Today, the prevailing view of nuclear weapons is “Oh God, we’re all going to die”. Back in the day when they were first invented, however, the extent to which nuclear weapons should be used was something of an unanswered question, like whether pineapple went on pizza or whether hot dogs count as sandwiches. The debate was open as to whether nuclear bombs could be used tactically – as in, on a battlefield – or if they were strictly strategic weapons, to be used as a last resort.
But even beyond that, some people were asking whether nuclear explosions had to only be thought of in a wartime scenario. Couldn’t we use nuclear bombs for more peaceful purposes? Like, say, excavating a harbor? This is the story of Project Chariot, the plan to build an artificial harbor in Alaska using nuclear bombs.
The “Friendly” Atom
Project Chariot was a spinoff from Operation Plowshare, which was the name for the overall effort by the United States to find peaceful uses for nuclear explosions. This era is honestly a gold mine for absolutely insane and horrifically terrible ideas, like widening the Panama canal using several nuclear warheads or using nuclear explosions to connect water aquifers in Arizona. These were 100% serious proposals, you should know. But before we get to the actual plan, we need to talk about the man who proposed it.
Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss was an American businessman and naval officer who was a member, and then chairman, of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Already, we have a problem, since you will notice that we did not say he was a physicist, a nuclear engineer, or really anything to do with nuclear power whatsoever. And he was put in charge of the commission responsible for all the nuclear power in the United States. He did have an amateur’s knowledge of the subject from reading textbooks and speaking at length with scientists, like the famed J. Robert Oppenheimer, but he never got a formal education in the subject. In short, he wasn’t stupid, but he wasn’t an expert either.
Strauss would end up gaffing his way through his stint on the AEC, frustrating both his coworkers and, on one occasion, Winston Churchill, before finally tarnishing his legacy for good by spearheading the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954 and essentially locking him out of the US government. This matters because Oppenheimer believed that more nuclear bombs was a terrible idea, something I think a lot of people would agree with today.
It’s unclear if Strauss had any direct influence over the proposal of Project Chariot itself, but we’ve talked about him to give you an idea of the kind of workplace culture we’re looking at, here. With all this in mind, it should come as no surprise what they proposed just a few weeks after Strauss stepped down.
In 1957, a classified meeting was held at the AEC’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, California. It was here where the details of Project Plowshare, and its first serious proposal, Project Chariot, were sketched out. In what is probably the only bit of logic to be found in this whole episode, scientists at the laboratory were aware that there was growing international pressure to ban nuclear testing, and as such they were hoping that these “peaceful” applications would be exempt from any test-ban treaties. Not the noblest of goals, to be sure. But anyways, it was a little over a year after that meeting in California that Edward Teller, the successor of Lewis Strauss as AEC chairman and who wasn’t much better, announced Project Plowshare, along with its first major operation, Project Chariot.
The Edge of a Continent
The plan for Project Chariot was simple – take four 100-kiloton nuclear bombs and two one-megaton bombs, plant them underground, and then detonate the 2.4 megatons of explosives in a chain to excavate the land and create an artificial harbor. As a side note here, in all of World War 2, the Allies dropped 3.4 megatons of explosives via strategic bombing, just to give you an idea of how ludicrously powerful nuclear bombs really are. Approximately 70 million cubic yards of dirt would be blown, literally, sky-high, and the water from the Chukchi Sea would rush in to fill the newly-created gap.
The location for this harbor? Cape Thompson, Alaska, a stretch of land on the northwestern corner of the territory facing Russia across the Bering Strait.
At the announcement of Project Chariot, Alaska had only just become a US state weeks before. Teller cited it as a great economic opportunity for the state, which resonated quite well because there was a bit of an economic downturn at the time. He said that the harbor would be used to transport coal from the frontier regions of the state and generate revenue. Alaskan citizens loved it; political leaders, newspaper editors, the university president (there was only one at the time) and even church groups all supported the idea. An editorial in a local newspaper, the Fairbanks News-Miner, said “We think the holding of a huge nuclear blast in Alaska would be a fitting overture to the new era which is opening for our state.” Alaska was strangely all in on blowing a part of itself to smithereens. Deadly radioactive smithereens. But hey, Alaska is huge, and nobody lived over there anyway. Except, that’s not true.
The area proposed for Project Chariot was a home to several Alaskan native peoples, primarily Inuits and Inupiats at the village of Point Hope. For obvious reasons, when they were told about the plan in 1960, these people were not thrilled with the idea of nuclear bombs being detonated in their ground, especially when you consider that these communities still relied on hunting whales and caribou for food. It goes without saying that animals and radioactive material do not mix well, especially if people want to eat them. Teller and the AEC tried to convince them that there would be no adverse effects from the project in the form of radiation or earthquakes, but the Point Hopers (some of whom had served in World War 2) had read about the Castle Bravo nuclear test at Bikini Atoll and what that had done to the local islanders there. As such, they didn’t buy it for a second. They organized, and over the next few years, provided stiff opposition to the whole idea.
In addition to this, not every Alaskan was thrilled with the idea, notably businessmen, and not just because it involved blowing radioactive dirt into the atmosphere. The area selected for the harbor was deep in Western Alaska, which, if you aren’t aware, has almost no people living in it. Of the people that do, many of them live in isolated communities that can only be reached by airplane or ship. Today, the vast majority of Western Alaska is a nature reserve, and for good reason – because nature is basically the only thing out there.
Because of this, some of these more sensible businessmen asked Mr. Teller just what the point of making a harbor out there was. There was no local economy to speak of beyond indigenous people hunting and fishing, and even if they did go through with it, the Chukchi Sea would freeze it over for nine months of the year. They weren’t strictly opposed to excavating land with nuclear bombs, they just wanted them used in something more sensible.
But Teller had already reserved the land for the project, so there was really no backtracking to be done at this point. In a final instructive allegory to drive home just how chaotic and ill-planned this whole adventure really was, Teller reportedly tried to get the Harvard-educated Alaskan economist George Rogers to support the plan, but Rogers possessed a pesky little trait known as common sense, and asked him a whole bunch of uncomfortable questions, like “What about the local people?” Teller said they would just have to become coal miners. “What about the ice in the harbor?” Teller said they would build warehouses to store the coal until it could be shipped. “What about the fact that the coal is on the other side of a mountain range?” Teller said they would build a railroad. “Do you have any idea how much money this is going to cost?” Teller asked him where he could buy a souvenir. I’d say this is where things started to go downhill for the Project Chariot, but that implies it had ever been going anywhere else.
The Birth of the Environment
Project Chariot was, ultimately, doomed to fail because of the baggage stated before. Yet there is one final aspect to this story that is worth talking about as we conclude. Scientists at the University of Alaska were as skeptical as anyone else towards the AEC’s plan, but in January of 1959, a group of biologists at the university went a step further, arguing that if Project Chariot was going to be used for any environmental studies, which the AEC had stated it would, they would need to conduct a full biological study of the region to compare it with post-Chariot. Until that study was complete, the project could not be responsibly carried out. The AEC agreed, and hired those biologists to conduct said study.
The final report, issued in 1966, was described by the AEC itself as “the most comprehensive bioenvironmental survey ever done.” What’s more, because this study was presented as a prerequisite for carrying out the actual operation, this study marks the first time environmental concerns were raised in relation to a government project; the first environmental impact statement, which, as of 1969, are required by federal law.
Barry Commoner, an American ecologist whose work on studying radioactive fallout from nuclear tests helped lead to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, once said in 1988, “in so far as I had an effect on the development of the whole movement (which I did, I have to admit), Project Chariot can be regarded as the ancestral birthplace of at least a large segment of the environmental movement.” From now on, when you read about climate change or fracking or anything regarding the environment, remember that it all began with nuclear bombs in Alaska.