Project Ketch
Project Ketch

Table of Contents

Project Ketch

In 1964, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) presented Project Ketch, a proposal to employ nuclear explosives for the excavation of a natural gas storage reservoir situated in Pennsylvania. This initiative was integrated into Project Plowshare, a broader undertaking focused on exploring nuclear device applications within public works and industrial development initiatives. Remarkably, Project Ketch emerged as the exclusive Plowshare project envisioned for implementation in the northeastern part of the United States.

Subsequently, a comprehensive study outlining the project’s details was published in 1967. Nevertheless, the project encountered resistance from local communities, leading to its stagnation. A comparable test named Project Gasbuggy, conducted in New Mexico in 1968, revealed the necessity for a deeper understanding of rock fracturing effects before Project Ketch could advance. Consequently, the project never progressed beyond these stages.

Suggestion

During the early 1960s, the AEC embarked on a campaign to promote the Project Plowshare program, which aimed to utilize atomic devices for peaceful purposes. This period also witnessed mandated government-controlled low prices for natural gas, resulting in limited motivation to explore new gas sources and contributing to gas shortages. A central theme of Plowshare involved creating and utilizing underground spaces for the storage of natural gas. These storage reservoirs served to balance supply and demand disparities, offer contingencies for emergencies, and facilitate arbitrage. Given that existing storage reservoirs were mainly situated away from their respective markets, there arose a demand for additional storage capacity closer to markets in the northeastern United States, particularly within areas lacking natural reservoirs.

Initiated in 1964, discussions between the AEC and the Columbia Gas Corporation aimed to identify an appropriate site for a demonstration project in Pennsylvania. The focus of this project centered on an area south of Renovo within Sproul State Forest. This location was chosen due to its proximity to regions with gas exploration activity and existing gas transmission pipelines. The region was considered sparsely populated and of limited economic significance. The proposed Plowshare experiment was named “Project Ketch.” The AEC and Columbia conducted general area surveys in 1965-66, while conversations with the Pennsylvania state government commenced in 1966. The surveys referred to local inhabitants as “natives” and described their residences as “rickety.” Interestingly, there was no effort made to gauge local sentiments about the project, implying that the native populations might have been resistant to change or progress.

Public awareness of the project emerged with a Pittsburgh Press article on February 14, 1967. An AEC study, released in July 1967, asserted that the detonation’s effects would be safely confined underground without air blast effects. It also claimed that gas stored in the reservoir could be rendered suitable for existing pipeline use through chimney purging, filtration, and dehydration treatment at the wellhead. The study predicted a significant reduction in radioactivity within six to nine months post-explosion, with the potential need to flush krypton-85 and tritium from the chimney. The report noted that radioactivity levels would generally fall below permissible limits due to dilution during transmission and combustion.

Governor Raymond P. Shafer’s letter on August 11, 1967, conditionally approved the project for site evaluation studies, with the provision that further project phases should benefit the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. However, site lease requirements remained before actual work could commence.

Opposition and Cancellation

Upon the project’s revelation, local residents began inquiring about its potential consequences. Responses from the AEC and Columbia reassured that there would be no issues, highlighting the area’s “wilderness” nature and apparent limited economic significance, creating the impression of a sparsely inhabited and unproductive region. Initially, the project was presented merely as a demonstration, lacking any immediate economic value or advantage. As doubts arose about this rationale, the AEC and Columbia pivoted to suggesting that the demonstration would trigger regional economic growth. They hinted at the possibility of numerous subsequent blasts, much closer to populated areas, once the concept was proven in a remote location. Opposition took shape in Renovo, situated 12 miles (19 km) from the site, as well as in State College, located 30 miles (48 km) away. Despite the region having undergone timber clearcutting prior to the 1930s, opponents painted it as “untouched mountain land.”

Louis Roddis Jr., a nuclear engineer and a member of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Science Advisory Committee, observed that “there is a clear public relations challenge since the northeastern United States is not as accustomed to either earthquake tremors or nuclear test detonations as the southwestern United States.”

On December 10, 1967, a comparable test was conducted near Dulce, New Mexico, known as Project Gasbuggy. This initiative aimed to collect data on fracturing low-permeability rock layers to enhance production stimulation. Gasbuggy managed to increase permeability to the extent that groundwater filled an unexpectedly significant portion of the fractures. The Gasbuggy findings underscored the need for better comprehension of local hydrology before embarking on similar projects. The Pennsylvania project encountered obstacles and remained dormant, without any work being initiated. As opposition grew more focused, Columbia withdrew from the project in 1968, and the necessary site lease was never negotiated. Funding for Plowshare was discontinued in 1975.

Project

The chosen site was within Sproul State Forest, situated in Beech Creek Township, Clinton County, Pennsylvania, near Centre County. It was positioned at the southwestern edge of the Hyner Anticline, within the Chemung Portage Group of strata. The project entailed detonating a 24-kiloton nuclear device within an 18-inch (46 cm) diameter borehole, reaching a depth of approximately 3,300 feet (1,000 m), to create an adequate cavity for natural gas storage. The location was in proximity to an existing gas storage zone within the Leidy gas field. The anticipated outcome of the detonation was the formation of a debris-filled “chimney,” about 90 feet (27 m) wide and around 300 feet (91 m) in height, capped by impermeable rock formations. Fractures were predicted to extend up to a radius of about 650 feet (200 m). The projected storage capacity for natural gas was approximately 465,000,000 cubic feet (13,200,000 kl), stored at a pressure of 2,100 pounds per square inch (140 bar).

The proposed project phases were as follows:

  • Phase I: An 8-month period for feasibility study and evaluation.
  • Phase II: A 6-month period encompassing construction, borehole drilling, and detonation of the nuclear device.
  • Phase III: An 11-month duration dedicated to cavern measurements and radiological surveys.
  • Phase IV: A 6-month span for the development of the gas storage facility.
  • Phase V: A 14-month timeframe for initial operation and assessment.
  • The estimated construction expenses for a standard operational facility ranged from $1.55 million (equivalent to $13,165,000 in 2022) for a small reservoir utilizing a 24-kiloton device, to $2.08 million (equivalent to $18,255,000 in 2022) for a reservoir created with a 100-kiloton device. The assumed costs for obtaining a nuclear device from the AEC in 1967 were $390,000 for a 24-kiloton device and $460,000 for a 100-kiloton device.

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