Andy McSmith's Diary: Nuclear option that made fracking look like 'a walk in the park'


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Indy Politics

The aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war – and the consequent hike in world oil prices – was almost all bad, but at least it appears to have closed off a weird idea being touted by UK government scientists to set off nuclear explosions under the sea.

When oil companies first started exploring the North Sea, the world price of oil was no more than £1.20 a barrel, making it uncertain how much of the stuff could be sucked out of the seabed at a profit.

Storage added considerably to the cost. Storing oil offshore could cost far more than it was worth on the world market.

A working group at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, at Aldermaston, therefore proposed that the government undertake an 18 month study of the feasibility of using controlled nuclear explosions to blast huge cavities where the oil could be stored cheaply.

They reckoned they could have the project up and running by 1978, according to documents released this week by the Ministry of Defence after a Freedom of Information request. The explosions would have to be carried out under the sea, our experts noted, because “the urban character of much of Britain is not generally conducive to underground nuclear explosions on land and it is in the creation of oil storage beneath the seabed that the technology of peaceful nuclear explosions may be helpful in offshore oil development programmes.”

That was in August 1973. The Yum Kippur War came two months later and, by March 1974, the price of oil was around £5 a barrel. Extracting North Sea oil was suddenly so profitable that the idea of blasting Hiroshima-sized holes in the ocean bed was forgotten.

The lucky one

There is an interesting pub quiz fact in the same batch of documents released by the MoD. In how many years since the conclusion of the Second World War have no British soldiers been killed on active service? Answer: one.

(And for a bonus point, what year was it?*)

A shambling idiot?

It was a two years ago this month that “omnishambles” was declared by the Oxford English Dictionary to be the 2012 word of the year, after being deployed by Ed Miliband in Prime Ministers’ Questions.

Biteback Publishers has issued the collected blogs of Gordon Brown’s notorious former spin doctor, Damian McBride, under the title ‘Omnirambles’ – which is possibly the last use of that word before it morphs from a witticism to a cliché.

Having read most of the McBride blogs when they originally appeared, I was more taken with the footnotes, such as this belated piece of advice directed at Labour’s last Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, who left a note saying “there’s no money left” for Philip Hammond, whom he wrongly assumed would be his Tory successor. “Even if you’re very popular and your staff buy you lots of champagne, don’t get lost in exuberance and leave a ‘comedic note’ on your desk for your potential successor,” McBride exhorts. “It won’t seem so funny when some gigantic shit like David Laws gets hold of it.”

Odds are, they’re wrong

The bookies Paddy Power have a team devoted to getting the company’s name in the newspapers by offering odds on impending political developments.

Just before Nick Clegg gave the leader’s speech at the Liberal Democrat conference last month, they issued a press release claiming there were rumours that the Deputy PM would use the occasion to announce his resignation. Wherever those rumours were flying, it was not at the conference venue in Glasgow, where the press release invoked derision.

Yesterday, Paddy Power went one better, with a press release that went out at 2.15pm pronouncing that Tim Farron and Jenny Willmott were the favourites to take Norman Baker’s old job at the Home Office – more than an hour after Nick Clegg had announced the post had been filled. Paddy Power blamed an email glitch.