WASHINGTON -- A group of scientists, technicians and oilmen says it may have found a way to speed up the dangerous and slow-moving task of fighting the hundreds of booby-trapped oil fires in Kuwait -- by using super-high-pressure, jet-powered air nozzles to blast explosives and other obstructive debris from around the raging wellheads.
The idea, described as "brilliant" by a Kuwait Petroleum Co. executive, could be in operation in Kuwait as early as this month: Scientists involved in the project were trying yesterday to arrange a test of a prototype jet air compressor that technicians in California have been developing for other purposes.
The air-pressure idea was one of several discussed by more than 30 delegates at a two-day conference on the oil fire problem that ended in Washington yesterday.
Other ideas included: digging 300-foot tunnels under the sand in which to detonate explosives around the well shafts to choke off the flow of oil to the surface, robots to clear paths through minefields and helicopter-drawn "chain-blankets" to detonate bombs and mines around the wells. But none of these proposals seemed to be as well-received as the air-pressure idea.
Organized by a Washington-based environmental think tank, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and with backing from the Defense and Energy departments, the conference drew together nuclear physicists, executives from Kuwaiti and U.S. oil companies, construction engineers, munitions experts and technicians from a variety of fields.
The consensus was that the hundreds of thousands of explosives littering the desert sands of Kuwait -- Iraqi-laid booby-traps and land mines as well as cluster bombs from U.S. and allied actions during the Persian Gulf war -- presented the greatest obstacle to bringing the oil wells under control and extinguishing the fires.
Richard Garwin, a nuclear physicist and fellow at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York, said that nozzles directing blasts of air at pressures of up to10,000 pounds per square inch could act like cutting tools to break up concrete and whisk aside, or even detonate, explosives.
They could also conceivably be used to extinguish some of the well fires, he said, and cut channels in the sand to direct oil to storage depots.
By yesterday, the eight U.S. and Canadian firefighting teams involved in the mammoth task had succeeded in capping only 15 the estimated 500 to 600 wells afire in Kuwait, said Kuwait Petroleum Co. director Ralph Brown.
He said 80 to 90 other wells were not afire but were spewing oil, creating lakes of oil around them that in some cases were more dangerous to deal with than the fires.
In addition, about 300 wells in the country's northern "neutral zone" bordering Iraq were either on fire or had been burned, he said, adding that these were among the most heavily mined and booby-trapped.
Mr. Brown dismissed as "alarmist" predictions that Kuwait's oil industry could be out of action for up to five years. He predicted that oil exports would resume, in limited quantities, "within a year."
"Once the necessary equipment or supplies are mobilized, the rate of regaining control of these wild wells, I think, will be a lot quicker than some of the more alarmist speculation would credit," he said.
"It is not as if we will throw a gigantic switch and Kuwait will come back to life. The wells will be restored to working order one by one, and the potential for export will grow."
William Wattenburg, a munitions expert at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, said, however, that the shortage of skilled manpower and equipment in the firefighting operation was a serious impediment.