Atomic Bomb Stories
As a schoolchild of the 1950s and 1960s, I can remember being told in class during atomic bomb drills to hide under my desk if we heard sirens.
As a child at home near Bellingham, Washington, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, I can still hear a sonic boom that rattled our windows. We were eating breakfast. My dad, an ex-Marine with survival mode never far below the surface, jumped up from the table and ran outside to see, shouting, “There goes Seattle!” Fortunately, he was wrong. But when we moved to northern British Columbia a few years later, of the many books we took were ones on foods suitable for long-term storage and official bulletins on the symptoms of radiation poisoning.
For years I occasionally had vivid nightmares of the world destroyed, enormous mushroom clouds and flames, and all of us running terrified into darkness.
Grown up, in the early 1980s, I remember how much Jonathan Schell’s book, The Fate of the Earth, appalled and moved me. It explored the consequences of a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was something in the spirit of the time, in our collective unconscious, that recognized the world was on the brink. This was also the time of those TV movies about nuclear war, The Day After, and Testament, and the British Threads. (For an interesting discussion of how Hollywood failed to portray this potential reality, and left it up to TV movies, see Eric Lindh’s short article, The Nightmare on Film.)
At that time Cold War tension had risen and the distrust between Reagan’s US administration and Andropov’s Soviet one seemed unbridgeable. (Gorbachev would not rise to the top of the Soviet hierarchy until 1985.) The tenor of those times is now behind us and the fear of nuclear annihilation has receded, but the omnipresent threat was not so long ago. And of course, nuclear weapons, and their danger, are still with us.
This personal psychological context explains the frisson I experienced when just recently I discovered Operation Chariot. I had never heard of this before: a 1958 plan to construct a man-made harbour in Alaska with “nuclear explosives,” otherwise known as hydrogen bombs.
This was part of Operation Plowshare, an effort to redeem the use of nuclear energy by turning it to peaceful purposes. The US Government wanted to use nuclear bombs to widen the Panama Canal, cut passes through mountainous terrain for highways, and to set off massive explosions to connect underground aquifers in Arizona.
In early 1958, the Atomic Energy Commission selected a site near Cape Thompson, on the North Slope of Alaska along its Arctic Coast.
The AEC planned that 1962 would see a nuclear blast form a harbour at Ogotoruk Creek, 32 miles southeast of the Inupiat Eskimo village of Point Hope.
The AEC began to meet considerable skepticism about the real benefits of this idea, although it did manage at first to sell the idea on an economic basis to many of Alaska’s leaders. But finally the agency gave up on the economic benefits and instead began to describe the idea as an experiment in “geographical engineering.”
The AEC late in the day attempted to reassure the village of Inupiat that this radioactive explosion would not disrupt their way of life and that of the caribou upon which the people depended. But the Eskimo leaders did not accept these explanations. Opposition became more widespread in Alaska and elsewhere.
Finally in 1961, the village elders wrote to President John F. Kennedy, and within a few months, in a climate of considerable protest, the project was shelved.
Meanwhile, the Soviets also had ambitious nuclear geographical ideas. Between 1965 and 1989, they set off many nuclear explosions in pursuit of water reservoir development, dam and canal construction, and creation of underground cavities for toxic waste storage. They even used nuclear devices to put out runaway gas well fires and a methane blow out.
For instance Lake Chagan (or Lake Balapan), Kazakhstan, is a lake deliberately created by the Chagan nuclear test in 1965. It is roughly 10,000,000 m3 in volume, or 2.6 billion gallons.
As of 2006, the area is still radioactive, and has been called the Atomic Lake.
Lost nuclear bomb in British Columbia
On February 13, 1950, a B-36 bomber took off from Eielson Air Base in Alaska and headed south towards its home base in Fort Worth, Texas. Inside the bomb bay was a nuclear weapon, the same type that was used to bomb Nagasaki, Japan and help end the Second World War. However, it is said to have had a dummy lead core for use in the bomber’s planned simulated bombing runs, rather than being an active nuclear device.
The B-36 was a huge bomber, bigger than the B-52 and with a larger wing-span than a Boeing 747. Six hours after taking off, it started to experience serious icing conditions and engine fires.
Distress messages from the flight indicated the crew wanted to ditch the plane along the British Columbia coast between the Queen Charlotte Islands and Vancouver Island. But the bomber started to fall out of the sky and the crew planned to bail, leaving the plane on autopilot with the radio transmission key tied down so it could be tracked.
The bomb was dropped over the ocean before the crew left. They said it was set to airburst at 3000 feet and they watched it explode. Then they attempted to make their escape. Five members of the crew were lost. Canadians were never informed of the atomic nature of the payload.
Mysteriously, although the autopilot was supposed to take the bomber southwest and crash in the ocean, the plane ended up crashing high in the mountains many hundreds of miles to the northeast, somewhere north of New Hazelton, British Columbia. How could this be? It was supposed to have been in dire straits when the crew left.
One theory is that the captain did not leave the bomber, but instead tried to fly the plane back to Alaska and the icing relented enough to let him try. His was one of the bodies never recovered. The USAF sent two expeditions to the crash site in the mountains, in 1953 and 1954. They apparently recovered important components and used explosives to destroy the remains, while keeping the location a secret. Some locals say the US military also recovered the captain’s body, but this is denied by US authorities.
In 1956 two civilian surveyors found the wreck. In 1997 one of the surveyors provided the coordinates to two expeditions, a U.S. researcher and also the Canadian Department of National Defence, who planned to conduct an environmental analysis of the site. Both expeditions arrived around the same time, and were apparently the first to set foot there since 1956. No unusual radiation levels were found.
Fortunately, the available evidence indicates that it was extremely unlikely that the plane was carrying a bomb with a true plutonium core.
Another expedition was mounted in 2003 by nuclear weapons specialist John Clearwater to search for artifacts at the crash site. He found such things as the bomb shackle for the atomic bomb – and an unused parachute.