‘Project Chariot’ brought nuclear thinking to UAF

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In 1958, nuclear weapons were planned to be buried and subsequently detonated near Cape Thompson, AK—all in the name of science. Criticisms from University of Alaska scientists along with other groups managed to halt the project before it got off the ground.

Proposed by Physicist Edward Teller and the Atomic Energy Commission, the effort, called “Project Chariot,” was intended to test the use of nuclear explosives for making artificial harbors. The proposed site did not offer much economic benefit, as there was no need for a port of that size in that part of Alaska, according the UAF Project Chariot website.

“Project Chariot” was part of a larger operation titled “Project Plowshare.” The goal of “Plowshare” was to find peaceful uses for nuclear technology, with “Project Chariot” testing the concept of “geographic engineering.”

The university gave Teller an honorary doctorate in 1959, and he praised Alaskans as “the most reasonable people” in the world for their willingness to try new technologies, according to “The Cornerstone on College Hill” by Terrence Cole.

The project received enthusiastic support from civic and business leaders around Alaska, despite skepticism from villages in the area and scientists at the University of Alaska. A group of university scientists raised their objections, resulting in the university being hired to test if the plan could be carried out safely.

However, the Commission was misusing the university’s data, which lead many of the scientists along with the Alaska Conservation Society to speak out against the project, according to the website.

The people of Point Hope, the Association on American Indian Affairs and a church group in New England joined the university scientists in their opposition of “Project Chariot.” In 1962 the Commission suspended the project indefinitely.

Nuclear bombs were also proposed to be used to excavate a new canal through Central America, a highway/railway cut in California and for water storage reservoirs.

“Had Project Chariot been carried out at its smallest proposed size, approximately 200 times as much radiation as was released at Chernobyl would have been released,” the website reads.

“Project Chariot” was not the only thing that UAF has gotten itself involved with during the Cold War Era. Nestled in the tunnels below campus are “nuclear fallout shelters.” There are fourteen of them in total under many of the residence halls and other buildings around campus, according to a Community Fallout Shelter Plan published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Jan. 8, 1971.

“In case of a nuclear attack upon the United States, you and your family would need to know WHERE TO GO and WHAT TO DO,” the plan reads.

The public fallout facilities can provide protection for 26,995 people. Students who live on campus are designated to use the shelters under their residence hall or the closest residence hall, according to the plan.

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