Exclusive: How Steven Chu Used Gamma Rays to Save the Planet

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It sounds like something right out of Marvel Comics: Government scientists suggest firing high-energy gamma rays -- GAMMA RAYS! -- to diagnose a leaking oil well a mile below the surface of the ocean. But that's what happened in the Gulf, when Energy Secretary Steven Chu and his team advised BP to use the gamma ray imaging technology to finally see the extent of the damage to the underwater blowout preventer, the safety device that was supposed to seal the oil well.

An eternal fact of Washington is that government gets much more attention when it performs badly than when it performs well. As an illustration of the former, recall the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To illustrate the latter, consider how the media is covering government right now. By my count at least three major natural disasters have occurred in recent weeks: the Nashville flooding, the deadly Oklahoma tornadoes, and the BP oil spill (admittedly not "natural" but threatening to be a major environmental disaster). Let's throw in an attempted terrorist attack in Times Square, too. On every front, government has performed ably--and often better than ably. And yet it's understating things considerably to say this success has not been widely recognized.

It should be recognized, though, because when it comes to government disaster response, the Bush years marked a low point and right now we're experiencing a high point. For a vivid illustration of this disparity, look no further than the Gulf. During Katrina, FEMA director Michael Brown secured his place history as the poster boy for government incompetence. Now consider Chu, the Nobel Prize Winner who has been at BP headquarters in Houston with a team of government scientists trying to figure out how to stop the leak. According to a government official, BP initially "dismissed" Chu's gamma ray suggestion, but came back a week later and admitted "Chu's right." 
 
I talked to Chu this afternoon about the government's response to the disaster. As a mental exercise, try and imagine what these answers would sound like if "Brownie" or some other top Bush officials were still overseeing disaster relief in the Gulf.

I understand you just got back from Houston? What were you doing there?

We went there Tuesday night, we were in Houston in the morning with BP, then visited for three or four hours with the manufacturers of the blowout preventers [the equipment that should have stopped the leak].

What advice have you been giving BP advice about gamma-ray imaging? Can you explain in layman's terms what BP was trying to do and what exactly you recommended?

Well, I was talking about a week and a half ago to some of the Department of Energy folks that BP had asked us to send down there. This was the week before last Sunday. There was a several hour phone call Sunday where a few of the national lab directors, I, and the people we had at the site were talking about what we can do to help BP, and we thought that we could perhaps help them specifically by imaging the state of the BOP, the blow-out-prevention valve, with high-energy gamma rays. By using penetrating gamma rays you can see whether the valves were closed.

The really important part of all this is that through our conversations with BP, they seem to be very open to having brainstorming sessions, having us help diagnose what the condition of the blowout prevention valve is and helping them think through potential solutions. The president charged me with assembling a small team of scientists to go down there and that was what we were doing beginning Tuesday night. The idea was to bring in very smart people who also have great connections to the larger engineering and scientific community. The national lab director who's been engaged in this from the beginning, Tom Hunter, and I and four other scientists and engineers went down there.

How is it that you know enough about gamma rays and oil spill technology to be helpful? I wasn't aware that that was an area you'd worked in before you were secretary?

Oil spills were not something I've worked on, but I do know about gamma rays.

How?

Because I'm a physicist. And I dabble in many areas of physics. I did experiments when I was a graduate student on weak interactions, which are the forces of nuclear decay. And so I kept in my brain certain nuclear sources and what their energies were and I knew what the ranges were for how penetrating gamma rays could be. Very high-energy gamma rays can penetrate several inches of steel.

And that's the challenge at the bottom of the ocean? To penetrate the steel and see the condition of the equipment?

Yeah. Think of a dental X-ray. You have the source that can penetrate through material and you expose something on the backside. If you want to go through not flesh, but steel of a very high density, you need higher energy, electromagnetic particles--the higher the energy, the more penetrating it can be without being scattered or absorbed.

What role can the government play in helping stop the spill? I thought BP was taking the lead on this?

Well, of course they're taking the lead. But there are many branches of the government that are associated with the spill, its aftermath and containment, and all those things. DOE's major assets are not in those areas, but we do know how to image things. We do know about mechanical things. And so I felt our major assets would be in things like diagnosing what the BOP would do, and [thinking through the] steps going forward--how do you decide whether Plan A, B, C, or D would help? To the extent BP wants it, we can give advice on how to think through these things. What you're doing in a situation like this is dealing with probabilities--you don't know the exact state of something. For example, in the final hours we were saying, "Well, what if this thing happened?" There's a small probability, but if it does happen, what do you do? And if this other thing happens what do you do? You're chasing down answer about what to do should something unforeseen happen, even though it might be a very small possibility. You still want to go down those paths. Instead of approaching it as, "Oops, this happened--now what do we do?"

That type of thinking is more in line with what we do at the Energy Department, because DOE is part of the nuclear security enterprise of this country for the last half century, and we have nuclear reactor expertise as well. So that type of thinking--pushing as hard as you can to zero-accident tolerance--is something that's been in our DNA for half a century.

Why are the national laboratories getting involved in helping with the spill, including a weapons lab? What exactly to they have to offer that's germane to the problem of an oil disaster?

They have the high-energy gamma ray source! Let me be blunt. They were the ones who supplied the Cobalt 60 gamma ray source that's being used. [Update: BP and the national laboratories discussed having the lab supply the Cobalt 60, but BP ultimately procured it elsewhere]. They have a very talented number of scientists and engineers.

Here's what's happening. After the [Space Shuttle] Challenger accident, the U.S. government formed a panel of very, very bright scientists and engineers to come together and figure out what happened and what could be done in the future to prevent it. Most of the people on that panel were not aeronautics experts, not rocket experts or NASA experts. They were very smart people who had a broad range of knowledge and experience. This is actually what you want: you want a set of fresh eyes, people who can propose potential out-of-the-box solutions, who might foresee what might go wrong. If you're an expert and you're used to certain things done certain ways, that limits your ability to cast a wider net, and so one of the most important things that we're doing at the national laboratories is putting together these scientific teams, many of whom would be considered non-experts. In times like this, those are many of the people you want. BP and the oil industry have the lion's share of the experts that are exactly germane to this. So this is how we think we can best add value.

How long to you expect it will be before the leak is stopped?

That i couldn't say.

Days? Weeks?

Look, let's just say we know more about the blowout preventer, we know more about its condition, there are things on it that have worked. So I think there's a path forward. But as everyone knows, it ain't over till it's over, to quote the great American philosopher of the 20th century. And meanwhile oil is continuing to spill. So we are very focused on trying to stop that as quickly as possible. And the government is also focused on the downstream things to mitigate its environmental impact.

There was a congressional hearing yesterday about the causes of the spill. Will we ever know what triggered this disaster?

You know, it's under investigation. Like all other investigations of accidents, it depends. It's very important to try and do a postmortem as quickly as possible, because those things are very important lessons that have to apply going forward.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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