Irradiated soil secretly buried in remote Alaska Villagers trying to learn more about operation

September 25, 1992|By Los Angeles Times News Service

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- 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.

The experiment, known as Project Chariot, was to have been among the first by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission into the "peaceful use" of nuclear energy. Some Inupiat people 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 blast.

Dan O'Neill, a University of Alaska, Fairbanks, researcher writing a book about Project Chariot, has obtained federal archives 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, which has about 700 residents.

Though there is little evidence yet to support the idea, some Inupiats fear that the buried wastes could help explain a sustained and significant rise in cancer rates in the region over the past 30 years.

The nuclear material was first used for experiments into how radioactive isotopes behave in an arctic setting, according to documents that Mr. O'Neill acquired under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Correspondence between officials of the Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. Geological Survey said that 43 pounds of soil laced with radioactive fallout from Nevada was 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.

The soils contaminated by the experiments were subsequently dug up, according to the documents. The material, estimated at about 15,000 pounds, was buried in a mound under four feet of dirt.

The released documents show 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.

Officials at the time detected no radiation above the burial mound and deemed the area safe, the documents say. 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 Mr. O'Neill requested the project's archives.

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.

A team from the U.S. Department of Energy is expected to visit the site in the next week or so to conduct further tests and help decide what, if any, cleanup is necessary.

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