Impact of Nuclear Testing Base at Camp Century

Nicole Nishimura
April 27, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Camp Century, Greenland (Source: Wikimedia Commons- US Army).

During the Cold War, the United States Military began using portable nuclear reactors at several bases, including Camp Century in Greenland. [1] Camp Century, shown in Fig. 1, was a US military base hidden under the ice of Northwestern Greenland in use from 1959-1967. Their plan, under Project Iceworm, was to see if they could launch nuclear weapons from this site. [2] The camp was eventually decommissioned, and the nuclear reactor was removed, but a lot of other waste was left behind. [3] They made the decision to leave the buildings and waste because they assumed that the layer of ice covering the base would continue to grow, but due to global warming the ice is now melting quickly. [4]

Climate Change Accelerating Ice Melt

There is now concern that the ice melt will release many harmful toxins into the environment as soon as the year 2090. [5] Researchers have estimated that 9,200 tons of physical waste and 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel remain at the base. [5] The toxins in concern include diesel fuel, radioactive coolant water, and polychlorinated biphenyls (carcinogens known as PCBs). [5] Interestingly, the radioactive waste is not the most concerning issue; researchers are much more concerned about the PCBs. [2] Once the ice melts, the toxins will enter the ocean, and may have negative impacts on ecological and human health. [3] While this may not be the biggest nuclear or hazardous waste leak that we have experienced, it may be an important one to learn from as it is not the only one that will need to be monitored in the coming years: there are many other US bases around the world with unknown amounts of waste left behind. [2] These other locations include locations where rising sea levels are a concern, since nuclear waste could be reintroduced into the oceans. [2]

Political Concerns

Since Camp Century was established in 1959, the only agreement that exists is between the United States and Denmark, which held full control of Greenland until 1979. [6] It is very unclear who would now hold responsibility for cleaning up the waste that will eventually be released, and some are concerned that this may fall on Greenland. [3] Luckily, there is still time for the three governments to reach an agreement, before a majority of the waste begins to enter the environment.


Camp Century is a very interesting base for numerous reasons; it was a potential site for nuclear missile launch, utilized a portable nuclear reactor for power, and now has important environmental and political implications. While it may not be the most concerning, it is starting important conversations that might become more common in the future, and could set a precedent for planning ahead for hazardous waste problems that are expected to arise with climate change.

© Nicole Nishimura. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] W. R. Corliss, "Power Reactors in Small Packages," U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, October 1968.

[2] J. D. Colgan, "Climate Change and the Politics of Military Bases," Global Environ. Polit. 18, 33 (2018).

[3] L. Martirosyan, "Waste From a Secret US Base Was Left to be Entombed "Forever" in Greenland's Ice. But Forever Has Changed," Public Radio International, 11 Aug 16.

[4] W. Colgan et al., "The Abandoned Ice Sheet Base at Camp Century, Greenland, in a Warming Climate," Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 8091 (2016).

[5] B. Panko, "A Radioactive Cold War Military Base Will Soon Emerge from Greenland's Melting Ice," Smithsonian, 5 Aug 16.

[6] S. Lyall, "Greenland to Vote on More Independence from Denmark," New York Times, 24 Nov 08.