Warming May Free Frozen Waste at Cold War Nuke Site

The refuse, long buried under Greenland's ice sheet, could become an environmental hazard.

Photo: Camp Century is seen in an aerial shot during construction in 1959. Credit: US Army, American Geophysical Union When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Camp Century in Greenland back in 1959, the base's official purpose was to test construction techniques in cold weather conditions and to conduct innocuous-sounding research on the Arctic environment, such as collecting ice core samples. (Here's an unclassified 1965 U.S. Army report on the base.)

But secretly, without the knowledge of the Danish government that controlled Greenland, the camp also was part of Project Iceworm. The latter was a top secret program for testing the feasibility of putting nuclear missile sites in the Arctic, where they could reach the Soviet Union more quickly. In the mid-1960s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that idea was impractical, and Camp Century was shut down. The Corps of Engineers dismantled the camp and removed its nuclear reactor, but left behind refuse that included nuclear waste, diesel fuel and other chemicals. The assumption was that those hazardous materials would be covered up by Greenland's ice sheet and remain safely buried, forever.

RELATED: Greenland's Melt Season Started Two Months Early

But as a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters reveals, climate change could melt the protective ice cover and free the long-buried waste late in this century, allowing it to flow into the ocean and become an environmental hazard to marine ecosystems.

The Corps of Engineers assumed the site would continue to accumulate cover from snowfall. But global warming, the scientists write, could within 75 years lead to a shift from net accumulation to net ablation, where melting results in more snow and ice being removed. That "would guarantee the eventual remobilization of physical, chemical, biological, and radiological wastes abandoned at the site," they conclude.

The need to clean up that waste before it contaminates the environment raises the politically volatile question: Who is responsible for it?

"Two generations ago, people were interring waste in different areas of the world, and now climate change is modifying those sites," the study's lead author, William Colgan, said in a press release. Colgan is a climate and glacier scientist at York University in Toronto, and a research associate at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in Boulder, Colo.

"It's a new breed of political challenge we have to think about," Colgan said.

RELATED: The Pentagon's Cold War Space Project

The scientists' analysis of the 136-acre site revealed that it may contain 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 63.000 gallons of waste water, including sewage. Based upon building materials used a the time, they say that the former base may also be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are potentially hazardous to humans.

But the most attention-getting legacy of Camp Century may low-level radioactive coolant from the base's nuclear reactor. No one knows how much of that radioactive waste is buried on the site.

As military historian Todd Tucker has written, Project Iceworm was part of a Pentagon mindset that envisioned a literal Cold War, in which a U.S.-Soviet version of Armageddon would take place at the frigid top of the world. Along those lines, the U.S. military developed plans for nuclear-powered trains capable of rushing forces through the snow, and a special rifle with a squeeze bar instead of a trigger, so that the shooter could wear mittens.

But Iceworm was the ultimate manifestation of that strategy. According to Tucker, the plan called for 600 intermediate-range missiles that would move on railroad tracks through tunnels dug under the ice cap, across an area of 52,000 square miles. A force of 11,000 soldiers would have protected the doomsday infrastructure from Soviet forces advancing across the ice.

But by the mid-1960s, the development of long-range nuclear missiles made Iceworm unnecessary, and the project was abandoned.

WATCH VIDEO: Where Do We Store Nuclear Waste?