a nuclear blast could solve America’s energy woes. 

“The U.S. was worried about the scarcity of petroleum resources. People were looking for new approaches to produce more petroleum,” said Alexei Milkov, professor of geology and geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. 

The blast at Rulison sought to stimulate an underground target zone by producing numerous fractures in the rock. The fissures would hurry the drainage of natural gas along with oil, propane and butane into the cavern caused by the explosion.

But today, companies stimulate the target zone using hydraulic fracturing, rudimentary versions of which have been in use since the 1940s. Today, the technique is paired with directional drilling, a costly combination made possible by high oil and gas commodity prices. 

“The U.S. is now in an era of petroleum abundance,” Milkov said. “So, I suspect there is little, if any, interest in investigating nuclear explosives for petroleum production in the U.S. at the moment.”

The re-entry well at Rulison was shut in after the final test in 1971 and was plugged and abandoned in 1976.

Read more Colorado Sun stories about inspiring Coloradans.

Drilling without going nuclear

The site, located 40 miles northeast of Grand Junction and 12 miles southwest of Rifle, is marked by a single plaque. 

The U.S. Department of Energy prohibits drilling and removal of any material below 6,000 feet within the 40-acre lot boundary, said Laurena Davis, spokeswoman for Navarro Research and Engineering. Navarro is the contractor to the Department of Energy and the Office of Legacy Management, which oversees Rulison.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission established two wider boundaries around the site. When an exploration company applies for a permit to drill within a 3-mile radius of “Surface Ground Zero,” the DOE is notified, Davis said.

A permit to drill within a half-mile of the site requires a hearing before the commission. 

The site got renewed attention during the gas boom in the early 2000s. Talks surfaced about drilling some test wells closer to the blast site than previously allowed to test the radiation levels, McClung said.

As many as 1,700 wells were brought online in the Piceance Basin in 2010. Weak gas prices kicked off a quick decline, and today there are fewer than 50 well sites near Rulison, Cole said. 

Colorado Mesa University geology Professor Rex Cole called the Rulison experiment “an unqualified failure. It didn’t pan out economically or environmentally.” He has spent years exploring the Grand Mesa and is currently writing a book about the large flattop mountain that towers over Parachute. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At least seven well sites are located within the half-mile barrier surrounding Surface Ground Zero.

Companies are confident the Rulison site is still a viable natural gas source and can be mined safely, experts and locals say. Hydraulic fracturing to get the gas out is a safer, more reliable method and there are no signs extraction will release toxic gas, Mikov and Cole said.

“The belief is that the heat from the explosion ‘glassed’ in the cavity and has limited the amount of radiation that can move to other areas,” said McClung, the Parachute mayor.

Caerus Oil and Gas, which paid Encana $735 million for its properties in the Piceance Basin in 2017, is a true believer in the viability of Rulison and the surrounding area as a consistent source of natural gas, spokesman Jeremy Story said

“Caerus will invest approximately $350 million this year in both capital and operating expenses in the region,” Story said. “And we will do it all without going nuclear.”

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