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Frozen superfund

Search for responsibility after Camp Century revelations

Reports of the impending emergence of hazardous waste at an abandoned base under Greenland’s icecap has lawmakers asking who will be responsible for the clean-up
This isn’t the reactor you’re looking for (Image: Defense Department Film)

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Greenland and Danish lawmakers are seeking to pin responsibility for cleaning up the potentially hazardous waste left behind at Camp Century, a US Cold War base built into the icecap in 1959 and abandoned nearly a decade later.

When the once-secret base, which was planned to be used as part of a transport system for nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, was closed, most of the installation was left in place, in the belief that it would remain entombed in the icecap.

However, scientists, led by Dirk van As, a glaciologist with GEUS, the Danish and Greenlandic geological survey, writing in the current edition of Geophysical Research Letters, predict that, due to increasing temperatures over Greenland, the base will emerge from the ice within the next century, exposing not just its physical remains, but also hazardous materials such as sewage, PCBs and low-level radioactive waste, stemming from a mobile nuclear reactor that was removed when the base was shut down.

SEE VIDEO: Research and Development Progress Report No. 6, a 1964 US Defense Department film about Camp Century (at end of article)

The presence of the base has long been known, but Vittus Qujaukitsoq, Greenland’s foreign minister, called the findings “worrisome”. He told the Danish press today the study confirmed fears about the level of pollution left behind at Camp Century and other former US military facilities that have since become the responsibility of the Danish and Greenlandic authorities.

His statement came after Sara Olsvig, an opposition lawmaker, earlier this week called on the Naalakkersuisut, the elected government, to explain what it intended to do about the base, located some 250km inland in far northern-eastern Greenland.

Although US forces had been active at Thule Air Base since 1951, there has been some uncertainty to what extent the Danish government was aware of the establishment of Camp Century and a smaller predecessor, known as Camp Fistclench, as well as the activities that were going on there.

In 2014, when questioned by a Greenlandic member of the Danish national assembly about the bases, the Danish government initially answered that Camp Century had been powered by a strontium reactor. It later stated, however, that the reactor had been a uranium-powered PM-2A reactor. A similar model, used to power America’s McMurdo base in the 1970s, was found to have resulted in the surrounding soil becoming radioactive.

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Although Mr Qujaukitsoq did not seek to place responsibility for cleaning up the remains of Camp Century, Karsten Hønge, a Danish MP, suggested that the US should bear the financial burden for doing so.

“Whoever made the mess should pay to clean it up, and everything points to the US as the responsible party, if what we read holds true,” he told DR, a broadcaster.

Cleaning up the pollution, according to scientists, may be a matter of timing the efforts correctly. For now, Camp Century remains under the icecap. Digging it out, according to Mr van As, could result in pollution being spread. Instead, he told Information, a Danish news outlet, the best option would be to move in and clean up the site as soon as it emerges from the ice.