Project Chariot

Some visions for using technology in new and different ways turn out to be misguided. A leading example of this is Project Chariot, a plan by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to use nuclear explosions to excavate a harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska, 300 miles north of Nome. The scheme was pushed by physicist Edward Teller, the director of the AEC’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (known today as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), beginning in 1958. The proposed harbor was to have an entrance channel 6,000 ft long by 1,200 ft wide, leading to an oval “turning basin” more than a mile by a half mile. It was to be created by detonating four 100-kiloton thermonuclear bombs to excavate the entrance channel, and two 1-megaton bombs to excavate the turning basin. The 2.4-megaton charge would have been 160 times larger than Hiroshima.

Teller issued grants to a group of scientists from the University of Alaska to conduct extensive environmental studies. The AEC downplayed many of the scientists’ negative findings concerning the potential impact of radioactive fallout on plant and animal life, and the local Eskimos hunting activities, and dragged out the publication of the final report for several years. Three of the scientists lost their jobs. But several of the scientists shared their concerns with Barry Commoner, an early leader of the environmental movement, who was able to disseminate their concerns within the scientific community.

Eventually the Interior Department, which had not been consulted, learned of Project Chariot, and weighed in against it. And an above-ground nuclear test in Nevada in July, 1962 was found to spread radioactive dust much further than predicted, which further weakened support for Chariot. It was effectively cancelled the following month. The final report, published by the AEC in 1966, was said to be “regarded as the first de facto environmental impact statement,” according to the book “The Firecracker Boys” by Dan O’Neill.