A top-secret project of the U.S. military from the ‘Cold War’ and the toxic waste hidden in it could soon be a topic of conversation. In the meantime, the long abandoned base “Camp Century” is considered an environmental risk. Climate change and melting ice are likely to help bring the waste to light soon. It is not yet clear who will have to manage the disposal.
These were the hectic days of the ‘Cold War’, when the rivalry between the nuclear powers of the U.S. and the Soviet Union led military leaders to constantly seek new ways to outwit the other side. Pentagon planners thought that moving 600 nuclear-equipped “Iceman” missiles between 2,100 silos could leave their opponents in the Soviet Union in the dark.
“Camp Century” was also strategically located under the ice cover 225 km from Thule in northwest Greenland. “Camp Century was designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A mobile 1.5 MW nuclear reactor “Alco PM-2A” was used to supply power. The installation of the reactor was one of the last works completed in November 1960, just before the camp was officially opened.
The base was part of a large-scale plan called Project “Iceworm”. A 4,000-kilometre-long rail network was to be built under the ice cover to transport the nuclear missiles. At intervals of six kilometres, 600 ballistic missiles were to be stored and ready to reach their targets in Russia and Eastern Europe.
From 1959 to 1961, they dug hundreds of meters into the compacted snow and built an underground city with sleeping quarters, laboratories, offices, a hairdressing salon, a laundry, a library and hot showers for 200 soldiers.
In connection with their book project, Henry Nielsen and Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen benefited greatly from the fact that the USA wanted as much coverage of “Camp Century” as possible while the base was in operation. Especially to show the ‘Red Ivan’ technological and military muscle. In addition to American journalists, the US defence also invited scouts to “Camp Century”. They wanted to show what the US military was capable of and to spread propaganda.
However, this amazing technical masterpiece did not really work. The equipment could not withstand the pressure and movements of the ice and the rails on which the rocket train was travelling were compressed. Problems with the nuclear reactor forced its removal in 1964. Building the base eight metres below the ice cost a lot of effort, energy and money. Despite the large investments, the base had a life span of only six years from 1959 to 1965.
Thanks to their liaison and ‘spy’ Erik Jørgen-Jensen, the Danish government received more information about Camp Century from 1960 onwards. The project only became known to the public in 1997.
After the closure of “Camp Century”, the engineers assumed that the abandoned station would eventually be covered by ice. At that time, it was believed that the waste would probably not cause any damage and would not reappear for another 8,000 years. But decades later, the warming temperatures under the influence of climate change posed a problem. In 2016, a team of scientists reported that the rapid warming of the Greenland ice sheet could lead to the release of radioactive, toxic and human waste left behind in “Camp Century”, which could potentially reach the ocean.
What was left behind in the “Camp Century”
Left behind was the entire infrastructure distributed in 21 tunnels in the form of railways and buildings weighing around 9,200 tons. The chemical waste in the form of diesel oil and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) amounts to approximately 200,000 litres and there is also biological waste in the form of 24 million litres of untreated water. It is also suspected that an unknown amount of low-level radioactive coolant was left behind by the reactor. Only the nuclear power plant was taken away. The almost 10,000 tons of waste are now located 30 to 70 metres below the ice.
Who should pay for the disposal
It was only on September 24, 1962 that Denmark and the United States agreed on a treaty in the following wording:
“The Government of the United States recognizes its responsibility to pay in full all valid claims arising from the operation of the facility and will take “reasonable measures” and make provision for such claims if necessary. Disagreements will be settled in the normal manner, taking into account relevant Danish legislation and international conventions,” the agreement states.
However, it is highly doubtful whether the 1962 Convention still has legal effects today. In addition, there are so many vague wordings in the agreement that Denmark – on behalf of Greenland – may find it difficult today to make a real legal claim against the United States.
Without an established agreement on this issue, the “multinational, intergenerational” problem “Camp Century” and its waste could become a source of tension between the USA, Greenland and Denmark.
Denmark allowed the USA in a 1951 agreement to establish “Camp Century” and other bases on Greenland, but it is not clear how much it has learned about the work done there or the waste left behind. To make matters worse, Greenland became largely self-governing in 1979.
Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal