As tensions heat up between the expanding list of nuclear powers, I decided it might be interesting to look into the history of American nuclear development. What better place to start then examining the projects that took place in my home state of Alaska.
The Firecracker Boys by Dan O’Neill delves into the mysteries surrounding Project Chariot, a Plowshare project aimed at blasting a harbor in Alaska utilizing atomic explosions. Plowshare projects were meant to showcase the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Hopeful projects included a harbor in Australia and a sea-level canal in Panama.
The Atomic Energy Commission and the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory led by Edward Teller, arguably the father of the H-Bomb, went to great lengths to complete the project at Cape Thompson and Point Hope, Alaska.
The project was appealing to Alaska Industry and Government, as it was sold as a way to increase trade by opening up a route to the mineral rich country. What they did not count on was strong resistance from Alaska native leaders and dissent within their ranks from scientists hired to perform environmental studies.
In his book, published a tad over 10 years ago, Dan O’Neill has amassed an extraordinary collection of interviews and documents from both sides of the argument. The picture that is painted is one of deception and stereotypes. The AEC, expecting an easily manipulated native population instead found a group ready to use their full powers of protest and grassroots campaigning to insure a project that had the possibility of devastating their livelihoods never took place.
Additionally, it is shown that the AEC manipulated scientific information, ignored the warnings and protests of their own hired scientists and engaged in an active battle of propaganda and outright lies in an effort to see the project through.
Though the blasts never took place, studies involving radioactive isotopes still occurred, including a pile of active debris that leached into the water supply. The natives of Point Hope have an elevated cancer rate.
The writing is gripping on several levels. As scientists, mostly employed by the University of Alaska, became more vocal in their protests, they began to feel retribution from not only the AEC, but their place of employ, as well. William R. Wood, President of the University at the time, worked with the AEC to blacklist three of the major scientists that spoke out against Project Chariot.
Dan O’Neill utilized personal interviews, archival records and the Freedom of Information Act in effort to get the total picture of events. The book is now over 10 years old, and difficult to find. However, for those that have not read it, and may be renewing an interest in nuclear antagonism do to current events, it is an excellent read to see how, during the cold war, atomic science was pursued.