When the federal government proposed using nuclear explosives to blast a giant new harbor into the Arctic tundra in the early 1960s, Eskimo villagers living in the region became so enraged that the project was finally scuttled.
Known as Project Chariot, the experiment was to have been one of the first by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission dealing with the “peaceful use” of nuclear energy. Some Inupiat Eskimos still talk about it as a turning point that brought them together as a political force for the first time.
Now, 30 years later, a university researcher has unearthed new information about Project Chariot that has villagers and government officials alarmed and scrambling to learn more--the secret burial in Alaska of some 15,000 pounds of soil contaminated with radioactive fallout from a Nevada nuclear explosion.
Dan O’Neill, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks researcher writing a book about Project Chariot, last month obtained documents describing how, in 1962, scientists buried tons of radiation-laced dirt at Cape Thompson, a remote, treeless shelf of land on the Chukchi Sea coast.
The area, which lies amid traditional Inupiat subsistence hunting and gathering grounds, is about 25 miles from the nearest village, Point Hope, an Eskimo settlement with about 700 residents.
Though there is little evidence yet to support the idea, some Eskimos fear the buried waste could help explain a sustained and significant rise in cancer rates in the region over the last 30 years.
According to documents that O’Neill acquired under the federal Freedom of Information Act, the nuclear material was first used for experiments into how radioactive isotopes behave in an Arctic setting.
According to correspondence among officials of the AEC and the U.S. Geological Survey, 43 pounds of soil laced with radioactive fallout from Nevada were dispersed in several Alaskan plots lined with plastic sheathing to see how it reacted in Arctic conditions. In at least one test, radioactive material was allowed to drain down a creek bed into the sea.
According to the documents, the soils contaminated by the experiments were subsequently dug up. The material, estimated at about 15,000 pounds, was buried in a mound under four feet of dirt.
The memos and letters are generally vague about quantities, components and radiation levels of the buried material. But the documents show that one AEC regulatory official was critical of the geological survey for apparently exceeding--by 1,000 times--1960s standards for burying radioactive strontium 85 and cesium 137.
According to the documents, officials at the time detected no radiation above the burial mound and deemed the area safe. The material was not placed in barrels or other containers. No warning signs or fences were ever erected in the area and the experiments were apparently never publicly disclosed until O’Neill requested the project’s documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
News of the burial came as a shock to villagers in Point Hope, and in Kivalina, a smaller Eskimo community 50 miles south. Residents of both villages have long traveled to Cape Thompson to hunt caribou and to gather berries and murre eggs.
The news also was a surprise to state and federal environmental agencies. Using 30-year-old maps from the Project Chariot archives, a team of state and federal field workers was dispatched to the site last week and found the mound heavily overgrown with willow shrubs.
Only background levels of radiation were measured above ground and vegetation appeared normal. But when the workers bored into the mound, they measured low levels of radiation inside and officials decided to wait for radiation experts from outside Alaska to be brought in.
A team from the U.S. Department of Energy is expected to visit the site soon to conduct further tests and help decide what, if any, cleanup is necessary.
After last week’s tests, officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of the agencies that conducted them, announced that the site represented no immediate threat to the public. A spokesman for the agency said the radiation levels measured inside the mound were comparable to background levels in a typical city.
But that didn’t reassure people in the villages, who say they are worried about their possible past exposure through consumption of food taken from the area. They’re angry at the government for never telling them nuclear waste was buried at the site, and say they don’t trust assurances now.
“They’re stating that there’s no immediate danger to health, but how can we trust them after what they buried there 30 years ago?” said Point Hope Mayor Ray Koonak Sr. Villagers have met repeatedly in recent days to talk about what to do and have hired their own independent environmental consultants.
“People are very upset,” Koonak said. “They feel they’ve been lied to.”
Cancer rates in the region have risen steadily over the last 30 years, as they have in Native American communities across Alaska, and now generally parallel national rates.
People in Point Hope and other Eskimo villages on Alaska’s North Slope have long suspected that part of the rise in cancer rates there is because of exposure to fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s and ‘60s. Now, they say, they wonder if there’s a connection to the buried wastes, as well.
A series of studies in the 1980s by the federal Centers for Disease Control and the Indian Health Service concluded that while radiation from Soviet tests was detected in a number of Alaska villages in the 1960s, the bulk of cancers in the region involve lung and cervical cancer, not generally associated with exposure to radiation.
One of the studies suggests that the rising cancer rates have more to do with heavy smoking among many villagers in the region and with lack of early medical screening for cervical cancer, and the number of those cases “makes it very difficult to define the importance of novel or unusual influences.”
Nonetheless, U.S. Public Health Service officials announced last week that an updated cancer study is being launched to try to see if there is a relationship between cancers in Point Hope and the material buried at Cape Thompson.
Meanwhile, state officials and Alaska’s congressional delegation have demanded that the Energy Department turn over any other documents about the Cape Thompson site, especially an inventory of what exactly was dumped there.
“There was absolutely no consideration given to the people of that area up there, and that’s wrong,” said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska).