This Time No Nukes For Deepwater Port Plan

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In 1957, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) – noting with some perspicacity that few Americans were inordinately fond of atomic weapons, on account of those weapons’ capacity for annihilating civilization – launched a program designed to improve the public profile of nuclear devices, by harnessing their power for peaceful purposes.

The program was called Project Plowshare, and its boosters, notes author Scott Kaufman, believed they could use “peaceful nuclear explosions” to “create new elements and isotopes for general use, build storage facilities for water or fuel, mine ores, increase oil and natural gas production, generate heat for power production, and construct roads, harbors, and canals.”

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One of the first schemes hatched under the Project Plowshare banner was “Project Chariot,” in which a series of nuclear bombs would be detonated to carve out a deepwater harbor in northwestern Alaska. This, predictably, did not go down well with the inhabitants of Point Hope, an Inupiat Eskimo village barely 30 miles away from the proposed ground zero – when they eventually were told about the plan, that is. As Dan O’Neill authoritatively and entertainingly explains in his 1995 book “The Firecracker Boys,” concerted opposition from Point Hope villagers and biologists with the University of Alaska proved pivotal in Project Chariot being shelved in 1962. (Project Plowshare died a quiet death 15 years later.)

But if the notion of using atomic weaponry to blow holes in the Alaska coast has fortunately been consigned to history, the prospect of a deepwater port in Arctic Alaska remains very much alive. Just last month, the United States passed an amendment to the Water Resources Development Act of 2013 that is intended to help spur just such a development. Authored by Alaska senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, the provision sets aside $100 million over 10 years to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to plan, design and construct harbors in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

In case anyone might wonder why there should be such interest in a deepwater port in Alaska’s Arctic, Begich points out that, “Whether we like it or not, the shrinking Arctic sea ice is opening up a new frontier of maritime commerce and development,” and argues that, “We need to prepare for this increased activity and a deepwater port will be vital for safety, commerce and protection of the region.”

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A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that, as a result of climate change-induced declines in Arctic sea ice, previously ice-choked pathways – specifically, the Northern Sea Route above Russia, a North Pole route across the polar ice cap, and to a lesser extent the Northwest Passage through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago – will become largely or completely navigable by mid-century at the latest. That would likely greatly reduce transit times over present routes, and all of the new pathways would involve ships steaming in and out of the Pacific Ocean via the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. A deepwater port on Alaska’s Arctic coast would allow container ships and other commercial traffic to berth, refuel, load and unload.

Naturally, there are concerns. After all, decreasing sea ice will mean lower albedo and more of the Sun’s energy being absorbed by darker ocean, instead of being reflected by ice, perpetuating a feedback loop that will result in yet more, and less predictable, warming. A warmer Arctic may prove more hospitable to invasive species that might be released in the ballast water of shipping traffic. Then, of course, there is the issue of oil spills in what will remain a far from temperate environment: the Arctic Council recently adopted an agreement among its members on responding to oil spills; and the International Maritime Organization is devising a mandatory “polar code” which may include requirements that any ships navigating Arctic pathways be of a particular ice-strengthened class.

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The Army Corps of Engineers, working with Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, has already begun a three-year study – which, after one year, is focusing on Nome or nearby Port Clarence as the likeliest locales for an Arctic deepwater port. Inevitably, consultations with local communities have revealed some misgivings: “It’s just the most beautiful place in the world and it’s really sensitive,” said one resident of the settlement of Teller. “It’s vulnerable, the environment, if one thing gets impacted it will impact everything else, it’s going to impact the people and we live off the land here.”

Construction of a new port could begin as early as 2017, and whereas Project Chariot is regarded in hindsight as a kind of unhinged whimsy, the feeling among at least some observers is that this time, talk of new ports is almost destined to segue from planning to reality.

In the words of one resident of Teller, “the vessels are coming whether locals want them or not.”

The Russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal steams through ice toward the North Pole. Photograph by Wofratz/Wikimedia Commons

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