Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Incredible Story of Project Chariot

I came across this incredible story in The Eskimo and the Oil Man, which I hadn't heard of before:
At the same time, he [Shell executive Pete Slaiby] knew that each job came with unique problems. Slaiby's library at home was filled with books on Alaska's Arctic. He knew about the Yankee whalers and the diseases that decimated the IƱupiat, and about dangerous plans that outsiders have tried to push through before on the North Slope.

He knew how resentments still lingered over the worst of these, Project Chariot, which shocked North Slopers when they first heard about it on July 14, 1958, the day that Edward Teller, father of America's hydrogen bomb, flew into Juneau, Alaska, to announce a plan to create an instant deepwater harbor beside the village of Point Hope by blowing up several thermonuclear bombs there.

"We have learned to use these powers with safety," Teller assured listeners.

Villagers would leave temporarily and happily return after the event, he said. The blast would pack firepower 160 times larger than Hiroshima. Teller said that the Atomic Energy Commission, project sponsor, could control the explosion so perfectly that it could "dig a harbor in the shape of a polar bear if required," Slaiby read in Dan O'Neill's superb book The Firecracker Boys.

With the enthusiastic support of Alaskan newspapers, politicians and academics, workers were hired. Bulldozers arrived at the village. Scientists decided to test how radiation from a blast might spread in local water, so they sprinkled soil contaminated with cesium 137 and strontium 85--its radioactivity a thousands times stronger than federal law considered safe--around the area.

Meanwhile, Atomic Energy Commission spokesmen--unaware that the Eskimos had brought tape recorders--told an audience of Point Hope villagers that radioactive followers from any blast would be so little it would probably not even be detectable and that Japanese survivors of the atomic blast at at Hiroshima, having "very great exposures" recovered and later experienced no further effects, Pete read in O'Neill's book.

Eskimo opposition was credited with halting the project, but even so, raised radiation levels had been found in Point Hope in spots as late as the 1990s. It turned out that some contaminated soil had never been removed.

"Project Chariot put a huge context on any meeting I had in Point Hope," Pete said. "When they asked if we had any technology to detect radioactivity, I saw that they associated any kind of development with Project Chariot."
More on Project Chariot here, which says that (incredibly, it seems today) many Alaskans were in favor of the project. Dan O'Neill's book is here.


Chris_Winter said...

Indeed it is an incredible story. I read Dan O'Neill's excellent book years ago, and reviewed it here:

Note the part that tells how the AEC reps had to have the meaning of the word "mendacity" explained to them.

David Appell said...

Thanks Chris. (Nice review.) I definitely plan to read O'Neill's book.

northierthanthou said...

There is a new documentary out about this. It can be had from the North Slope Borough School District.