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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. via The Colorado Sun

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.

by Monte Whaley

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.

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.


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.”


“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.


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.


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.

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