Nuclear explosion shook Farmington

by Wade H. Nelson
Special to the Herald

Copyright 1999 WHN All Rights Reserved

 There was no mushroom cloud, but on December 10, 1967, a nuclear bomb exploded less than sixty miles from Farmington New Mexico. Today, all that remains at the site is a plaque warning against excavation and perhaps a trace of tritium in your milk.

The explosion was part of Operation Plowshare, a program conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to explore peaceful uses of atomic bombs. AEC scientists proposed using nuclear weapons as high-powered dynamite in a variety of "nuclear landscaping" projects. The most ambitious Plowshare proposal suggested setting off as many as 300 hydrogen bombs to blast a newer, larger canal across the Isthmus of Panama.

The goal of the Farmington blast, code-named Gasbuggy, was to see if a smaller underground nuclear explosion would stimulate the release of natural gas trapped in dense shale deposits. Gasbuggy called for a 29 kiloton warhead to be set off four thousand feet underground in an existing, low-productivity gas well. Participants in Project Gasbuggy included the AEC, the Bureau of Mines and the El Paso Natural Gas Company (EPNG). Ground zero was seven and a quarter miles south on Forest Road 537, south off State Highway 64, in the Carson National Forest.

Geologists had discovered years before that setting off explosives at the bottom of a well would shatter the surrounding rock and could stimulate the flow of oil and gas. It was believed a nuclear device would simply provide a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerine, up to 3500 quarts of which would be used in a single shot. Nation-wide, it was hoped nuclear stimulation of gas wells might result in the recovery of as much as ten times the amount of natural gas as was then being recovered and help relieve the nation’s energy crisis.

The Gasbuggy blast created an underground cavern approximately 160 feet in diameter by 333 feet tall--imagine putting an oversized football field on a stick like a popsicle, pushing it 3800 feet down into solid rock, and twirling it. A few seconds after the explosion the molten glass-lined cavern collapsed, creating a chimney filled with rubble and debris. Geologists later estimated that fractures extended out from the cavern a few hundred feet in all directions.

Residents of Farmington were quite concerned about the test, recalls Bennie Armenta, now an Operations Manager for El Paso Field Services. "My parents were worried about the (Navajo) dam bursting, or some sort of underground chain reaction" An informational meeting held by the AEC at the Farmington Elks Club apparently failed to reassure residents.

Armenta, then 17, worked for the trucking company which delivered the drilling rig to the site. The rig was used to drill the primary hole, and to lower the thirteen-foot by 18" diameter canister containing the nuclear bomb. After the explosion the rig was returned to the site to drill back into the "chimney." Armenta recalls lots of guards and fences around the test site, but he wasn’t particularly worried about radiation. "What can I say, I was 17 years old."

Declassified records from the Department of Energy in Las Vegas suggest a number of concerns with the test, both private and public. They included radioactive contamination both in, and of, the gas produced. Special "cleaner" nuclear bombs designed specifically for Plowshare blasts didn’t turn out to be as "clean" as was hoped. Among the hundreds of declassified records are memos and reports discussing increased tritium levels in surrounding vegetation, the release of radioactive Krypton-85 gas, and testing of milk from nearby dairy cows for Strontium90.

One series of letters outlines the California Public Utility Commission’s objection to any of the gas being shipped there. Even though it was only slightly radioactive, reports indicate EPNG’s downstream customers didn’t want it. Scientists suggested that mixing it with gas from other wells would bring the radiation levels down to what was considered "an acceptable level," but gas customers would reportedly have none of it.

Another question was whether radioactivity from Gasbuggy would contaminate gas from other wells in the San Juan Basin. There were five operating gas wells within a mile of the Gasbuggy site. To be safe, EPNG had physically cut the pipelines to all five prior to the blast. Within several months, however, they were reconnected. Test results seem to indicate that there was minimal, cross-contamination, although measurable amounts of tritium began showing up several decades later.

The New York Times Investigates

Gasbuggy, along with the Rulison and Rio Blanco gas stimulation events were the subject of a 1973 investigative piece in the NY Times Magazine entitled "Gasbuggy and Catch-85." Dr. H. Peter Metzger used "-85" to refer to the radioactive Krypton created by the explosion, released in the subsequent flaring of the natural gas.

Records indicate the Gasbuggy well produced 295 million cubic feet of gas. This was over five times as much as the well was expected to yield prior to the blast. But where did all that gas go? The DOE reports discuss flaring, or burning off of the gas during a series of production tests that lasted until 1973. Were all 295 million cubic feet flared off? It appears so.

Burning doesn’t eliminate radioactivity. Burning merely combines elements with oxygen, including radioactive elements. An inert gas like Krypton-85 would pass through fire unchanged, most likely ending up in the upper atmosphere. Tritium would combine with Oxygen to make tritiated (radioactive) water which would rain down somewhere downwind from the Gasbuggy site. Undoubtedly some of it would enter the food chain.

According to DOE documents, some surface cleanup occurred at the Gasbuggy site in the 1970’s. Radioactive materials, including some Tritium-contaminated water, were either flared or injected back down the hole. Several million dollars for present-day cleanup activities are shown in a budget on a DOE website, but there is no evidence that any of those funds have ever been appropriated or spent. In 1994 EG&G was paid to perform an aerial survey of the region for radioactive contamination.

Gasbuggy - A Failure?

Perhaps because of the project’s five million dollar pricetag, geologists and scientists involved with Gasbuggy were reluctant to declare the test a failure. Yet it didn’t create nearly as much fracturing of the shale as geologists had hoped. Nor did Gasbuggy stimulate the levels of increase in gas production needed (10-20X) to pay for the half-million dollar nuclear bomb. What gas it did produce, customers wouldn’t buy.

Hydraulic fracturing has long since replaced explosive stimulation of natural gas wells. Hydraulic fracturing consists of pumping a mixture of fluid and sand down a well at extremely high pressure, causing natural fissures in the rocks to expand and lengthen.

While the radioactive contamination from the flaring was miniscule compared to the fallout produced by atmospheric weapons tests in the early ‘60s, it was very significant in the mind of the public. Contamination from gas flared at Rulison led first to a lawsuit, and ultimately led Colorado legislators to pass a state-wide ban nuclear explosions. Riding the shock wave of anti-nuclear sentiment, Dick Lamm rose to prominence in Colorado politics. The entire Plowshare program was canceled in 1975, amidst considerable public criticism.




James Holcomb Interview

James Holcomb of Farmington was site foreman for El Paso Natural Gas. According to Holcomb the Gasbuggy "experiment" didn’t go completely according to plan. A pair of white vans delivered pieces of the disassembled nuclear bomb. Says Holcomb "They put the pieces inside this lead box, this big lead box....I’d shot a lot of wells with nitroglycerine and I thought ‘That’s not going to do anything’"

After a number of dry runs, a canister containing the bomb and associated hardware was lowered into the 4200’ well and the hole cemented shut. Within hours, a water pump at the bottom of the well quit working. This caused an air conditioning system cooling the bomb to flood and stop working. The temperature at the bottom of the well soared to over 200 degrees. Workers abandoned the site because no one, not even the lab scientists knew what might happen to a nuclear bomb drowning in boiling water. All the public knew was that the test was "delayed."

After several nerve-racking weeks lab employees crept back into the area. After taking some readings they made a decision to try and set the bomb off. Everyone was cleared from the area. Spectators were kept more than five miles back. Holcomb and other managers moved to a command tent for the countdown, the result of which was, at that point, anyone’s guess.

The bomb exploded. Closed circuit television cameras on site recorded a seven foot ground wave--the ground and trees and everything in the vicinity rising and falling like an ocean wave. Two and a half miles away from the blast Holcomb and the others were thrown from their folding metal chairs when the wave hit.

Almost immediately, gas could be heard spewing at the site. Everyone was afraid the cemented well had blown out and evacuation would be necessary. The evac helicopter started its engines. Remotely controlling the cameras, Holcomb saw that a two-ton dehydrator unit, used to remove moisture from gas, had been picked up and tossed aside by the ground wave. He’d forgotten to disconnect it. An attached gas line had been broken and was the cause of the hissing.

The drilling crew and others returned to the site and sunk a number of shafts adjacent to the original shaft, taking radiation readings and core samples as they went.

"They said it [the radiation level] wasn’t bad but we were putting all this water came out of there into a concrete pit. Then they put it in lead barrels and hauled it to Missouri. Something’s got to tell you something. The guys who worked the twelve hour shifts, well, they’re not around anymore hardly any of ‘em, they all died off. Most of ‘em died of cancer but they can’t lay it to that [Gasbuggy] because they can’t prove it."

According to Holcomb, the test was a success. "The well produced more gas in the year after the shot than it had in all of the seven years prior."







  • Hiroshima bomb: 20 kilotons, fission device, Gasbuggy, est. yield 29 kilotons, fusion device
  • Amount of gas released 205-295 million cubic feet
  • Amount being spent today on remediation....none?
  • Primary radionucleotides released: Tritium, Krypton-85



How to Get There

From State Highway 64 go south on F.S. 357 for seven and a quarter miles. There will be a fork in the road, and go right, proceeding on F.S. 357. Make sure that you stay on this road, and enter the Carson National Forest. Go another six tenths of a mile to the plaque.

If you have access to a portable GPS system, the location is 36.678N, 107.208W.


Nuclear byproduct primer:

Atomic (fission) and Nuclear (fusion) explosions create a number of radioactive byproducts that are harmful to mankind. They are created both by the fission and fusion processes and also by the bombardment of natural elements in the vicinity of the nuclear explosion to intense levels of radiation. Fission is the splitting of Uranium235 and Plutonium239 atoms in an atomic bomb. Fusion is the joining of hydrogen atoms to form helium in a nuclear bomb. Many atomic weapons combine fission and fusion elements; the fusion elements releasing a blast of neutrons which "boost" the yield of the fissionable elements. When an atomic explosion releases radioactive byproducts into the atmosphere, they are referred to as fallout. The types and quantities of the fallout are indicative of the type of weapon used; evidence confirming that the Chinese had stolen plans to America’s most advanced warheads reportedly came from fallout types that directly matched that produced by the W-88 (Trident) nuclear warhead.

Four of the more worrisome isotopes created by the Gasbuggy explosion were Iodine131, Tritium, Cesium 137, and Krypton-85. Little mention is made of Strontium90, a particularly worrisome nuclear fallout product. Because Strontium chemically emulates calcium, S90 fallout finds its way into the milk supply, and the bones of those who ingest it, often leading to bone cancer. Because a fusion bomb, rather than a purely fission device was used in Gasbuggy, little S90 would have been created. Instead, considerable Tritium was created.

Iodine 131 is highly indicated as a cause of thyroid cancer. Fortunately Iodine131 has a very short half-life, which means, simply by keeping the Gasbuggy well sealed for several weeks after the explosion, the level of I131 would have gone down rapidly.

Not so for Tritium and Krypton-85. Krypton-85, is created as a direct breakdown product of fissionable materials. It has a half-life of ten years. Krypton is an inert gas, like argon, used in welding, and neon, used in neon lights. Since Krypton is chemically inert, it doesn’t easily combine with other elements. Tritium is an isotope, or form of hydrogen, with a half-life of twelve years. Normal hydrogen has one proton in the nucleus, and no neutrons. Tritium, which is both used in and is also a byproduct of nuclear fusion weapons, has two neutrons.

Cesium 137, another fission byproduct, was still found in measurable quantities surrounding the Gasbuggy site as late as 1978. One report estimated the level of tritium in vegetation surrounding the site as being as high as ten times the natural background level.


 For further reading or research: BACKGROUND:

(conspiracy theory website)



DOE Search Engines

search on "gasbuggy AND xxxx"

search on "gasbuggy"

search on "gasbuggy"


 Suggested Books: (Most are out-of-print and available only through inter-library loans)

Nuclear Dynamite : The Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Fiasco

by Trevor Findlay (LANL Library)



The Nuclear Impact : A Case Study of the Plowshare Program to Produce Gas by Underground Nuclear Stimulation in the Rocky Mountains by Frank Kreith (LANL Library)

 Engineering with Nuclear Explosives



Journal Of Petroleum Technology

October ‘72 or ‘73

 New Mexico’s forgotten Nuclear Explosions

in NM Historical Review 10/1/98

by Ferenc M. Szasz

 Anderson, Kevin J. Beating Warheads into Plowshares

Analog Magazine, September 1991.

 A Nuclear Powered Gasbuggy

Scientist and Citizen 3/68

 Nuclear Stimulation of Natural Gas

Transcripts of Hearing of U.S. Congress 1973 (Available at Mesa County Public Library)

 Nuclear Explosives in Peacetime



Further research resources:

 Some of the best available resources on Gasbuggy are the declassified records available at the DOE Nevada Test Site, Las Vegas, NV. An index of these records is available via the web @

They include clippings of many, many newspaper articles at the time as well as over 1000 reports and memos. These are available for public inspection given a 10 day request for particular documents.

Future researchers may freely contact Wade H. Nelson at wade727 @ for other suggestions.



LLNL Library OPAC search form (39 items)


Hilary Burton



Conspiracy theory angle:

Explosion was used to contact aliens (Plasma beings?) living in underground tunnels....?