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The US military tried portable nuclear power at remote bases 60 years ago – it didn’t go well

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In a tunnel 40 feet below the surface of the Greenland ice cap, a Geiger counter screamed. It was in 1964, at the height of the Cold War. American soldiers in the tunnel, 800 miles from the North Pole, were dismantling the military’s first portable nuclear reactor.

Commander Joseph Franklin grabbed the radiation detector, ordered his men out, and made a quick investigation before withdrawing from the reactor.

He had spent about two minutes exposed to a radiation field which he estimated at 2,000 rads per hour, enough to make a person sick. Upon his return from Greenland, the military sent Franklin to the Bethesda Naval Hospital. There he set off a whole body radiation meter designed to assess victims of nuclear accidents. Franklin was radioactive.

The military called the reactor portable, even at 330 tons, because it was built from parts that each fit in a C-130 cargo plane. It supplied Camp Century, one of the most unusual military bases.

The Camp Century tunnels began as trenches dug in the ice.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Camp Century was a series of tunnels built into the Greenland ice cap and used for both military research and science projects. The military boasted that the nuclear reactor there, known as the PM-2A, only needed 44 pounds of uranium to replace a million or more gallons of diesel fuel. The heat from the reactor turned on the lights and equipment and allowed the approximately 200 men at the camp as many hot showers as they wanted in the brutally cold environment.

The PM-2A was the third child in a family of eight military reactors, several of which were portable nuclear power experiments.

A few were unsuitable. The PM-3A, nicknamed Nukey Poo, was stationed at the McMurdo Sound Naval Base in Antarctica. It made a nuclear mess in Antarctica, with 438 malfunctions in 10 years including a cracked and leaking containment vessel. SL-1, a low-power stationary nuclear reactor in Idaho, exploded during refueling, killing three men. SM-1 is still 12 miles from the White House in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. It cost US $ 2 million to build and cleanup is expected to cost US $ 68 million. The only truly mobile reactor, the ML-1, never really worked.

A truck with a box on a trailer behind it
The military abandoned its truck-mounted portable reactor program in 1965. This is the ML-1.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Almost 60 years after the installation of the PM-2A and the abandonment of Project ML-1, the US military is once again exploring portable nuclear reactors on the ground.

In May 2021, the Pentagon requested $ 60 million for the Pelé project. Its goal: To design and build, within five years, a small, portable, truck-mounted nuclear reactor that could be transported to remote locations and war zones. It could be power on and off for transportation in a few days.

The Navy has a long and most importantly successful history of mobile nuclear power. The first two nuclear submarines, the Nautilus and the Skate, visited the North Pole in 1958, just before the construction of Camp Century. Two more nuclear submarines sank in the 1960s – their reactors sit quietly on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with two nuclear torpedoes containing plutonium. Portable reactors on land pose different challenges – no problem lies under thousands of feet of seawater.

Supporters of mobile nuclear power for the battlefield say it will provide nearly unlimited, low-carbon power without the need for vulnerable supply convoys. Others argue that the costs and risks outweigh the benefits. Nuclear proliferation also raises concerns if mobile reactors are able to avoid international inspections.

Leaking reactor on Greenland ice cap

The PM-2A was built in 18 months. It arrived at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland in July 1960 and was dragged 138 miles through the shattered ice cap, then assembled at Camp Century.

When the reactor first became critical in October, engineers immediately shut it down because the PM-2A leaked neutrons, which can harm people. The military made lead shields and built walls of 55-gallon barrels filled with ice and sawdust in an attempt to protect operators from radiation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUVnYKIUEQU
“The Big Picture,” an Army television program distributed to US stations, devoted a 1961 episode to Camp Century and the Reactor.

The PM-2A operated for two years, producing electricity and heat without fossil fuels and far more neutrons than was sure.

These stray neutrons caused problems. The steel pipes and the reactor vessel became increasingly radioactive over time, as did the traces of sodium in the snow. The cooling water that escaped from the reactor contained dozens of radioactive isotopes potentially exposing personnel to radiation and leaving a legacy in the ice.

When the reactor was dismantled for shipment, its metal pipes released radioactive dust. Bulldozing snow that was once bathed in neutrons from the reactor released radioactive ice flakes.

Franklin must have ingested some of the radioactive isotopes produced by the leaking neutrons. In 2002, she had a prostate and a cancerous kidney removed. In 2015, the cancer spread to his lungs and bones. He died of kidney cancer on March 8, 2017, as a retired, revered and decorated Major General.

Two men in uniform standing in a hangar.
Joseph Franklin (right) with parts of the decommissioned PM-2A reactor at Thule Air Base.
U.S. Army Photo, Franklin Family, Dignity Memorial

Camp Century’s radioactive legacy

Century Camp was closed in 1967. During its eight-year life, scientists used the base to drill through the ice cap and extract an ice core that my colleagues and I still use today to reveal the secrets of the ice cap’s ancient past. . Camp Century, its ice core and climate change are at the center of a book I’m writing.

PM-2A was found to be highly radioactive and was buried in an Idaho nuclear waste landfill. Army records of the “hot waste” spill indicate that it left radioactive cooling water buried in a sump in the Greenland ice cap.

When scientists who studied Camp Century in 2016 suggested that global warming now melting Greenland’s ice could expose the camp and its wastes, including lead, fuel oil, PCBs and possibly radiation, by 2100 , relations between the United States, Denmark and Greenland have strained. Who would be responsible for the cleanup and environmental damage?

Diagram of the Camp Century reactor in the trenches
A schematic diagram of the Camp Century nuclear reactor in the Greenland ice cap.
US Army Corps of Engineers.

Portable nuclear reactors today

There are major differences between nuclear power production in the 1960s and today.

The fuel for the Pele reactor will be sealed in pellets the size of poppy seeds, and it will be air-cooled so that there is no radioactive refrigerant to dispose of.

Being able to produce energy with less greenhouse gas emissions is positive in a warming world. The use of liquid fuel by the US military is similar to that of Portugal or Peru. Not having to deliver so much fuel to remote bases can also help protect lives in dangerous places.

But the United States still lacks a cohesive national strategy for disposing of nuclear waste, and critics wonder what will happen if Pele falls into enemy hands. Researchers from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Academy of Sciences have already questioned the risks of terrorist attacks on nuclear reactors. While the portable reactor proposals will be considered over the next few months, these concerns and others will attract attention.

The US military’s first attempts at land-based portable nuclear reactors did not perform well in terms of environmental contamination, cost, human health, and international relations. This story is worth remembering as the military considers new mobile reactors.

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