That Time the U.S. Government Wanted to Nuke Alaska

Because using hydrogen bombs as construction tools seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the late 1950s, the United States was at (relative peace) with the world. The government and some high powered scientists were figuring out what to do with all those awesome, unused hydrogen bombs just sitting around and decided it might be cool as hell to blow up a part of Alaska.

Alaskans hadn’t done anything to deserve the nuclear treatment, however. The initiative was called Project Chariot, reports Atlas Obscura, and it was under the umbrella of a larger Project Plowshare—the Atomic Energy Commission’s effort to convert weapons of mass destruction for the common good. Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist whose diabolical genius gave the world the hydrogen bomb, proposed that Project Chariot would “use six hydrogen bombs to create a deep-water harbor near Cape Thompson,” writes Atlas Obscura’s Jeni Hackett. 

On the face of it, it wasn’t a totally crazy idea. Cape Thompson is in a particularly frosty and austere part of Alaska—but it’s also uncomfortably close to Russia, which was even less friendly to the United States in 1958 than it is today. Then again, these weren’t even secret projects, notes Hackett—they were covered in Popular Science — and the magnanimous U.S. even planned to invite representatives of the USSR “to watch these marvels of engineering unfold.”

If blasting out a new Alaska harbor in a manner that might draw the attention of the then-Soviet Union wasn’t going to fly, Atlas Obscura cites the Dept. of Energy’s summary of Project Plowshare‘s other nifty ideas, which included “large-scale excavations and fracking. The nuclear blasts could be used to break up or move huge quantities of rock, or to do a type of fracking wherein the explosion increased the permeability and porosity of rock in order to ramp up natural gas production and create storage areas for natural gas or oil.” 

Ultimately, Project Chariot was mothballed because Alaskans didn’t really understand why anyone would want a brand new harbor that would be frozen solid for most of the year and other scientists couldn’t get behind it. By the late 1970s Project Plowshare itself was at an end, having fallen afoul of anti-nuclear public opinion. 

Lasting as long as it did, Project Plowshare was still ultimately less frightening than an unrelated nuclear snafu that occurred in 1961. That’s when a B-52 broke apart near Goldsboro, North Carolina and lost not one but two nuclear bombs, which had they detonated would’ve killed tens of thousands of North Carolinians. But at least those were found. There are still 8 lost nuclear weapons in the wild, ready to blast open a new harbor, somewhere.