Political and Environmental Fallout

        Freeman Dyson opens his book “Disturbing the Universe” with a quote from The Magic City by Edith Nesbitt, a children’s book about an imaginary land; “And there’s a dreadful law here- it was made by mistake, but there it is- that if anyone asks for machinery they have to have it and keep on using it.”  Dyson uses this as a spring board to talk about the effects and responsibilities of developing new technologies.  He says “If we had a way to label out toys good and bad it would be easy to regulate technology wisely.  But we can rarely see far enough ahead to know which roads lead to damnation.  Whoever concerns himself with big technology, either to push it forward or to stop it, is gambling with human lives.”   Project Chariot and Project Orion are interesting examples of scientists and policymakers trying to use a technology known more for its destructive potential, as a constructive force.  It is fortunate however, that neither of these projects were carried out. 
        Project Chariot would have irradiated a large chunk of northern Alaska, and certainly would have destroyed a way of life for all of the people who live there.   We know now how easily the artic ecosystem is damaged, in part because of the environmental studies done for Project Chariot.  The scientific studies done at Point Hope are now considered the first environmental impact statement, although they were not intended as that when they were done.  The people who organized to fight Chariot stayed organized and were instrumental in the Alaska Native Land Claims Movement and the growing environmental movement.  Barry Commoner is quoted in “The Firecracker Boys” as saying “Project Chariot can be regarded as the ancestral birthplace of at least a large segment of the environmental movement.”
        Project Orion would have released a great deal of radioactivity into the atmosphere.  At the time it was being planned the scope of the radioactive fallout problem was not fully known.  Many scientists involved with Project Orion say now they are glad it didn’t happen.  Interestingly Project Orion is not completely gone.  There is still talk of nuclear power in space.  In an interview in 2002 with Discover magazine NASA Administrator Sean O’Keef said “Today we travel through space at the same speed John Glenn did when he flew Friendship 7, 40 years ago.  The sooner we conquer that limitation, the faster we can get anywhere we decide we should go.  Nuclear fission holds the greatest prospect for early development and timely deployment to speed up space propulsion.”  There are other nuclear propulsion systems besides nuclear pulse, and it is likely that if an Orion was used today it would be assembled in orbit and bombs would not be used until it was out of range of earth fallout.

Introduction    Project Chariot    Project Orion    Political and Environmental Fallout    Sources and Links