The dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August of 1945 signified both the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Atomic Age and Cold War. The United States marshaled enormous resources and talents to develop nuclear weapons during the war. And once the war ended, the technology of course remained. Despite the original intent of the program, numerous people quickly came to believe that nuclear power could be used for alternative purposes besides as weapons. The investment in the Manhattan Project and subsequent research both seemed to hold great potential for peacetime uses of atomic energy.
The newly developed Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) founded the Plowshare Program, named for the biblical injunction to beat swords into plowshares. The Plowshare Program specifically sought alternative uses for nuclear technology. AEC scientists theorized that atomic bombs could be used to quickly and efficiently excavate land. With little thought to long-term implications of their tests or to the region's local inhabitants, in 1958 the AEC selected northwest Alaska in as one of the first test sites for peaceful uses of nuclear technology. They dubbed the plan Project Chariot. Project Chariot called for the construction of a deep water harbor at Point Thompson by detonating 2.4 megatons (later reduced to 280 kilotons) of thermonuclear devices.
Physicist Edward Teller headed Project Chariot. Known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, Teller was one of the foremost proponents of nuclear technology during the Cold War era. He became the face of Project Chariot in Alaska, assuring and reassuring people of the great benefits and low risk of nuclear land excavation. He argued that the majority of radioactive material resulting from the blasts would remain buried underground; in one instance, he insisted radiation exposure from Project Chariot would not amount to any more than people already received from their wristwatches. If the risks were low, he argued, the benefits were high: the proposed harbor would significantly aid Alaska's economic development.
As the plans for Project Chariot developed, the effects of radiation from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and from nuclear tests in places such as the south Pacific were becoming increasingly apparent to the public at large. Despite growing evidence of the harmful effects of nuclear detonations, the AEC continued to reassure the public of the relatively benign nature of the technology. Nevertheless, in choosing a site for their test, Teller and the other Project Chariot scientists knew the area selected must be remote and sparsely populated. Thus, they selected the Alaskan coast, specifically Cape Thompson above the Arctic Circle. They believed the mouth of Otogoruk Creek on the Cape afforded the ideal place to construct their harbor.
Teller and other AEC representatives traveled to Alaska in the summer of 1958 to announce Project Chariot in the cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Few questioned the goal of aiding the territory's economic growth and fewer still wondered about nuclear fallout. Initially, Project Chariot enjoyed general support where the AEC scientists had presented their plan. Teller and company did not travel to Cape Thompson, nor did they have any discussions with Inupiat people who lived as close as thirty miles from proposed ground zero. The only opposition the AEC faced was in Fairbanks, where several University of Alaska professors questioned the impact of Project Chariot. In response, the AEC agreed to hire several biologists, botanists, and others to conduct studies of Cape Thompson's environment before the planned explosions.
As the University of Alaska researchers worked over the next couple of years, some of them became increasingly alarmed about the potential harm Project Chariot would have on the delicate tundra environment. Biologists Leslie Viereck and William Pruitt especially criticized Project Chariot and both eventually lost their jobs at the university as a result of their vocal opposition. The AEC also independently hired geographer Don Charles Foote to map the area and research Inupiat uses of the land. Foote similarly became one of Project Chariot's most outspoken critics. The warnings these men issued about Project Chariot ultimately led to the founding of the Alaskan Conservation Society in 1960.
Perhaps the most vociferous opponents of Project Chariot were the Inupiat inhabitants of the Cape Thompson region. The Point Hope community in particular challenged the AEC's plan. Don Foote lived and worked in Point Hope while conducting his research and worked closely with village council president David Frankson and other community leaders to stop Chariot. Their challenges finally forced AEC representatives -- Teller not among them -- to tour Native villages in northwest Alaska in 1960 in attempt to assuage concerns about the project. The meeting at Point Hope, however, left many in the community feeling increasingly uneasy about the project. The Inupiat were politically active and astute observers of the outside world, including nuclear technology, testing, and its results. They were not easily intimidated. Ultimately, the village council contacted the Association of American Indian Affairs to ask for their help. They also reached out to other Inupiat communities to form regional organizations in defense of their common interests. Thus, Project Chariot inadvertently gave impetus to statewide political organization of Alaska Natives.
Subsistence resources were among the Inupiat's main concerns. Point Hope is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. Living for thousands of years there, the people had effectively learned to use available resources. As whale hunters, Inupiat depended largely on sea mammals for their survival. But they also hunted caribou on the land and gathered murre eggs from the steep cliffs on Cape Thompson to supplement their diet and add variety. If those food sources and others were disturbed or poisoned, the local Inupiat could no longer survive. Their lives and livelihood depended on defeating Project Chariot.
In the face of relentless protests at numerous levels, the AEC quietly suspended Project Chariot in 1962 and finally canceled it altogether in 1963. Press releases cited Project Sedan as the main reason for canceling Chariot. Sedan was a test explosion at the Nevada nuclear testing grounds in 1962; the AEC claimed that they gained crucial information about nuclear land excavation from Sedan, averting the need to continue with Project Chariot. The Sedan shot, according to author Dan O'Neill, was buried 635 feet beneath the ground, moved 10 million tons of earth, and left a crater 1280 feet across and 320 feet deep. This test was 1/3 the size of the smallest planned tonnage for Project Chariot.
Alaska -- Cape Thompson in particular -- thus avoided such immediate physical destruction as well as any long term impacts of nuclear excavation experimentation. However, Project Chariot did indeed yield at least two long-lasting results for Alaskans, albeit nothing that the AEC planners and scientists intended. The project has been credited with originating the environmental movement in Alaska and with contributing to Alaska Natives' political power within the state. The Alaska Conservation Society, for example, originated in opposition to Project Chariot. Alaska Natives also began to consider their collective rights in the state with the debate over Project Chariot. Inupiat representatives from numerous villages met in Barrow in 1961 for the first Native Rights conference, largely prompted by their resistance to the AEC's plan. That meeting ultimately influenced the founding of the Tundra Times newspaper and other similar Native meetings throughout the state. These nascent organizations subsequently merged and became the Alaska Federation of Natives, which continues to be an important and influential Native voice. Without an explosion, Project Chariot nonetheless shaped Alaska history.
For further reading:
O'Neill, Dan. The Firecracker Boys: H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement.
"The Nuclear Legacy of Project Chariot." www.arcticcircle.uconn.edu/SEEJ/chariotseej.html
United States Committee on Environmental Studies for Project Chariot. United States Atomic Energy Commission Division of Technical Information. Environment of the Cape Thompson Region, Alaska.
James, Elizabeth. ""Towards Alaska Native Political Organization: The Origins of the Tundra Times." Western Historical Quarterly, forthcoming.