Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Camp Century - Greenland Going Nuclear

Constructing the reactor building
In 1960, the U.S. Army started the construction of Camp Century on a remote icy plain in Greenland. Located in the Arctic Circle, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and right between the United States and Russia, Greenland was, and still is, part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

The United States had obtained permission from the Danish government to build an arctic research complex to conduct experiments of construction under arctic conditions, the use of small nuclear power plants in remote environments and various other scientific experiments.

A least, that was the official version, presented to the Danish government. The real reason for this arctic adventure in the height of the Cold War was less scientific. Camp Century was part of the top secret Project Iceworm, the construction of an underground, or rather, under-ice network of nuclear missile launch sites. This would enable medium-range nuclear missiles to hit Moscow in the event of a nuclear war.

Camp Century Layout
(click to enlarge)
Camp Century gradually grew into a large complex of prefabricated buildings, buried in large covered trenches underneath the ice. The three kilometers long complex included sleeping for some 200 inhabitants, research buildings, a communications center, mess hall and kitchen, truck maintenance hall, showers, infirmary with operating room, chapel, library, recreation rooms, a theatre and various other buildings.

The PM-2A, the first ever portable nuclear power reactor, delivered two Megawatt electrical power to the settlement, with a diesel-electric generator as back-up. Four ramps, descending into the trenches, and sixteen vertical escape hatches were the only visible parts of the complex.

Camp Century Main Entrance. Image credits: Jon Fresch

In 1963, after three years of operation, Project Iceworm came to a halt when geologists discovered that the ice sheet, which they believed to be rather solid and permanent, moved and deformed much faster than expected. They calculated that the shifting ice would destroy the future underground missile silos within less than two years. By 1965, the nuclear reactor was dismantled, shipped back to the United States and all personnel evacuated. The camp eventually closed down completely in 1966.

Goodbye nuclear missile outpost. All quiet on the northern front...

... until 1968, when a B-52 strategic bomber, carrying four hydrogen nuclear bombs, crashed at Thule Air Base, 240 kilometers from Camp Century. The B-52's mission was part of U.S. Air force Operation Chrome Dome, the airborne alert for rapid first strike and retaliation, running since 1960. It was the first tip to be lifted from the veil of Greenland's nuclear secret (and the deathblow for Chrome Dome).

Only in 1995, Denmark (which claimed a nuclear-free zone policy since 1957) initiated a thorough investigation into the crash and what those nukes were doing there. The outcome caused a major political scandal in Denmark, called Thulegate. The final report, commissioned by the Danish parliament, was published in 1997. The report, based on declassified U.S. documents, finally revealed both the officially denied recurrent nuclear-armed overflights and the plans to construct no less than 600 nuclear missile silos on Greenland's icy plains.

Today, we can only guess about the true effects of both the nuclear power plant and the heavily polluting plane crash on the apparently not-so-environmentally-clean Greenland. Oh well, the wind has died down, the story is long forgotten and problem solved. Or not? Amazing how quickly such spicy Cold War stories perish.

Below you find a fascinating 1963 U.S. Army documentary about the construction of Camp Century, which "incidentally" forgets to mention Project Iceman. At that time, it was a smart move to show the "research" camp in the media to appease any suspicion from the Soviets about its real purpose. Although portrayed idealistic, the documentary is a great example of the 1960s Cold War mindset. I love those movies!

The Defense Technical Information Center has the complete Technical Report of Camp Century, drafted in 1965. Atomic Skies has an excellent description of Camp Century and Project Iceworm. Some interesting information, images and documents are found at Frank Leskovitz' Science Leads the Way. There's a pod cast about the camp at Allan Bellows Damn Interesting and here's a nice ironic view on the camp's secret history.

More on Project Iceworm in Chapter III, p. 53-56 of the History of the U.S. Army Engineer Studies Center and on Wikipedia. Finally, you can read more about the B-52 crash at Thule AB in 1968 and USAF Col Leonard Otten wrote about Project Crested Ice (from page 87), the Thule crash cleanup.

As a side note, the 1961 SL-1 incident in Idaho, explosion and meltdown inclusive, shows that planting small nuclear reactors in the arctic wasn't really a great idea, at least not in those days. A nice government documentary about the SL-1 shows why. However, it didn't stop the Army Nuclear Power Program (ANPP) from planting new ones in Antarctica and Alaska, to name a few of the eight locations. The ANPP program ended in 1977. Whew!

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