Firecracker boys: Making a harbor with nukes

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2008

Boys will be boys and must always play with new toys - even when those new toys are nuclear bombs.

And what better place to play than Alaska, where the world will not notice?

Alaska has always been an experimental playground for federal and state scientists. At times, the woods seem swarming with mad scientists and mosquitoes.

Near Gakona, more than 42 antenna arrays point upward as scientists microwave the ionosphere over Alaska just to see what will happen. Naval experimental submarines were tested in Iliamna Lake. In 1997, the government toyed with having the Jules Verne Gun built on Adak Island. Its mile-long barrel would fire satellites into space the same way a gun shoots bullets. Kodiak cattle rancher Bill Burton has his herds grazing between the launch and booster rocket facilities of the Alaska Aerospace Program.

But from 1958 to 1962, prominent nuclear scientists gathered near Cape Thompson along the North Slope to create a harbor through a series of nuclear explosions. They resembled mischievous school boys with firecrackers about to blow up an ant den. Alaska was to be the ant den.

The world was a different place then. The Cold War seemed about to go hot at the blink of an eye. Nuclear power was seen as the magical formula of the future. President Dwight Eisenhower was toying then with giving statehood only to the southern half of Alaska. The northern half would be the Territory of the Tundra under military control with the Yukon River more or less the southern border.

World renowned nuclear scientist Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, began touring Alaska waxing poetic prose about the wonders of nuclear power and how it could be used to create an artificial harbor opening the North Slope to development.

"Engaging in the great art of geographic engineering, to reshape the earth as your please," Teller told Alaska audiences. "Anything new needs big people in order to get going."

Territorial leaders nodded their heads in approval.

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission approved Teller's Project Chariot in 1958. The harbor was to be created by a series of under- ground nuclear explosions. The blasts would equal 160 Hiroshima bombs. A 4,700 acre site was then selected for the burial of nuclear material and command center in the Ogotoruk Valley. Natives in nearby Point Hope, Kivalina, and Noatak would be relocated to Nome and Kotzebue. Scientists gathered by Teller reassured the people of Point Hope that it would only be for a year after showing them an 11-minute film of an underground nuclear explosion in May 1960.

Statehood and John F. Kennedy becoming president only sped the project up. "The government has the clear responsibility to weigh the importance of large scale experiments to the advantage of knowledge or to the national security against the possibility of adverse and destructive effects," JFK told an audience at the National Academy of Sciences in 1963.

USGS scientist were to apply radioactive fallout to designated plots in the area. They would then water these plots and catch the run-off to see how radioactive the water had become.

Scientist Vic Janzer went to Nevada setting up a ring of trays in a mile radius around a nuclear cratering test called Project Sedan to catch nuclear fallout. Janzer then brought more than 17 pounds of the nuclear waste into the Ogotoruk Valley in August 1962. The next day, he and three others began pumping the nuclear waste into 10 sites along the bed of Snowbank Creek. Then they watered the plots of land as if it was a garden before catching the run off.

USGS Director Arthur Baker in February 1963 stated in a report that the radioactive material had been dispersed in harmless groundlevels.

But, Native resistance became organized against the project. Scientists also voiced opposition after being fired from the project for having doubts. When it was discovered that no infrastructure connecting the artificial port with the rest of Alaska was planned, state officials began turning against Teller and his people as well.

Finally, in 1962, the Atomic Energy Commission suspended the program though it has never been officially canceled. Some 24 millicurie of nuclear waste was then buried in a mound in 1962.

Core drilling in 1992 took place at the site after Point Hope had documented very high cases of cancers over a 30 year span. The drilling discovered 11 millicurie of nuclear waste still remaining in the mound.

Even worse, a report speculated the high cancer rates at Point Hope may have been as a result of the radioactive materials leaching into the soil and making their way into the arctic tundra food chain.

The federal government then employed 25 to remove the mound at a cost of more than $20 million.

• Mike Coppock was an Alaska newspaper editor turned freelancer. His work has appeared in such national magazines as The History Channel, American History, Wild West, Sea Classics, Native Peoples and Trailer Life. He can be reached at

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