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From the Vault: Project Chariot and the Dawn of Environmental Impact Analysis
Posted on April 14, 2016

Traditional Inupiat whalebone and sod home still in use at Point Hope in the late 1950s. (Dan O’Neill. Used by permission.)

In August of 2013, we received a package in the mail. Inside was a pair of down-insulated “Expedition Mitts” that was being donated to the Eddie Bauer Archives. About a third of the approximately 1,000 garment artifacts in our archives come back to us from customers, all with stories to tell about where they’ve been in the years since they left our stockroom. Sometimes those stories are life-and-death dramas, sometimes retellings of favorite family vacations. And sometimes they’re windows into broader historical events.

Such was the case with these mitts.

1960 Eddie Bauer Expedition Mitts used on Project Chariot.

Words by Colin Berg

Inside the package with the mitts was a short note from the original owner. He bought them in 1960 along with other Eddie Bauer clothing when he was hired by the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to participate in a yearlong study of marine mammals (seals, whales, walrus, and polar bears) in Alaska as part of Project Chariot.

I had never heard of Project Chariot, so I did some research. In 1957, the AEC initiated Operation Plowshare to promote and implement projects that would demonstrate the peaceful application of nuclear explosions. Their first major endeavor, in 1958, was Chariot. It was a plan to create a deep-water harbor on Ogoturuk Creek at Cape Thompson on Alaska’s North Slope by the underground detonation of one hydrogen and three atomic bombs.

Maps of Alaska showing Project Chariot site and Point Hope. (Dan O’Neill. Used by permission.)

The AEC hired scientists to study the projected impact of the blasts on local wildlife and the surrounding environment. These studies became the first detailed environmental impact statements ever developed.

Chariot was championed by Edward Teller, renowned physicist and “father of the hydrogen bomb,” and endorsed by newspaper editors, university administrators, and Alaskan politicians. It was hailed as an economic boon to Alaska, the new harbor becoming a hub for shipping coal from Alaska’s interior.

Maps of Alaska showing Project Chariot site and Point Hope. (Dan O’Neill. Used by permission.)

However, the Chukchi Sea where Cape Thompson is located is ice-locked for nine months of the year. The shipping season would be exceptionally short, and the infrastructure required to transport the coal to such a remote harbor, and then to store it during the nine months of impassable ice, would be extraordinarily expensive. But the AEC’s interest in Chariot was less about economics and more about the opportunity to gather detailed cratering and radiation data in preparation for even larger projects, including a new, sea-level Panama Canal.

In addition to the considerable logistical challenges and questionable viability of such a remote harbor, the long-term effects of the blasts were a source of concern for a growing number of people. In fact, Project Chariot is considered a defining moment in the birth of the environmental movement. At first, the only people actively opposed to the project were some of the scientists conducting the pre-blast studies and the residents of Point Hope, an Inupiat village 30 miles north of the proposed blast site, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America.

AEC Project Chariot camp at Ogotoruk Creek, Cape Thompson. (Don Foote Collection, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks. Used by permission.)

Gradually, resistance grew as word of the project spread beyond Alaska. In the end, national organizations, including The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, added their organizing and lobbying power. In response to Chariot, the Inupiat also organized, and established the first Native Alaskan newspaper, the Tundra Times. Finally, in 1962, in the face of mounting resistance and public outcry, the AEC deferred any decision to implement Project Chariot.

It has never been officially cancelled.

Read more about project Chariot in Dab O’Neill’s historical report Project Chariot: How Alaska Escaped Nuclear Excavation.

Author: - Thursday, April 14th, 2016
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