Kiwis fear cancer after working near leaky US nuclear reactor in Antarctica via Stuff

New Zealand soldiers who served in Antarctica in the 1960s-1970s fear they may get cancer because an American nuclear power plant at McMurdo Station leaked. US servicemen have already died. Will Harvie reports.

Paul Williscroft was a cargo handler with the New Zealand Army. He served in Antarctica four times between 1973 and 1985, but it was his 10-week tour in 1978-79 that stands out now.

In early 1979, he was ordered to load an American ship at McMurdo port.

The ship was taking soil from the vicinity of a shuttered American nuclear power plant that had operated at McMurdo from 1962 to 1973. There were 438 documented safety problems with the plant, nicknamed “nukey poo”. The most notable was a leak from a cooling unit. Within about a month of finding that leak, the US Navy decommissioned the plant.


The navy also decided soil from under the power plant had to be sent away. The plant sat on Observation Hill, overlooking McMurdo. Soil downhill from the site had to be removed as well. More than 9000 cubic metres of potentially contaminated soil was scraped away.

In 1979, Williscroft had to shovel the contaminated soil.


“Our role was within the hold of the ship,” he wrote. “As the soil was dropped, it sat in the centre of the ship’s hold. Our task was to shovel the soil toward the side of the cargo hold, to get the ship more stable for rough seas.”

“We had zero [protective gear],” he said in an interview. “I mean absolutely zero. I would swear that on a stack of bibles.” They had cold weather gear.

“In terms of being briefed and made aware of threats and hazards and so on, there was nothing.”


In August 2012, the Secretary for War Pensions Rick Ottaway replied to lobbying by the Returned and Services’ Association about the plant. “I am monitoring the US Government’s response to the [nuclear] matter so that any new information or findings can be evaluated,” he wrote.

“I’d love to know what they’ve been monitoring,” said Breen in a recent interview.

“There’s been absolutely no information come back from them about any of this … I don’t believe they’ve monitored anything.”


Vincent worked with a Snap 21 model RTG, which was powered by Strontium 90, and allowed antennae to collect atmospheric data. It was about half the size of an oil drum and housed in a little orange hut that Vincent visited from time to time.

Years after Vincent got back to New Zealand, he found a 5 millimetre bubble on his abdomen. It was a rare type of skin cancer that he can’t remember the name of now. It was cut out.

After the Christchurch earthquakes, Vincent left for Adelaide and last year learned he has Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia, a rare cancer of the lymphatic system.

He said doctors in Adelaide had never seen the disease before and are “reading the medical journals” to figure out treatment for the incurable disease.

Read more at Kiwis fear cancer after working near leaky US nuclear reactor in Antarctica 

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