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12 August 2016

Climate change threatens to unearth hazardous waste at an abandoned Cold War base

Camp Century, a base built under the Greenland ice sheets, could find its nuclear remains exposed to devastating effect as ice and snow melts away.

By Hasan Chowdhury

A military camp built beneath the surface of a Greenland ice sheet may sound like a fictional setting from a Cold War spy thriller. But in 1959, in the midst of the Cold War, the US Army Corps of Engineers built the very real, highly secretive Camp Century – a place tucked away under Greenland’s north-western ice sheet, where experiments on the deployment of ballistic missiles could be conducted without restriction.

After years of ice sheet examination in the area, the base was built 115ft beneath the snow. It posed as a polar research centre, one which analysed climate data and was positioned neatly to drill ice cores – cylinders of ice wrenched from glacial sheets for study. However, the central mission for the camp and its near 200 soldiers – found eight metres below the partially compacted snow called firn – was fuelled by a nuclear generator.

Plans to test-try ballistic missiles in the underground ice plains were to be supported by the construction of a railway, which could support up to 600 of the explosive weapons. Under the name Project Iceworm, this proposal was put forward to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff who ultimately rejected it in 1963; all operations were abandoned by 1967.

Left behind was a heap of waste: 200,000 litres of diesel fuel, 24m litres of biological waste in the form of sewage, radiological waste that served as a coolant for the nuclear generator, and a significant amount of polychlorinated biphenyls – a substance now banned because of its negative hit on human and environmental health.

At the time, there was an assumption by engineers that the remaining waste could be dismissed with minimal decommissioning; so long as snowfall continued, the diesel fuel, the radiological waste, the PCBs – all of it – would be “preserved for eternity”, entombed in an ice capsule under the Greenland snow.

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But now, due to climate change, the ice covering the base is at risk of completely melting away – causing an unearthing that risks exposing the plethora of hazardous materials and rekindling political disputes.

This is all according to new research published in Geophysical Research Letters. Led by William Colgan, a professor at the Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering at York University in Toronto, a team of scientists examined the rate at which the ice in the Camp Century area of Greenland was expected to melt. Worryingly, they found that the waste could be out in the open as early as 2090.

Speaking to Motherboard, Colgan said “it was reasonable to expect it to snow forever” in the Sixties. Drastic changes to the climate were unforeseeable at the time, but when confronted with the new reality that Greenland has lost at least 9tn tons of ice over the past century  1tn of which has been lost over a period of four years between 2011 and 2014  increasing rates of ice loss will inevitably put the country on the precipice. “We have to say, these aren’t tombs for eternity. Maybe in a century, they’re going to start to melt out,” warned Colgan.

The team envisioned an ice-depleted future for Greenland using a number of simulations. These predicted that exposed pollutants potentially reaching the sea would have severe knock-on effects on the surroundings. Increased surface melting would exceed any future increases in snowfall, implying that there would be a gradual but consequential transition from a net gain in ice development to a net loss of ice.

The mass increase of fluid would remobilise toxic wastes, shuttling them into locations where they would cause catastrophic damage to nature.

The paper notes that the last reported visit to the Greenland site was 1969 and that Camp Century is just one of five abandoned bases in the vicinity. Despite not knowing what lurks in the other bases, it’s been suggested that a clean-up would be straightforward. The difficulty will be in determining where that responsibility lies.

In 1951, the US joined with Denmark to sign the Defence of Greenland Agreement to protect the state, which was caught between the US and USSR during the tensest of times. Denmark was involved in the “planning and environmental monitoring” of the base, but confusion over where the responsibility lay for waste disposal means disputes could arise.

The paper reinforces this, stating that it could be a prime example of how climate change could cause political abrasion, and, “given the multinational origin and multigenerational legacy of Camp Century, there appears to be substantial ambiguity surrounding the political and legal liability associated with mitigating the potential remobilisation of its pollutants”.

More than four decades on, the remains of a nuclear mess threaten to spill over, potentially leaving us with no choice but to feel the toxicity of a war that should now have been buried deep in history.