From a Boon to a Threat: Print Media Coverage of Project Chariot, 1958-62

Article excerpt

This article reviews the New York Times and magazine coverage from 1958 to 1962 of Project Chariot, which was a plan by physicist Edward Teller and the Atomic Energy Commission to blast out a harbor with four nuclear bombs near the villages of natives in northwest Alaska. In the end, the plan was never carried to fruition. In reviewing the media coverage, this study traces a grass-roots media effort begun in Alaska that surrounded the four-year debate among scientists, government agencies, and environmental activists that was largely played out in the media and ultimately led to the first stirrings of the modern environmental movement in the United States. The coverage indicates the dangers that can occur when the media passively cover an event rather than actively probing in stories for sources and questioning the government line.

In the summer of 1958, three Inupiat Eskimo caribou hunters landed their small boat near the mouth of Ogotoruk Creek at Cape Thompson, an unpopulated region about thirty-one miles southeast of their village of Point Hope on Alaska's northwest coast and about 175 miles across the Chukchi Sea from the Soviet Union. They found several white men surveying the area. The surveyors informed the hunters that they were conducting geologic research for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).1 As these hunters would learn later, the AEC and one of its contractors, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, California, were proposing to explode four atomic bombs at the mouth of the creek to blast out a deepwater port that the AEC said could be used to ship coal, oil, and other resources.2

But even if they had known of these plans, the hunters probably would not have understood the significance of the survey. The surveyors' presence on that isolated stretch of land was one of the first public acts in what would turn into a nearly four-year debate among scientists, government agencies, and environmental activists that would largely be played out in the media. The ensuing controversy and demand for accountability by those in government would lead to the first stirrings of the modern environmental movement in the United States.3

This article will trace the print media coverage of those proposed atomic blasts from the first fairly neutral and largely one-sided (the AEC's) stories to the later and fuller reports revealing the risk of damage to the ecosystem, especially the food chain from lichen to caribou to the Eskimos. This study will explore how a handful of environmental activists working with scientific experts helped frame the later news coverage that eventually killed Project Chariot because of what one reporter called "adverse publicity about its effects on Alaskan Eskimos and their hunting grounds."4

The coverage was examined in the New York Times of Project Chariot, from its announcement in 1958 to its cancellation in 1962, because it is the major newspaper of record in the United States and because it covered this project from its first hint to its demise. In addition, it is a well-accepted source of information for government officials, who, in this case, were the final arbiters on whether the blasts in Alaska would proceed. A Boolean search of the New York Times Historic online database was utilized with the search terms Project Chariot, Plowshare, and atomic.

This study also looked at Project Chariot's coverage in national magazines that wrote about the project during the same four-year period. The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature was surveyed, using the search parameters Project Chariot, Plowshare, and atomic. The magazines in which relevant articles were found were: Harper's, Newsweek, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Reader's Digest, Science, Science Digest, Science News Letter, and Scientific American. Coverage over the four years by these magazines was limited and sporadic, but in the debate and controversy that swirled around Project Chariot, they were at times the conduit for the voice of one side or the other. …