Project Chariot


The following article orginally appeared in Proceedings of the U.S. Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, Workshop on Arctic Contamination, May 2-7, 1993, Anchorage, Alaska, volume 6, Arctic Research of the United States, Spring, 1994, pp9-12.
[See section 3 and 4 for information on Project Chariot]


The Environmental Legacy of the Cold War

U.S. Senator Frank H. Murkowski

I wish to thank the Interagency Committee, the National Science Foundation, and the community of Arctic scientists for convening this workshop on Arctic contamination.

Back when we wrote the Arctic Research and Policy Act, ‹the Act that chartered the Interagency Committee and created the Arctic Research Commission, ‹noboy envisioned that you'd have to deal with widespread Arctic environmental contamination. But I commend you and the Commission for taking the subject very seriously.

On behalf of all Alaskans, I also want to thank you for convening this workshop here in Alaska, in view of those with a great stake in the issue.

Arctic contamination is one environmental legacy of the Cold War. If the Cold War can be likened to a wild party, ‹then we've reached the morning after. It's time to wake up, look around, survey the damage, and clean up the mess.

Some of the mess is in our own backyard, ‹but the situation looks far worse when we look next door to our Russian neighbors.

Last August, we convened a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Commitiee in Fairbanks highlighting environmental problems in the Former Soviet Union. It was the first and only time that this Committee ever held a field hearing, and one of the very few tim es it has convened hearings fully open to the public.

At the hearing we heard Robert Gates, then the Director of Central Intelligence, paint a picture of Russia's deteriorating environmental situation. We also heard Assistant Secretary of State Buff Bohlen stress the importance of the Arctic and the need fo r an international long-term environmental monitoring program in the Arctic.

Finally, we heard an international panel of scientists agree that we may face serious environmental problems in the Arctic, and that we need more information to assess risks and determine a course of action.

Since that time, we have indeed learned a little more. Some of our fears have been confirmed.

Let's focus for a moment on just one aspect of Arctic contamination - Soviet and Russian ocean dumping of radioactive waste. A "White Paper" commissioned by President Yelsin released on March 23rd revealed:

* Solid radioactive wastes were dumped at 12 sites, including 4 sites in the Russian Far East.
* Liquid radioactive wastes were dumped at 5 sites in the Barents Sea and 9 sites in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, and in the Pacific high seas.
* The solid waste includes 18 reactors, 6 with nuclear fuel.
* The radioactivity associated with this dumping is estimated at 2.4 million curies. (For the sake of comparison, the accident at Three Mile Island released 15 curies. The Chernobyl disaster released an estimated 65 million curies.)

The 2.4 million curies reported to be dumped is twice the radioactivity that the International Atomic Energy Agency had estimated was dumped by all nations during the entire nuclear age.

But that 2.4 million curies is just part of the raclioactive contamination threatening the Arctic.

* It doesn't include radioactive materials from nuclear activities at Chelybinsk and Tomsk that move into the Arctic through the great northward-flowing Russian rivers.
* It doesn' t include radioactivity released from nuclear testing and accidental releases;
* It doesn't include potential releases from future accidents, reactor decommissioning, and nuclear weapons disposal.

Russian scientists have quietly told me that as much as two billion curies of radioactive waste might reach the environment as a result of past practices in the Former Soviet Union; so there may be distressing nuclear revelations in our future if this con tamination is released into the environment, enters the food chain, and affects our health.

And of course, as the organizers of this workshop have aptly recognized, radioactivity is only one of the potential contaminants that threaten the Arctic. We need to be concerned about industrial pollution, heavy metals and persistent organic chemicals as well.

The impacts of environmental practices in the Former Soviet Union are already apparent:

* The air is unfit to breathe in 103 cities, home to 70 million people. In the Siberian city of Norilsk, the air is so polluted that children must be kept indoors 90 days per year.
* Seventy-five percent of their surface water is polluted. Several of the large Russian rivers that flow into the Arctic, the Ob, Lena, Yenisey, are highly polluted.
* A major inland sea, the Aral, is turning to desert. Once larger than Lake Huron, the Aral has shrunk by two-thirds. It is the site of so much contamination that mothers in the area cannot breast-feed their children without the risk of poisoning them.
* Life expectancy is falling. Average life expectancy among men in the Soviet Union fell from 66.1 years in 1965 to 62.3 years in 1981. In Anchorage's sister city of Magadan, the rate of death caused by cancer has increased by 73% over the past 10 years. Air pollution in Magadan over that same period has more than doubled. There may be a relationship.
* Infant mortality is rising, estimated by some to be 33 per thousand or higher, a rate comparable to some third-world countries. Even for the children who make it past their first year, good health is difficult to attain. Delegates to the 19th Part Confe rence in Moscow were told that 53% of all Soviet schoolchildren were in poor health. In 1988, two out of every five young men who reported for compulsory military duty in Russia were unfit to serve for health reasons.

Will we see a decline in public health in the broader Arctic from environmental contamination? Unfortunately, we don't yet know. We are still just scratching the surface. We must undertake the sustained scientific program that will answer our questions an d address our fears about Arctic contamination.

As we move ahead, there are several guiding responsibilities to keep in mind: First, we have an obligation to be open and honest with the public at all times. This includes establishing a standard of honesty about the sources of Arctic contamination that may exist in our own backyard.

If this requires opening up old U.S. Department of Defense or other government files to public and scientific scrutiny, then we must do it. We are asking the Russians to open many of their files to the world, and we must be willing to do the same.

Second, environmental contamination, particularly the nuclear variety, provokes great emotion. We must base our decisions on sound science rather than emotion.

Finally, we have an obligation to take advantage of unique opportunities that have come with the end of the Cold War‹particularly those that will allow us to work alongside our new Russian friends and Arctic neighbors.

I'd like to talk about each of these responsibilities and obligations in some detail.

The Need for Openness

This workshop is a continuation of the process we began with the Intelligence hearing in Fairbanks last year. It is a process of honest inquiry, conducted in public.

Traveling in rural Alaska, and listening to those who subsist from the living resources of the land and sea, I've found great concern and fear that subsistence resources are or will become contaminated from radioactivity or other pollutants.

These fears are not solely focused on what may lie across the Bering Strait in Russia‹fears also exist where there are DEW-line sites, old "White Alice" sites, and other formerly used U.S. defense sites here in Alaska.

According to the Department of Defense, there are 648 Alaskan sites in the Defense Environmental Restoration Program. More than 150 are judged to require some level of cleanup. This cleanup will take 50 years at the current rate.

More recently the Department of Defense issued an interim report listing sites at Fort Greely, Fort Wainwright, Adak, Dutch Harbor and Attu where chemical weapons were or may have been tested, stored or discarded.

Alaskans rightfully demand to know what effects, if any, these past activities have had or may yet have on the environment and resources on which we depend. Where cleanup is required, it should be undertaken without undue delay.

I have asked the Department of Defense for a comprehensive evaluation of its past activities with past or potential environmental impacts on Alaska, adjacent seas, and the Arctic as a whole. I will continue these efforts to bring information from the Depa rtment of Defense into the public arena ‹ for a full evaluation by the scientific community and the public.

Project Chariot

Let me turn to Project Chariot, because it has been widely cited as an example of Arctic contamination in our own backyard.

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 disposed of at the site.

When news of these disposed radioactive tracers broke, the headlines told of a nuclear waste "dump." The worst fears of the local people living near Cape Thompson were awakened. I went to Point Hope, a nearby village, and listened to people express their fears. They are absolutely certain that there is a link between the contaminated soil and the cancerexperienced by some residents‹even though all available medical and scientific evidence suggests otherwise.

A cleanup effort to remove the contaminated soil is now underway, in the hope that cleanup will occur this summer. Admittedly the cleanup is not occurring because of the risk posed by the contamination; it is occurring because the local people demand it.

In this case their demand can be justified because they were not told about the tracer experiments at the time of the tests. It is easy to understand why they are skeptical of government assurances that they face no threat.

- So this case is one involving public trust, not environmental risk. Last year the Secretary of Energy promised that the contamination would be removed if that's what the local people wanted. So I will see that this promise is kept. It's what we must do to try and regain public trust.

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.

Other Cold War Leftovers

Let me give you another example of past Cold War activities we recently came across that may evoke a great deal of public concern.

Last week my staff, digging through old Project Chariot documents, came across a report stating that more than 7000 pounds of nitromethane - a liquid chemical explosive - were dumped on the tundra when the Project Chariot site was closed down.

I'm no scientist - I don't know the environmental consequences of this dumping. Perhaps it all evaporated and poses no risk. But we are determined to find out and provide the truth to the people who live nearby.

There was another perplexing rumor we encountered in following up on Project Chariot: The allegation that Alaska Natives were used in "nuclear experiments" during the 1950s. These stories were repeated to me and my staff on several occasions.

Many of us recall the general climate of the Cold War in the late 1940s and 1950s. As Project Chariot illustrates, it was a time when we actually considered using nuclear detonations to build harbors. It was also a time when military scientists performed medical experiments on human subjects, the worst of which studied the effects of radiation and chemical weapons on humans.

Significant numbers of Americans participated; some thought it was their patriotic duty, and others were just following orders.

Given the nature of those times, it seemed entirely possible that similar experiments might have occurred in Alaska. So when confronted with these rumors of medical experiments on human subjects, we took them seriously.

Recently we obtained a document from 1957 that outlined how the Air Force's Arctic Aeromedical Lab at Ladd Air Force Base had a complete mobile isotopic lab used in remote areas of Alaska. In one study the Air Force apparently gave doses of iodine-131 to Eskimos and Athabascan Indians, as part of its research to see if soldiers and airmen could be better conditioned to adapt and fight in cold conditions.

Of course, this revelation raises all kinds of questions:

* How were the participants recruited? * Did the research pose a risk to the participants? * Were the human participants in this research told of the risks, if any existed? * Was there any followup done to determine if there were long-term effects? * Was the mobile isotopic lab used for other studies?

It may turn out that this is a case where there were no human risks; but the burden of proof is with those responsible for the experiments.

In keeping with the responsibilities of openness I outlined earlier, we need to find the truth.

As a first step I have asked independent experts at the National Academy of Sciences to provide an evaluation.

What Do We Do Now?

So what do we do now about the broader problems of Arctic contamination?

This workshop is a start. Your job is to assess the extent and magnitude of Arctic contamination and the risks it poses.

Granted, there are limits to how well you can do this from an auditorium in Anchorage rather than a research ship or station in the field. But this step will be worth it if we follow up with the required field research to answer questions we can't answer today.

We need a sustained, comprehensive long-term environmental monitoring program that samples key marine organisms, including species used for human subsistence. The results of this research should be made available to the public in a form they can understan d. This will help inform them and allay unwarranted fears.

We do not yet have an Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program in place, and the President's FY 1994 budget has insufficient resources to do the job. That is unfortunate. I hope the agencies aren't engaged in the old Washington game of low-balling the bud get request with the expectation that a sympathetic Congress will add money during the appropriations cycle. While we were able to find $10 million last year to enhance scientific understanding of the nuclear contamination issue‹that was something of a lucky break in this budget environment.

I am encouraged, however, by what I hear coming out of an interagency review of U.S. Arctic Policy, and hope that the commitment to a sustained Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) carries the day.

After the Clinton Administration has unveiled its new Arctic policy, I will press for hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. International Arctic environmental contamination will be a key subject of that hearing‹perhaps we can build on what y ou're able to accomplish this week.

To summarize. . . nuclear waste dumps, contaminated defense sites, improperly disposed chemical weapons and other contaminants are dark legacies of the Cold War. Like any war, the Cold War exacted a price.

In saying that, I don't diminish the Cold War's tremendously positive outcomes‹the greater democracy and freedom made possible around the world by the sacrifices made during that conflict.

Butif the old Cold Warriors were generals and diplomats brandishing swords, then perhaps the new Post Cold Warriors are scientists equipped with the tools of Arctic research.

We committed talent, treasure and technical innovation to fight the Cold War. We must now employ the same to assess the damage and undertake the cleanup where it's warranted. I appreciate your willingness to rise to this challenge. We are counting on you, and I will look forward to hearing the conclusions you reach this week and beyond.