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Project Chariot - The Birth of the Environmental Movement

By Edited Sep 30, 2016 4 5

A New Vision for the Nuclear Bomb

The year was 1958, and more than a decade after the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and

Explosion over Hiroshima
Nagasaki, the world was still struggling to grasp the unspeakable horror that had been unleashed.

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission had a public relations nightmare on it’s hands and was determined to show the American public that atomic explosions could be used for peaceful and economically beneficial projects.

They decided to detonate bombs with a power that was 160 times larger than Hiroshima to create a harbor in an isolated area on the west coast of Alaska.

The bombs would be detonated in a keyhole shape, creating a plume of debris that would rise 30,000 feet, and the ocean would rush into the resulting craters, creating the harbor.

The commission chose  Cape Thompson, a remote area on Alaska's northwest coast for it's experiment.

They described the area as a barren wasteland, describing the site as “ located in the wilderness, far away from any human habitat”. Inherent in the argument was the notion that little would be lost if the experiment went horribly wrong.

Unfortunately, there were people living in the area. The plan was to relocate them to Nome and Kotzebue  for one year and then return them to brand new homes built near the new harbor.

Alaska did not need a harbor in such a remote location. There was no mining or other type of industry in the area. In fact, there was no economic benefit to be had, but Project Chariot organizers believed that if the plan was successful they could use it in other locations. For example, the explosions could be used to improve the Panama Canal.


Selling the Plan

Edward Teller , the father of the atomic bomb was sent to Alaska to promote the pro

Edward Teller
ject. He said the explosions would be so precise they could “dig a harbor in the shape of a polar bear if required”.

Alaska was a new state and a major project would give them worldwide recognition. Alaskan newspapers and many of the politicians of the day heartily endorsed the project. Church groups chimed in with their approval. All in all, the plan was popular with the average Alaskan.

Initially the Inupiat residents living in the villages closest to that blast were not directly informed about the plan.

In 1960, representatives of the AEC met with  local Inupiat (Eskimos) in the  village of  Point Hope, which is located just 30 miles from the planned detonation site. They showed the villagers a slick 11 minute film with a simulation of what the area looked like and what it would look like after the explosions.

They invited the villagers to watch the blast and promised them jobs as as miners, railroad workers and harbor operators after they returned from their year in exile and moved into their new modern homes surrounding the harbor.

They claimed that residents would not feel any seismic shock from the blast and  that the radiation from the blast would be negligible. They  claimed nuclear explosions were relatively safe and once the Japanese who suffered from severe radiation sickness recovered, they suffered no long term side effects and were happy.

They also said the Atomic Energy Commission would compensate people for any structural damage to their homes.

They did not know the meeting was being secretly tape recorded.

Fighting Back

Members at a Port Hope village council meeting voted unanimously to oppose the project. In 1961 they wrote a letter to president John F. Kennedy outlining their

Inupiat meeting

The protests became more widespread. Scientists at the University of Alaska pointed out the caribou, which were the major source of food for the Inupiat, wintered in the area. They were concerned the lichen which the animals feed on,  might become contaminated by the fallout and the Inupiat would end up eating radioactive meat.  Some of the scientists were fired. Others were blacklisted from working in their specialty anywhere else.

As the word got out, the issue became more contentious and divisive in Alaska. Ultimately, the project was cancelled, but not before having a profound effect on the native peoples of the state.

The first ever meeting of Alaska Eskimos took place in Barrow in 1961. It was organized as a means to coordinate opposition to Project Chariot.

The group began publishing the Tundra Times as a means to get their message out. The paper remained in publication until 1997 and reflected the issues and lifestyles of rural and native Alaskans.

Increasingly, the Inupiat became more organized and more vocal. Their efforts, in a large part, led to the implementation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971.  The legislation awarded the Inupiat 40 million acres of land and $1 billion in compensation for the land they had already lost.

What makes the story remarkable is that meetings and organized protests were not part of traditional Inupiat culture. For the most part, they lived in isolated villages, hunting and fishing to stay alive. They had little contact with each other. It took the spectre of Project Chariot to bring them together in a united voice.

It's also a wonderful example of a modern day "David versus Goliath" battle.

Few people realize that the seeds of the environmental movement, as we know it today, began in such a remote and unlikely location.

The Firecracker Boys

The definitive book on Project Chariot is "The Firecracker Boys" written by Dan O'Neil

The Firecracker Boys
l and published in 1994.

O'Neill spent seven years researching and writing the book, using oral history and unlocking documents which had been sealed by the US government.

It is a compelling and at times frightening account of power and politics in the nuclear age.

An updated version was released entitled ""The Firecracker Boys: H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement."

The Firecracker Boys is a fascinating read. At one time there were plans to make it into a movie.



Jul 17, 2012 1:35am
Great article! Its amazing the power that money has over the world, we would even consider desecrating our home planet that provides us with life. Crazy world we live in. Thanks for the insights!
Jul 17, 2012 11:39am
Outstanding article. Well written and compelling. Nice job!
Jul 17, 2012 9:21pm
Good article.
Jul 21, 2012 1:35am
A lot of great info here, great article, nicely done!
May 15, 2013 8:44pm
I had never heard of Project Chariot before; very informative article
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