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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Nuclear Plowshare

Air Date: Week of

John McWhorter of Alaska Public Radio reports on a 1950's plan by the Federal government to use nuclear bombs to blast a harbor in the Alaskan coastline. Radioactive waste from the aborted project was recently discovered near the proposed site.


CURWOOD: On the far northwest coast of Alaska, a radioactive waste dump was recently discovered in Native hunting grounds. What set Geiger counters clicking was leftovers from a nearly-forgotten experiment -- an experiment linked to a plan to explode thermonuclear bombs. It turns out that, back in the 1950's, the Federal Government planned to use H-bombs for massive civilian excavations, and the first such project called for a deep harbor to be blasted out of the coast near Point Hope, Alaska. As John McWhorter of Alaska Public Radio reports, the project was never done, but its mastermind, atomic scientist Edward Teller, still has faith in the idea.

McWHORTER: The atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 showed the world the awesome and deadly power of nuclear explosions. But in the years after winning that war, some scientists in the US and the Soviet Union turned their attention toward harnessing the power of nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes. In the US, that effort became known as Project Ploughshare . . . and its chief proponent was Edward Teller. Teller was involved in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb, and would go on to become the main backer of President Reagan's Star Wars missile defense system. In 1959, Teller travelled to Alaska to promote the virtues of the peaceful use of atomic explosions.

TELLER: The nuclear explosions can be used to blast harbors in otherwise inaccessible coasts, to engage in the great art of what I want to call geographical engineering -- to reshape the land to your pleasure and indeed to break up the rocks and make them yield up their riches.

McWHORTER: Teller's first test for Ploughshare was Project Chariot, a plan to create a harbor in the remote coast of Northwest Alaska. Dan O'Neil is a researcher at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks who is writing a book about Chariot.

O'NEIL: The plan was to detonate six thermonuclear bombs, H-bombs, totalling 2.4 megatons. It would have been equivalent to 40 percent of all the firepower expended in World War II and it would have blasted this keyhole-shaped harbor up near Point Hope, and the sea would rush in and there would be this instant harbor.

McWHORTER: O'Neil says Chariot was promoted as an economic development project for the brand-new state of Alaska, and he says the project quickly caught the attention of the state's opinion leaders. The state's Chambers of Commerce endorsed it, as did the University of Alaska administration and the state's two largest newspapers.

Alaska has long been targeted for big projects. In a videotaped interview with O'Neil, British environmental historian Peter Coates says promoters of megaprojects have gained consent by combining the frontier image with economic development.

COATES: They sold the image of Alaska as a pioneer land inhabited by pioneer people back to Alaskans. We see this with Edward Teller advocating Project Chariot. He comes up to Alaska and talks about big people living in big states. What is more, big people in big states tend to be fearless. They're receptive to change. They aren't as cautious as people in more settled regions.

McWHORTER: But not everyone signed on to the deal. O'Neil says a group from Point Hope, a village 30 miles from the proposed blast site, joined forces with some conservationists and biologists in Fairbanks who also opposed Chariot.

For the Native people around Point Hope, stopping Chariot was a matter of survival. They'd worried the experiment might pollute their hunting grounds. The Atomic Energy Commission assured residents of Point Hope that they were far enough away from the site to be safe. But O'Neil says a small group of scientists continued to pressure the AEC to study the potential impact on wildlife.

O'NEIL: Ultimately the AEC agreed, and the first truly coordinated, multidisciplinary bioenvironmental study ever done took place then up at Ogotoruk Creek, south of Point Hope, and from that study came information that ultimately started to suggest the project wasn't too smart.

McWHORTER: Soon after, Project Chariot began receiving national media attention, and O'Neil says the AEC backed down when it began losing the public relations battle. Congress eventually stopped funding Ploughshare and Chariot was relegated to history --- at least until this past August. That's when it became known that the government had brought radioactive material to the Chariot site and left it there after scientists finished their studies. US Geological Survey documents obtained by O'Neil show that workers brought 43 pounds of radioactive elements to the area and, after conducting tests to see how rain would move the elements through the tundra, left behind 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil. This has Point Hope village corporation secretary Jack Schaefer worried that his people may have been unwittingly subjected to its poisons.

SCHAEFER: I know a lot of our people are really upset about finding out that there was actually a test done at the Chariot site where they had deposited their radioactive isotopes and that they had actually buried it there. I'm sure that they have a lot of concern, and they have the desire that this should be cleaned up and totally removed . . . immediately.

McWHORTER: Schaefer and others have long suspected that radiation from Russian atmospheric testing, as well as the Chariot site, was responsible for high rates of cancer in the area. A September study by the Army Corps of Engineers found there is no immediate danger, but the Corps plans further testing and cleanup. The new-found dump is just a tiny part of the Chariot legacy, and it pales in comparison to the experience of the former Soviet Union. The Soviet government actually used nuclear explosives for everything from mining to oil exploration. Those programs are now known to have polluted vast stretches of Siberia, and may have cost tens of thousands of lives.

In spite of the tremendous price, in a recent phone interview, Edward Teller says he still supports the Ploughshare idea.

TELLER: Chariot was cancelled because of exaggerated fear of radioactivity. That was a mistake. The Soviets have been too careless. We have been too fearful. We must find a reasonable and safe middle ground.

McWHORTER: Teller says before long, scientists will find a way to make such projects safe. But it may be a long time before the world community will support such an idea.

For Living on Earth, I'm John McWhorter in Fairbanks, Alaska.



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