The Nuclear Legacy of Project Chariot - Part I

Project Chariot:

The Nuclear Legacy of Cape Thompson, Alaska

Norman Chance

"In 1957, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] established the 'Plowshare Program' to "investigate and develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosives." In early 1958, the AEC selected a site at the mouth of the Ogotoruk Creek near Cape Thompson, approximately 30 miles southeast of the Inupiat Eskimo village of Point Hope. Shortly thereafter, they developed plans for an experimental harbor excavation to be called Project Chariot. Late in 1962, after extensive scientific studies, the AEC announced that it "would defer further consideration of the proposed Chariot experiment," due in part to public criticism....

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

Part One of this case study traces the process of events from the initial design of Project Chariot to its cancellation in 1962.

Part Two addresses recent developments stemming from a 1990s investigation of contaminated radioactive soil that had been left at the site thirty years previously. Also included is a Postscript analyzing allega tions that without their knowledge, the Inupiat and other Alaskan Natives were injected with radioactive iodine/131 in the 1950s as part of a U.S. military research project to determine whether soldiers "could be better conditioned to fight in cold condit ions."

Part One

[There was] a general atmosphere and attitude that the American people could not be trusted with the uncertainities, and therefore the information was withheld from them. I think there was concern that the American people, given the facts, would not make the right risk-benefit judgments.

Peter Libassi, Chairman, Interagency Task Force on the Health Effects of Ionizing Radiation

We should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems, and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have the right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Albert Einstein, Scientist


In recent decades, increasing numbers of people have expressed concern about threats to the natural environment of the Arctic. In the 1970s, sharp criticism followed the above ground nuclear bomb tests by the People's Republic of China; tests which result ed in an eight-fold increase in radioactive pollution of Alaskan lichens, affecting the caribou that ate them; and a year later, the inland Inupiat Eskimo subsistence hunters.

In the 1980s, international research was initiated to study the growing problem of Arctic haze, a form of atmospheric pollution that absorbs light from the sun and thereby alters the temperature of Arctic air, a significant determinant of weather conditions throughout the globe. In the spring of 1989, the worst oil spill in American history occurred in Alaska's Prince William Sound when the tanker Exxon Valdez went aground spilling more that 10 million gallons of North Shore crude oil in the sea and surrounding shoreline.

In the 1990s, even greater concern was expressed over the production of humanmade chemicals that have affected the Arctic's atmospheric ozone layer, vital to protecting organisms from lethal violet rays. Such threats to the Arctic environment continue to carry implications not only for those living in the North, but for peoples throughout the globe.

In Arctic Circle's presentation on Northern Development and the Global Economy, I addressed some of the key factors promoting this environmental degradation - concluding with the proposition that economic growth cannot indefinitely be sustained on a finite planet. Hence, the wisest course of action would be to distinguish between growth and development in which the latter represents an improvement in the quality of life without necessarily increasing the quantity of resources consumed.

However, at that time, I said little about the environmental injustice inflicted on northern Native peoples stemming the degradation to their homelands in the wake of recent development practices. Nor did I actively discuss the role played by governents in this degradation. This omission is addressed in the following case study. Indeed, the story of Project Chariot provides an immensely powerful illustration of how governments, caught up in the social and political events of the time, can act in ways that are highly detrimental to the Arctic and its peoples. It is also a portrayal of resistance, courage, and eventual success. Perhaps most important is the implicit quesion it poses: To what extent are the underlying political motivations and social forces present at that time still with us today?

The Problem - Part I

One afternoon in early August of 1958, while standing on the bluff overlooking the Beaufort Sea, an Inupiat Eskimo from Kaktovik, Alaska watched as an umiaq with two men in it pointed their skin boat toward the village from the northwest. Propelled by a large outboard motor, it slowly made its way past the lagoon, eventually reaching the shoreline directly in front of the small settlement. A tall, well-built man then leapt from the bow and, with anchor in hand, deftly drove its point firmly into the sand. Joined by the other Inupiaq, both men began unloading food and supplies on to the beach. Soon, the visitors were surrounded by excited villagers of all ages, many of whom greeted them with considerable enthusiasm. Stories had been circulating for some time that two people from Point Hope were planning to make the long journey north to Barrow and then 300 miles along the Beaufort Sea to Kaktovik. One of these expected voyagers was Dan Lisburne, a well-known leader from Point Hope. Now, he and his partner had finally arrived.

Situated at the end of a long spit of land projecting out into the Chukchi Sea 125 miles above the Arctic Circle, Point Hope was the farthest west from Kaktovik of any Inupiat settlement on the North Slope. It also had a well-deserved reputation as a close-knit community with strong leadership and local spirit. Lisburne had taken the trip partly for enjoyment; but more significantly, he wanted to share his experiences and learn those of other villagers living along the Arctic coast. One issue discussed with the Kaktovik Inupiat concerned problems the latter were facing following the forced relocations of their village by the Air Force. Of greater long range concern was the withdrawal of 4500 acres of land for a military reserve - an area encompassing the entire surface of Barter Island including the village and cemetery. As one local villager described the event later on: "No one knew what this was about, or why. We were just told to move. "If I had known English then, as I do now, I would have fought to keep the village. We got nothing for having to move. It was not fair of them to do this."

While in Kaktovik, Dan Lisburne shared a similar apprehension about the possibility of the government taking over land south of Point Hope. This concern had arisen two months earlier, after several Inupiat returned home from a hunting trip to Ogotoruk Creek, 30 miles southeast of the village. Lisburne indicated that the Ogotoruk Creek valley was an important hunting ground for Point Hope people, providing them with large numbers of caribou. While in the area, the Inupiat had come across government scientists undertaking a local survey. When asked what they were doing, the surveyors informed the hunters they were engaged in geologic research for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission [AEC].

Not knowing why scientists from the AEC were interested in Ogotoruk Creek, the Point Hope residents were curious. This curiosity eventually turned to anxiety as rumors began spreading that Ogotoruk Creek had been chosen by the AEC as the site for the detonation of a large nuclear bomb. Although precise information was unavailable, the rumors appeared to be true. The Atomic Energy Commission was indeed actively exploring the detonation of a massive atomic device. The blast, expected to be 100 times more powerful than the one at Hiroshima, was tenatively scheduled to take place in 1962. Ground Zero was Ogotoruk Creek, 31.5 miles southeast of the Inupiat village of Point Hope.

Partly in response to broad popular opposition to the hazards of above ground testing of atomic weapons by both the U.S. and the USSR, the AEC had decided it could improve its public image by establishing a new program called `Operation Plowshare' - drawing on the biblical narrative in which swords were beaten into plowshares. From this "peaceful use of the atom" suggested the AEC, would come "a new age of atomic progress." The Program was formally inaugurated on June 19, 1957. Still, no specific plan had as yet emerged.

Then, in October of that year, following Russia's space launch of Sputnik I, the American scientific community came under considerable pressure to achieve a major technological accomplishment of its own. At the University of California's Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, scientists responded by recommending to the AEC that earth excavation offered the "highest probability of early beneficial success" in the Plowshare Program.

Actively supporting the proposal, Dr. Edward Teller, 'father of the hydrogen bomb' and director of the Radiation Laboratory, suggested that the AEC detonate a 2.4 megaton atomic device on the northwest coast of Alaska in the region of Cape Thompson. Such an explosion would create a deep water hole to be used as a harbor for the eventual shipment of coal, oil, and other non-renewable resources thought to exist along this part of the coast.

Teller en route to the Project Chariot site

[Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory photo]

After exploring several other possibilities, the AEC accepted Teller's proposal and on June 9th, 1958 publically gave it a name - `Project Chariot.' Four days previously, unknown to the people of Point Hope and other nearby Inupiat villages, Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the AEC, had requested the withdrawal from the public domain of 1600 square miles of land and water in the area of Cape Thompson - including land villagers had earlier sought under the Alaska Native Allotment Act.

That summer, while scientists were surveying the area surrounding Cape Thompson, nuclear physicist Teller and others connected with the AEC and California's Lawrence Radiation Laboratory made speeches in Alaskan cities pointing out the financial benefits the state would receive from the multi-million dollar investment of federal funds. Further assuring his audiences, Teller told them that "The blast will not be performed until it can be economically justified."

Gaining support of the press, Teller and his associates were less successful in getting a positive endorsement by the state's financial leaders. Some were doubtful of the commercial viability of mineral deposits thought to be available along the coast. Others rejected the idea that a harbor was needed to ship out whatever minerals were found. Still other dissenters associated with the science faculty of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, concerned citizens, environmentalists, and a few government officials, were more vocal in their criticism of the blast itself and its implications for the safety of the people and wildlife of the region.

But Dan Lisburne and other Inupiat leaders from Point Hope, Noatak and Kivalina, the villages closest to the proposed blast, were not directly informed and thus remained largely ignorant about the plan. It wasn't until the spring of 1959, after watching a local movie, that Point Hope residents were called to an impromptu meeting by a visiting missionary from Kotzebue and told the rumor about the blast was true.

Although AEC officials excluded Inupiat villagers from early discussions about Project Chariot, they did continue to promote it before Alaska's financial community and state legislature - knowing their support was essential to its successful implementation. After holding numerous discussions with public officials and private industrial leaders, the Commission eventually succeeded in gaining approval from the state as well as Fairbanks and other city Chambers of Commerce. Plans for the detonation progressed.

Acknowledging the skepticism of those questioning the Project's accruing any commercial benefit, the AEC also shifted the basis of its argument for the detonation away from possible economic advantages toward the experimental - calling it a massive test in "geographical engineering." As John A. McCone, the AEC's newly appointed chairman testified before the U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, "We are seeking an alternative to the harbor in Alaska because, as I said to the committee once before, we couldn't find a customer for the harbor." Under the revised plan, presented in June of 1959, the Project's Environmental Studies Program director stated that an effort would be made " determine the effects of a nuclear explosion on the environment - its rock substrata, soils, atmosphere, and biota, including man."

In the fall, Don Charles Foote, a young geographer working under contract to the Environmental Studies Program of the AEC, was asked by Commission staff to explain what he knew of Project Chariot to the Point Hope village council.

But it was not until the spring of 1960 that official representatives of the Atomic Energy Commission came to the village to explain the details of the proposed blast. Foote described what happened in his follow-up report to the AEC:

To the detriment of the Commission and Project Chariot, the officials who spoke in March, 1960, made several statements which could not be substantiated in fact. Among other things the Point Hope people were told that the fish in and around the Pacific Proving Grounds were not made radioactive by nuclear weapons tests and [there would not be]... any danger to anyone if the fish were utilized; that the effects of nuclear weapons testing never injured any people, anywhere; that once the severely exposed Japanese people recovered from radiation sickness...there were no side effects; that the residents of Point Hope would not feel any seismic shock at all from Project Chariot; and that copies of the Environmental Program studies would be made immediately available to the Point Hope council upon the return of the AEC officials to California.

Foote's report went on to describe the AEC delegation's evaluation of how Project Chariot would affect the lives of the people of Point Hope. They were told that although there was no need to restrict the area where the men did their hunting, and that the detonation would occur at a time outside the normal caribou hunting cycle, it would be essential that hunters and dogs remain clear of "any remotely dangerous area;" and that it would be days, weeks, or months before hunters could pass through Ogotoruk Creek.

Finally, the residents were informed that, although the AEC would compensate them for damage to structures, there was little possibility, short of long and costly law suits, that awards could be made for personal or property damages. Still, a statement was made that some direct compensation would be forthcoming to the villagers prior to the explosion.

Not surprisingly, assurances that Chariot would not be a hazard to the subsistence way of life of the Point Hope Inupiat were sharply rejected by the village council. Immediately following the close of the meeting, the council voted unanimously to oppose detonation of the bomb. As Foote summarized the results of the meeting in his report of the event:

The net result of the first official presentation of Project Chariot to the people of Point Hope was to produce a profound lack of confidence in the sincerity of the AEC.

Shortly thereafter, protests became more widespread. William Pruitt and other scientists at the University of Alaska, along with those working within the AEC itself, pointed out that the tundra's "food chain" was peculiarly susceptible to radioactive fallout from recent atomic testing. Alaska's caribou, for example, were found to contain approximately seven times as much strontium 90 as the meat of domestic cattle in the southern part of the United States. This was because caribou fed on lichens, rootless plants deriving their nutriment from the dust in the air as it was carried down by rain and snow, thus directly absorbing the radioactive fallout before it became diluted in the soil.

Since the Inupiat ate the caribou, they already had a considerably greater intake of strontium 90 than any other Americans. Further above ground testing would only add to the already existing danger. The inland Inupiat of Anaktuvuk Pass, several hundred miles northeast of Cape Thompson, also spoke out sharply against additional testing. Located high in the Brooks Range, they relied more heavily on the caribou for their subsistence than any other Arctic villagers. In a plea to the outside world, Simon Paneak, head of the village council, noted that the radiation levels "...keep getting higher and higher, and we just don't know what to do."

Finally, on March 3rd, 1961, the Point Hope village health council wrote to President John Kennedy opposing the proposed chain explosion stating that such a detonation would be:

...too close to our hunting and fishing areas. We read about the cumulative and retained isotope burden in man that must be considered. We also know about strontium 90, how it might harm people if too much of it gets into our body...We are deeply concerned about the health of our people now and for the future that is coming.

The Inupiat of Point Hope and other North Alaskan villages all feared that the successful detonation of a large nuclear "device" at Cape Thompson would cause serious health hazards, immediately making the region and their way of life untenable. Within a year, Project Chariot was set aside by the AEC, due in large part to the rising chorus of protest mounted against the project by Alaska's northern Natives and many other organizations across the United States and throughout the world.

Additional Resources for Study

Assignment - Part I

Part II

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