Danger: Radioactive Cold War stash & Greenland's melting ice-sheet

Portable PM-2A nuclear power plant. © US Army
Melting ice in Greenland will expose a US Cold War military base, releasing biological, chemical and radioactive waste left behind when the site was decommissioned in 1969, according to a new study.

The subterranean city, ‘Camp Century’, was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1959 under the guise of polar research. However, its actual purpose was to explore storing and launching ballistic missiles from within Greenland’s ice sheet under the mission ‘Project Iceworm’.

The mission was decommissioned in the late 1960s and the camp abandoned, leaving virtually everything behind - presumably in the belief that the meters of ice and subsequent snowfalls would ensure all remnants would remain permanently covered.

However, researchers at York University in Toronto, Canada, say that given current rates of ice meltage, the waste could be exposed and released within the next 75 years, if not sooner.

Layout plan of Camp Century. © U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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They predict the rate of melting ice could overtake snowfall as soon as 2090, and say that the remaining 60 meters of ice covering the camp will erode within the following century.

Their study, published Thursday in Geophysical Research Letters, warns that highly toxic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and radiological waste from the camp’s nuclear generator will be released when water melting through the site washes it downstream.

Engineers capturing an ice core at Camp Century © contentdm.oclc.org

The study authors warn that the release of this waste could also have a serious impact on international relations, given that it is unclear who bears responsibility for the waste and its cleanup.

While Camp Century and four other contemporaneous ice sheet bases were legally established under a Danish-US treaty, the potential remobilization of their abandoned wastes, previously regarded as sequestered, represents an entirely new pathway of political dispute resulting from climate change,” they note.

Denmark, which controlled Greenland at the time, granted the US permission to establish military bases there, although it’s not known if they were fully aware of the scale and purpose of the American activity at the site. Greenland was granted partial autonomy in 1979.

It plays into a discussion about the US and Denmark using Greenland for their own purposes, and then the Greenlandic people have to deal with it afterwards,” Kristian Nielsen, a science historian at Aarhus University in Denmark, who was not involved in the study, told Science.

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