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America’s Secret Nuclear Ice Base Is Melting via MotherJones

Global warming is turning Camp Century into a toxic hazard.

This story was originally published byAtlas Obscuraand appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

The creation of Camp Century, from the outset, was an audacious scheme. Under the thick ice of Greenland, a scant 800 miles from the North Pole, the US military built a hidden base of ice tunnels, imagined as an extensive network of railway tracks, stretching over 2,500 miles, that would keep 600 nuclear missiles buried under the ice. Construction began in 1959, under cover of a scientific research project, and soon a small installation, powered by a nuclear reactor, nested in the ice sheet.

[…]

When siting the secret ice base, the military chose a spot where dry snow kept the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet from melting, and when the base was abandoned its creators expected the remains to stay encased in ice forever. But decades later, conditions have changed, and as a team of researchers reported in a 2016 paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, the now-melting ice sheet threatens to mobilize the dangerous pollutants left behind.

This hazard-in-waiting is a new kind of environmental threat: In the past, there was little reason to worry about water-borne pollution on an ice sheet 100,000 years old. As Jeff D. Colgan, a professor of political science at Brown University, writes in an article released last week in the journal Global Environmental Politics, Camp Century represents both a second-order environmental threat from climate change and a new path to political conflict.

[…]

Overall, the researchers estimated that 20,000 liters of chemical waste remain at the Camp Century site, along with 24 million liters of “biological waste associated with untreated sewage.” That’s just at Camp Century; the military closed down bases at three other sites in Greenland, too, and it’s unclear how much waste is left there. Over the next few decades, the researchers found, melt water from the ice sheets could mobilize these pollutants, exposing both the wildlife and humans living in Greenland.

Creating these ice-bound military bases required a delicate political negotiation to begin with. The US established its bases in Greenland under agreement with Denmark, which governed the island at the time. (Greenland now has self-rule but is still part of the Kingdom of Denmark.) There were some principles outlined about the two governments’ responsibilities for the bases, but, as Colgan writes in the new paper, the status of American nuclear weapons on Greenland fell into a diplomatic gray area.

The Danish government had taken a stand against nuclear weapons and would never condone a nuclear base on Greenland. But in 1957, an American ambassador, Val Peterson, made an official overture to the Danish prime minister, H.C. Hansen. If—just say—the US had nuclear weapons in Greenland, would the Danish government want to know? Five days later, the prime minister had a response: “I do not think that your remarks give rise to any comments from my side,” he wrote, in a “informal, personal, top secret” paper. The US went ahead with the plan.

There was similar ambiguity around the responsibility for the physical assets of the base. While they remained the property of the United States, the agreement said they could be “disposed of” in Greenland, after input from the Danish government. But it’s not at all clear who’s responsible for dealing with a long-term environmental hazard posed by the waste abandoned there.

This problem—who will pay to clean up environmental waste—is a common one; in the US, the Superfund program assigns responsibility for a polluted site, often across multiple parties associated with it over the years. But in this sort of international agreement between two governments, there’s no parallel process for divvying up blame or costs.

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