The Nuclear Legacy of Project Chariot Part II

Project Chariot:

The Nuclear Legacy of Cape Thompson, Alaska:

Part Two

...One of the [Project Chariot] studies performed was called the "tracer experiment" in which radioactive materials from a Nevada test site were applied to small plots in the Ogotoruk Creek basin. These plots were then spinkled with water and the resulting runoff was analyzed to determine the dispersion of the radioactive material throughout the area. At the conclusion of the experiment, the soil at the test plots was dug up and buried in a single mound near the junction of Snowbank and Ogotoruk Creeks.

The site was used by the Department of the Navy as a logistical support base for the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory from 1965 to 1970. In 1980, the area became part of the Chukchi Sea Unit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and is now known as the Cape Thompson Subunit.

In August of 1992, Dan O'Neill, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks researcher, obtained recently declassified documents and letters describing the burial of soil contaminated with radioactive materials. Following this public disclosure, the former AEC, now the Department of Energy, assumed responsibility for the cleanup of this contaminated soil. The process was completed in 1994.

Douglas L. Vandegraft
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Part Two of this case study addresses the results of a 1990s investigation of contaminated radioactive soil left at the Chariot site thirty years previously. The 'postscript' describes a serious violation of medical ethics ocurring in the late 1950s, when the Inupiat and other Alaskan Natives were injected with radioactive Iodine 131 without their knowledge of the possible risks involved. This experiment was undertaken as part of a U.S. military research project to determine whether soldiers "could be better conditioned to fight in cold conditions."

We, the Inupiat of Point Hope, have the ability to face the arrogant policies of the former Atomic Energy Commission and its Project Chariot. We will not be willing vicitms for the genocidal and inhuman policies of the Nuclear Energy Commission.

Press Release, Village of Point Hope, Alaska, October 17, 1992

By now most are aware of Project Chariot, a project dating from the 1950s that envisioned the use of nuclear detonations to build a harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska. This was part of the old Plowshare or "Atoms for Peace" program. Although the nuclear detonations were never carried out, 26 millicuries of radioactive tracers left over from ecological experiments were deposed of at the site. When news of these disposed radioactive tracers broke, the headlines told of a nuclear waste "dump." The worst fea rs of the local people living near Cape Thompson were awakened....

The Project Chariot episode, while apparently not a serious human or environmental threat, is a case study that we can learn from: It demonstrates the need to be completely truthful with the public. It provides a preview of the public reaction we may face as new sources of Arctic contamination are uncovered."

U.S. Senator Frank H. Murkowski, speaking at the Workshop on Arctic Contamination, Anchorage, Alaska, May 3, 1993.

The Legacy of Project Chariot

After the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] was dissuaded from exploding their thermonuclear bombs at Ogotoruk Valley in 1962, AEC scientists decided to bring fresh radioactive fallout to Alaska drawn from an earlier thermonuclear explosion at the large Nev ada test site. In August of 1962 approximately 26 milliCuries (mCi) of isotopes and mixed fission products were transported to the Chariot location and buried. As later reported by Douglas Vandegraft (1993) of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Srvice, this included a maximum of: 10 mCi of mixed fission products, 6 mCi of Cesium 137, 5 mCi of Iodine 131, and 5 mCi of Strontium 185. All together, this represented 17.5 pounds of sediment, sand, and dust along with small "segregated quan tities" of Iodine 131, Strontium 85, and Cesium 137, mixed with sand.

The experiment was basically designed to determine "the dispersal, in an hydrologic environment, of radioactive products from a buried nuclear explosive." In so doing, it would answer a question the AEC had earlier posed to the United States Geological S urvey (USGS): Would the bombs contaminate local drinking water? The response of the USGS was that "under some situations, effects...could be substantial and a serious handicap to Man's activities." After these amounts of radioactive fallout were placed in measured plots of ground at Ogotoruk Valley, the ground was watered to simulate rainfall.

In his report on the Project Chariot, Douglas Vandegraft (1993) stated that "The scientists had used Iodine 131, Strontium 85, and Cesium 137 which were not permitted according to the USGS license, and the quantities of radioactive isotopes buried in the mound were larger than permitted - perhaps as much as 1,000 times more strontium and cesium as allowed by federal regulations. Also, the BLM permit to the AEC did not allow the use of radioactive materials."

When questioned about this, Arthur Baker, acting Director of the USGS in Washington, D.C., responded that the radioactive material had been dispersed to harmless background levels, and "the extreme cold coupled with the permafrost in the area causes distu rbed ground to freeze solid early in the winter and to remain frozen...It is our opinion that...this material does not constitute a hazard."

In 1992, Dan O'Neill, a researcher at the University of Alaska, learned about this burial from recently declassified Department of Energy documents. Shortly thereafter, the burial mound was excavated. At the two foot level, radiation counters detected low levels of radiation. At this point, Inupiat leaders from Point Hope and the North Slope Borough demanded immediate action to remove radioactive materials from the site. Native residents of Point Hope were particularly angry - in part because that village had experienced a high rate of cancer related deaths in the past 30 years. Further studies undertaken by the federal and state governments concluded that no hazard existed. However, if the Natives of Arctic Alaska insisted, all radioactive material would be removed.

Jessie Kaleak, mayor of the North Slope Borough, responded: "We Alaskans believe this action is the very least the government can do. [However] The plan doesn't address health issues and the monitoring of our oceans and land and marine animals. That is s omething we pushed for and we are not going to give up on it."

Shortly thereafter, at a considerable expense, all the radioactive components were removed from the buried site. The health and monitoring of oceans, land, and marine animals issues raised by Mayor Kaleak have yet to be thoroughly addressed.

Additional References Pertaining to Project Chariot

Postscript: The Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory's Thyroid Function Study.

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