The Role of National Missile Defense in the Environmental History of Alaska
University of Alaska Fairbanks
On the brink of the third millennium, America emerges as the world superpower and largely dictates the direction of international relations. Although the nuclear tension of the Cold War is now a decade behind us, President Clinton faces the decision to deploy a national missile defense system by late summer or fall of this year. The $10.5 billion proposal to construct an initial field of one hundred interceptor missile silos in Alaska is designed to defend all fifty states from an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile attack by a “rogue nation” such as North Korea. Missile defense promoters have rushed the plan to deploy at an almost desperate pace despite the warnings of opponents that an anti‑ballistic missile system would in fact exacerbate both the arms race and the risk of nuclear disaster. Some believe that the technology is simply too immature, while others claim it is unrealistic if not impossible. There is no Alaskan translation for the word impossible, and the state overwhelmingly welcomes another economic injection from the military industrial complex and honors its precious role in national security.
Welcoming national missile defense to the state is more than simply supporting more local jobs and money. It supports the greatest step in nuclear proliferation history and destroys the gains of over thirty years of treaty building and negotiations. The plan is rationalized by demands of national security, but in an increasingly interdependent ecosystem, the new meaning of national security no longer allows for continued nuclear and military build‑up. This proliferation presents, in fact, the largest threat to global environmental and political health. Our security is not national--it is global, and global survival depends on the ability of our environment to sustain life. A belief in systems which perpetuate the dangerous illusion that nuclear weapons are usable also perpetuates the military practices of the last century which have resulted in a toxic legacy far more hazardous to our health than any rogue nation risk.
Alaska, with its vast wilderness, might well play an integral role in the new, environmental meaning of national security. Yet the older view of security is the one entrenched and depended upon. In a state defined by huge projects, national missile defense is a perfect and fitting culmination to the giant development booms Alaskans have embraced since the Gold Rush jump‑started the territory one hundred years ago.
Alaska’s natural resources are rich, but profit encourages extraction on an appropriately large scale to overcome the disadvantages of distance and isolation. Efforts to get at the gold, salmon, water, wildlife and oil have dictated, in bursts, the very history of the state. Practical problems of remoteness and lack of local capital make resource exploitation a struggle, and opposition from conservationists only adds to developers’ problems. Undaunted, the new state’s U.S. Senator Ernest Gruening and others endorsed perhaps the largest construction project ever conceived--NAWAPA--the North American Water and Power Alliance. The plan was to dam virtually every river in the northwest quarter of the continent and fill the Rocky Mountain Trench in British Columbia, creating a reservoir‑canal the size of an inland sea which would provide water for the insatiably arid American West. The plan died, but Alaskans still campaigned for the world's largest hydroelectric project. They proposed to dam the Yukon River and create a reservoir larger than Lake Erie. Rampart Dam would produce twice as much power as Grand Coulee, seventeen times more than Alaska already produced, and would facilitate large‑scale industrialization. Conservationists balked at the idea of destroying the rich wetlands which provided vital migratory bird nesting grounds and were shocked by Rampart Dam promoters who dismissed the inundation of seven Athabaskan villages. This desire to somehow exploit such abundance of water continued with Governor Wally Hickel's enthusiasm to pump the water from Alaska's rivers through an undersea pipeline to a desperate and drought‑ridden California in the early nineties. These big pipe dreams were finally realized with the project that is compared to the Great Wall of China and which divided people as effectively ‑ the Trans‑Alaska Oil Pipeline.
At an estimated 9.6 billion barrels, oil deposits on the North Slope are the largest in North America. Although Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall's land freeze halted state selection of acreage until Native Alaskan land claims could be settled, by 1967 the state had sold leases to almost a million acres of the Arctic to oil companies. In the following years, the pipeline controversy pitted Alaskan against Alaskan and inspired organized opposition from conservationists and environmentalists on a level never before approached. Pressure on the oil companies resulted in the first real test of the National Environmental Policy Act's new Environmental Impact requirements. To secure a right of way to build the pipeline, oil companies and state boosters urged and supported the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The sudden rise to prominence of the fate of Alaskan wilderness was complemented by other polarized national issues. The new "environmental crisis added a politically combative edge to older conservation groups. Pipeline promoters claimed that monolithic, lower‑48 conservationist organizations were entirely responsible for the delays in authorization, and although pipeline researcher Peter Coates refers to the controversy as "the cause celebre of the 'the Age of Ecology,'" he illustrates the widespread opposition that existed at the federal level as well. Proponents longed for the days when Alaska's big projects--unbeleaguered by the technical, political, and legal obstacles of private, peacetime enterprise--were pushed through in record speed under the free hand of the armed forces. A national emergency or wartime situation, they observed, rendered conservationist issues fully insignificant and, as in World War II, "the earth [would be] torn asunder ruthlessly as bulldozers worked around the clock making ready for the arrival of defense forces."
The fact that the pipeline exists seems to represent a clear victory for developers and a defeat for conservationists, but larger forces influenced the already complex debate and played a crucial role in the outcome. The final vote in the U.S. Senate allowing construction was a tie, broken by Vice President Spiro Agnew. Environmentalists had power. Environmental stipulations and standards that Alyeska had to meet pushed engineering to groundbreaking technology and forced the company to spend years and millions to reach compliance. The world knew the meaning of an environmental impact statement. Despite the incalculable billions the pipeline would create, economic considerations alone did not prevail. The environmentalists were not simply beaten by developers. Alaska's oil holdings are a profitable resource, but the Trans‑Alaska Oil Pipeline would not have been built without the all‑powerful force which is Alaska's true resource and permanent trump card‑‑national security. The 1973 Arab oil embargo, a crisis of hysterical proportions in the U.S., revealed the perceived dependence of the nation on greedy anti‑American oil sheiks in the Middle East. The nation needed its own lifeline to ensure American safety and self‑sufficiency. The Trans‑Alaska Pipeline became America’s front‑line of defense. Alaska's strategic geopolitical location had always underlined its crucial role in national security. In 1973, its strategic geological significance rendered the state vital to the country's safety.
Alaska’s territorial politicians in the years before World War II found it difficult to convince Washington that their sparsely‑populated hinterland was worthy of any attention, much less enormous military expenditures. Military activity had declined since the initial turn‑of‑the‑century investments in exploration, communication systems, and gold‑rush law and order. At the outbreak of war in 1939 the population of Alaska was a mere 72,500; the only garrison in the territory was an immobile 250‑man installation in Haines. Despite its defenseless position, the new era of aviation had changed life drastically in the territory, and Alaskans and air power advocates realized as early as 1935 that, as General Billy Mitchell prophesied, "in the future he who holds Alaska holds the world, and it is the most important strategic place in the world". Territorial delegate Tony Dimond relentlessly warned Congress of the threat of a Japanese attack. To no avail he requested that bases be constructed in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and in the Aleutians--the island chain which claims distinction as the midway point on the shortest route from Asia to the US. A trickle of federal funds supported some military construction in 1940, but further appropriations were denied a few days before Hitler's armies occupied Norway and Denmark. The prospect of Nazi bombers flying over the pole restored increased spending, but Alaska was still far from prepared for war in December of 1941 when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Six months later, Japanese forces attacked Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians and occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska.
Military spending hit $1 million per day, the population nearly doubled, and the Alaska Highway connected the booming new frontier to the rest of the country. Over three hundred military installations and $3 billion brought Alaska in step with a newly-mobilized American society and the ever‑increasing influence of the government. The territory’s leaders overcame the inevitable post‑war recession and cut‑backs by aggressively promoting a new world order, in which Gruening warned "it would be utter folly for us not to make Alaska an impregnable bastion [and] to make it a great base for both defense and offense for the protection not merely of the US but the Continent, and indeed, for the Western World." The Cold War assured that Alaska remained strategically important as “America’s Achilles heel” and deeply symbolic to the nation as a whole. Only fifty‑four miles from the enemy, the Free World stood firm as a bulwark of democracy against the totalitarian evils of communism—an image which empowered promoters of statehood to push for the full American rights due Alaska's virtuous residents. The nuclear age and the National Security Act of 1947 created an enduring and fundamental resource for this state with which no natural reserves, however rich, can compete.
To defend North America and protect its arsenal from Soviet planes loaded with nuclear bombs, a radar system spanned the Arctic from Alaska through Canada and Greenland. In 1952, construction began on the Distant Early Warning System--the DEW line--which would warn Strategic Air Command of a surprise bomber attack. The construction itself constituted a "full‑scale attack on the Arctic," as contractors with no practical experience in the unique engineering demands of arctic terrain encountered a logistics nightmare in deployment of the most ambitious, sophisticated, and expensive military project ever. With sixty-three radar stations, the DEW line became fully operational in 1957, the same year it was rendered strategically obsolete by the Soviet Union’s demonstration of inter‑continental ballistic missiles.
In 1959, the new Strategic Rocket Forces Command and Alaska Air Command announced that Clear, about seventy‑five miles southwest of Fairbanks, would be the location of one of three American Ballistic Missile Early Warning Sites, designed to detect incoming ICBMs. By 1966, the Clear BMEW brought $360 million in defense contracts to the state and its construction paralleled army deployments of Nike‑Hercules ground‑to‑air missile silos around Fairbanks and Anchorage. Welcoming their position as an expendable sacrifice, Alaskans enthusiastically accepted possible NATO intermediate range nuclear missile systems in the state. Strategists calculated that Alaska could best absorb incoming enemy missiles and be bombed by the U.S. itself should the Russians occupy. Alas, not Alaska but Turkey won the missile honor.
Alaska remains important in post‑Cold War America. U.S. military policy, for historian Dan O’Neill, "apparently considers Alaska a wasteland suitable as a dumping ground, as a test‑site for dangerous technologies, and as a practice bombing range." O’Neill studied Project Chariot, the Atomic Energy Commission’s plan to construct a new harbor on the Arctic coast of Alaska by detonating up to six thermonuclear bombs. Introduced in 1958, Chariot arguably marks the birth of the national ecological movement and the direct impetus in Alaska for an unprecedented and highly effective political organization of Native Alaskans. Also, the Alaska Conservation Society, the first environmental organization in the state, was founded by the pioneers who had just led the successful campaign to establish the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood, still active leaders of conservation in the state, teamed up with University of Alaska biologists who were researching environmental implications of the proposed blast. In a precursive modern environmental impact statement, these opponents exposed the dangers that a 2.4 megaton nuclear explosion (160 times larger than Hiroshima) might have on the inhabitants of Point Hope and the land, caribou, and water of the region.
Scientists discovered that the Arctic was already irradiated due to the concentration of fall‑out from previous tests in Nevada and elsewhere. Due to the arctic atmosphere and environment, global pollution is attracted to the Arctic where it dissipates over the tundra and biomagnifies through the simple lichen‑caribou‑Eskimo food chain. Despite this evidence, an overwhelming majority of Alaskan politicians, businessmen, and newspapers were sold on Chariot and its promises of economic opportunity.
The Atomic Energy Commission, in opposition to its own biologists, pronounced the blast safe from a biological standpoint and reported that their $2 billion study produced no evidence of possible damage to the Eskimos. Since nobody could truly figure out how the harbor would create economic benefits or helpful data, Project Chariot was officially “postponed” by the AEC in 1962. Press releases explained that the 1962 Sedan test in Nevada rendered Chariot unnecessary, although some were written before Sedan was exploded. Thirty years later, research revealed that after abandoning the blast the United States Geological Society and Atomic Energy Commission transported, tested, and illegally abandoned a small amount of nuclear waste at the Chariot site.
The Atomic Energy Commission restored its missed opportunities at Point Hope with its subsequent underground nuclear tests on Amchitka Island in the Aleutians. Amchitka was a site already rendered an uninhabited “junkyard” by military environmental degradation from World War II. The third test on the island in 1971 inspired a proportionately large cry of opposition. The 5.2 megaton Cannikin blast was the largest underground nuclear detonation in U.S. history. For the first time, international pro‑disarmament forces joined with environmentalists to protest the explosion, traveling to Amchitka in a boat and naming their voyage the Greenpeace. Efforts to extend the nuclear non‑proliferation treaty, and the mutual fear that a national missile defense system would provoke a greater arms race, produced SALT I and the 1972 Anti‑Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia.
Cold War momentum in Alaska, however, persevered and big boom politicians were still in place in 1994 when the U.S. set out to construct a new and highly secretive mega‑project. Located just down the highway from Fort Greely is the Pentagon's $30 million HAARP project--High‑frequency Active Auroral Research Program. Funded with "nuclear counterproliferation" budgets in Congress, HAARP conducts large‑scale experiments on the irradiation of the ionosphere. The world’s largest ionospheric heater beaming electropulses into space may actually be a ground‑based continuation of the Strategic Defense Initiative System, or Star Wars. A Fairbanks‑based anti‑nuclear group organized opposition to the project, but national support dwindled after the Cold War was pronounced dead. Major defense contractors who hold classified patents to HAARP, such as Raytheon, are also contractors for elements of the proposed national missile defense system.
The man who came to Alaska in 1959 to sell Project Chariot as head of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Project Plowshare returned in 1987 to promote the deployment of Star Wars on the North Slope. Edward Teller, “father of the H‑bomb,” had just played a decisive role in overcoming widespread support for a nuclear freeze by arranging to produce nuclear weapons under the broad new classification of “defensive shield.” He found a warm reception in Alaska.
Although reality presents serious obstacles to a smooth deployment of National Missile Defense, the main policy problem is that the system is in direct violation of the 1972 Anti‑Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. Thirty years ago, Edward Teller campaigned relentlessly against the ABM treaty because he feared that negotiations with the Soviets would cause Americans "to turn away from nuclear weapons." He was for missile defense because he knew it assured the future of missiles, and fought against a comprehensive test ban in the 50’s and 60’s that would have controlled the growing nuclear threat. The end of the Cold War has resulted in a situation where his most grandiose defense dreams can still be realized thanks to the failure of more comprehensive non‑proliferation agreements.
Another common feature linking the history of these military and resource extraction projects plays an even greater role in the current debate over National Missile Defense. The social and psychological power created by “national security” relegates other concerns to insignifigance. Big project proponents have historically branded their opponents as un‑American, anti‑human, and even anti‑God. Calling environmentalists communist sympathizers threatening basic freedoms is highly effective public relations. Alaskans in particular see themselves as a bulwark of freedom against the rising threat of tyranny. After forty‑five years of Cold‑War indoctrination, the moral responsibility to defend democracy is a firmly‑embedded and largely‑unquestioned part of the American psyche. Edward Teller is a “scientific genius,” but his boss on the Manhattan project, Robert Oppenheimer, was a traitor for working to halt production and development of the bomb he had built.
Equally powerful is the environmental legacy linking these large military and resource extraction projects. Dangerously high toxicity levels and physical degradation are common results. The proposal to deploy National Missile Defense at Fort Greely Military Reserve repeats that history faithfully. Just as greater Alaska is perfectly suited for defense experiments due to her location and isolation, Fort Greely is ideally situated in Alaska. Its central location and environmental heritage make the decision to deploy there simple--it is already a toxic "no‑man's‑land."
Over six‑hundred Alaskan military toxic sites and at least thirty‑eight hazardous waste dumps pose a serious health and safety hazard to Alaska’s native and urban communities. Perhaps the most dangerous of these is the "supersecret Gerstle River test site" in Fort Greely. It is one of the few U.S. sites where the Army released chemical and biological warfare agents into the environment from 1954 to 1967. They detonated thousands of nerve and mustard gas rockets and germ and gas‑laden artillery shells and mines. At one point hundreds of nerve gas rockets were stored on top of a frozen lake and forgotten for years. One drop of the gas is fatal to humans, and several of the rockets had leaked by the time the lake was drained.
Although the Clean Up Alaska program in 1970 “sanitized” the site by burying some 2,000 tons of chemical munitions in landfills, the records of the testing program disappeared. The Army attempted to transfer the range to the Bureau of Land Management, but, fearing as‑yet unexploded munitions among other environmental concerns, BLM refused to accept jurisdiction. Now, a plan to place a layer of missiles on top of that layer of unexploded bombs in the middle of Alaska is pending.
The people of Delta find their fate inexorably linked to that of neighboring Fort Greely, which is slated for decommissioning should National Missile Defense deployment be ruled out. The base has historically provided them with much more than simple economic security. In addition to the infectious diseases released in their backyard, the Army used Fort Greely as a test site for the world's first field‑built nuclear reactor. Active from 1962‑1972, the "transitional test facility" first diluted its low‑level, liquid radioactive waste and dumped it into Jarvis Creek, which flows into the Tanana River near Delta. Upon discovering that the glacial creek was frozen over for eight months of the year, the Engineer Reactors Group poured it down a well into the aquifer shared by the neighboring community. Although regulations required the waste to be heavily diluted (one part waste to one million parts water), instances occurred when workers dumped over 5,000 gallons of waste diluted at approximately one part waste to two parts water. Houses in Delta along Jarvis Creek earned the name "Cancer Row."
A “national sacrifice zone” is unofficial military designation these days for tracts of land polluted beyond any possible future use. The same words have historically been used to describe areas of Alaska devoted to national security projects. That effort to provide security has resulted in what the Pentagon and Department of Energy now acknowledge is "the toxic legacy left by our nation's military infrastructure [that] may well constitute the largest and most serious environmental threat to this country." Protection from this threat, however, is too costly and dangerous to implement. Of all the federal departments facing this dilemma, the Department of Defense is by far the worst offender. Cleanup of past decades of war by‑products and waste is complicated by the fact that the Pentagon, by its own estimate, produces 500,000 tons of toxic waste per year (roughly one ton per minute). These problems, according to military environmental journalist Seth Shulman, are exacerbated by the military’s lack of civilian oversight, penchant for secrecy, and the "overarching importance placed in its 'national security' mission." “We’re in the business of protecting the nation, not protecting the environment,” says the military.
National interest in anti‑nuclear campaigns flagged with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Promoters of National Missile Defense claim, however, that the relative stability of the Cold War has been replaced by rising tensions as nuclear technology and hardware proliferate in rogue nations. Although a few dissenters from Alaska's military build‑up do exist, opposition to defense projects is difficult when such a large portion of the economy depends on federal funding. Recent hearings in communities affected by National Missile Defense showed overwhelming local enthusiasm for the project.
Should Alaskan environmentalist and anti‑nuclear forces (all six of us) organize to raise awareness of the threats a national missile shield might pose to our land and our common future, they would not be an "extremist fringe minority.” In opposition to National Missile Defense, Alaskans would ally with the Federation of American Scientists and its high proportion of Nobel Laureates. They would also share concerns with the Council for a Livable World, the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Third Millennium Foundation. They would join in demands for peaceful negotiations and diplomatic conflict resolutions with the United Nations, our traditional European allies, and our close neighbors China and Russia.
Alaska and the world now find themselves in the paradoxical situation best described by President Eisenhower in 1958: "The problem with defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to protect from without.” As science has now determined beyond any reasonable doubt, the planet’s complex environment is interconnected and interdependent. Human beings and their activities pose the largest threat to its health.
In this sense, “national security” no longer exists. Security has become global. Survival does not depend on nationality. National missile defense perpetuates the dangerous illusion that nuclear weapons are usable. If American ideals of freedom and democracy become the fundamental beliefs of a globalized world, then the choice of a nuclear future for the planet should be decided by a free and democratic global community.
President Eisenhower's farewell message to the nation, January 17, 1961:
"...this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new to the American experience. The total influence‑‑economic, political, even spiritual‑‑is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal Government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so this is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of Government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military‑industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley said, in 1958:
"Meanwhile there is still some freedom left in the world..some of us believe that without freedom a human being cannot become fully human, and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them."
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