Radioactive Waste at Secret Nuclear Site in Danger?

Camp Century was built out of snow.

While I was busy growing up, the US Army Corps of Engineers was building a nuclear powered research center 800 miles from the North Pole in Greenland. In this climatically hostile environment which features a mean temperature of minus ten degrees F and has recorded temperatures of minus 70 degrees and 125 mph wind, they built an underground city powered by a portable nuclear reactor.  The project cost $7,920,000 which included the cost of the portable nuclear power plant, $5,700,000.  It was built mostly out of snow! They named it Camp Century.

Electricity supplied to the living areas.
Electricity supplied to the living areas.

They built trenches and placed prefab wood work buildings and living quarters in the snow tunnels. At one time 200 people lived here. They melted the snow with steam to provide water. But the tunnels required almost constant maintenance to combat the snow deformation. Since it was built on an ice sheet it was impossible to keep it maintained. It was called a research center but it doubled as a top-secret site for testing nuclear missiles during the height of the Cold War. It was a test base to see whether launch sites could be built close enough for missiles to reach the Soviet Union. Project Iceworm was the code name for the top-secret program. At the time, Greenland was an autonomous country within the Danish Realm. Permission was sought and obtained for the research center but the details of the missile base project were secret.

Ice tunnel collapse crushing the left behind equipment.
Ice tunnel collapse crushing the left behind equipment.

Although the icecap appeared on the surface to be hard and immobile, snow and ice slowly deform over time depending on temperature and density.  This eventually led to the collapse of the tunnels. By 1962 the ceiling in the reactor room had dropped 5 feet so the reactor was decommissioned.  The camp was abandoned in 1966. Even though the portable reactor was removed the 47,078 gallons of radioactive waste was abandoned under the ice. The assumption was that the radioactive waste would be entombed forever. It was about 39 feet under the ice at the time and with the accumulating snow and ice, it is approximately 114 feet under the ice cap today.

However, a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters says that this waste could emerge by the end of this century into an environmental and political headache. The icecap is melting and at a much faster rate than has been predicted. Radioactive waste was not only the hazardous material abandoned under the ice cap in 1966.  USA Today carried a story about this report in August, 2016. It is a very interesting story of how our country conducted operations in this time period. If you would like to read more, go to  and read the article on Camp Century by Frank Leskovitz. This is an incredible story.



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