In 1960, a project was undertaken by the US military the likes of which seem almost impossible today. In fact, I doubt we would ever make it past an environmental impact study. But back then, there seemed to be a more ambitious spirit for big feats of imagination and engineering.
Project Iceworm was an attempt to build a veritable city under the snow and ice of Greenland. Tunnels were cut into the ice and buildings erected which housed hundreds of personnel. The encampment, dubbed Camp Century, had heated barracks, a kitchen, mess hall, medical center, laboratories. The camp was staffed year round by more than 200.
All of this was made possible by a cutting edge nuclear reactor. Keeping the camp powered by conventional means required the transport of enormous volumes of diesel fuel. This was simply not sustainable for such a large a remotely-located facility. The PM-2A was one of the first portable nuclear power systems ever created. It was transported to the site and preformed well for the length of the project. It provided ample electricity, which was used for everything from heating the structures to melting ice to provide drinking water.
A truly amazing film was made to document the project:
(If your browser does not support embedded video click here)
The official purpose of the project was scientific research. However, while scientific data was collected, this was not the primary purpose. Rather, Camp Century, was intended to be the prototype for a much larger project to build tunnels and missile launch complexes under the ice of Greenland. It was hoped that this would be an ideal location for missiles which could survive an attack by the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately the project was much shorter lived than planned. The movement of the glacier ice was much greater than had been anticipated and it was not long before tunnels began to shift with the icepack. By 1964, the task of clearing and maintaining tunnels had become a full time operation. Without continuous excavation, the shifting ice would destroy the facility. More than 120 tons of ice and snow had to be moved per month to keep the tunnels clear. By 1966, the camp was abandoned. The reactor was removed and returned to the United States. In 1969, an evaluation team visited what was left of Camp Century and found most of the structures were crushed by the advancing ice.
None the less, the project did return some important scientific data, including numerous ice cores. It also served as a perfect illustration of the limitless possibilities that small nuclear reactors offer. In extreme environments, where fuel is not easily transported, nuclear energy can provide the power necessary to sustain scientific operations or other facilities.
Nuclear reactors would be perfect for places like South Pole Station or McMurdo Base. One was actually tried at McMurdo Base, but it was not very successful, partially because of its early experimental design. A modern compact reactor would likely fair much better, but that is unlikely in the current political and environmental climate. Still, if you want to stay warm in the coldest of places or have limitless energy away from civilization, you can’t beat a nuclear reactor.
This entry was posted on Friday, November 15th, 2013 at 9:05 pm and is filed under Good Science, History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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