The U.S. Army tried portable nuclear power at remote bases 60 years ago — it didn’t go well

A schematic diagram of Camp Century’s nuclear reactor in the Greenland ice sheet. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

By Paul Bierman, University of Vermont

In a tunnel 40 feet beneath the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, a Geiger counter screamed. It was 1964, the height of the Cold War. U.S. soldiers in the tunnel, 800 miles from the North Pole, were dismantling the Army’s first portable nuclear reactor.

Commanding Officer Joseph Franklin grabbed the radiation detector, ordered his men out and did a quick survey before retreating from the reactor.

He had spent about two minutes exposed to a radiation field he estimated at 2,000 rads per hour, enough to make a person ill. When he came home from Greenland, the Army sent Franklin to the Bethesda Naval Hospital. There, he set off a whole body radiation counter designed to assess victims of nuclear accidents. Franklin was radioactive.

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

Three people stand at the opening of a trench with a half-round metal cover
The Camp Century tunnels started as trenches cut into the ice.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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

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

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

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

Nearly 60 years after the PM-2A was installed and the ML-1 project abandoned, the U.S. military is exploring portable land-based nuclear reactors again.

In May 2021, the Pentagon requested $60 million for Project Pele. Its goal: Design and build, within five years, a small, truck-mounted portable nuclear reactor that could be flown to remote locations and war zones. It would be able to be powered up and down for transport within a few days.

The Navy has a long and mostly successful history of mobile nuclear power. The first two nuclear submarines, the Nautilus and the Skate, visited the North Pole in 1958, just before Camp Century was built. Two other nuclear submarines sank in the 1960s – their reactors sit quietly on the Atlantic Ocean floor along with two plutonium-containing nuclear torpedos. Portable reactors on land pose different challenges – any problems are not under thousands of feet of ocean water.

Those in favor of mobile nuclear power for the battlefield claim it will provide nearly unlimited, low-carbon energy without the need for vulnerable supply convoys. Others argue that the costs and risks outweigh the benefits. There are also concerns about nuclear proliferation if mobile reactors are able to avoid international inspection.

A leaking reactor on the Greenland ice sheet

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 across the ice sheet in pieces and then assembled at Camp Century.

When the reactor went critical for the first time in October, the engineers turned it off immediately because the PM-2A leaked neutrons, which can harm people. The Army fashioned lead shields and built walls of 55-gallon drums filled with ice and sawdust trying to protect the operators from radiation.

‘The Big Picture,’ an Army TV show distributed to U.S. stations, dedicated a 1961 episode to Camp Century and the reactor.

The PM-2A ran for two years, making fossil fuel-free power and heat and far more neutrons than was safe.

Those stray neutrons caused trouble. Steel pipes and the reactor vessel grew increasingly radioactive over time, as did traces of sodium in the snow. Cooling water leaking 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 shipping, its metal pipes shed radioactive dust. Bulldozed snow that was once bathed in neutrons from the reactor released radioactive flakes of ice.

Franklin must have ingested some of the radioactive isotopes that the leaking neutrons made. In 2002, he had a cancerous prostate and kidney removed. By 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 pieces of the decommissioned PM-2A reactor at Thule Air Base.
U.S. Army Photograph, from Franklin Family, Dignity Memorial

Camp Century’s radioactive legacy

Camp Century was shut down in 1967. During its eight-year life, scientists had used the base to drill down through the ice sheet and extract an ice core that my colleagues and I are still using today to reveal secrets of the ice sheet’s ancient past. Camp Century, its ice core and climate change are the focus of a book I am now writing.

The PM-2A was found to be highly radioactive and was buried in an Idaho nuclear waste dump. Army “hot waste” dumping records indicate it left radioactive cooling water buried in a sump in the Greenland ice sheet.

When scientists studying Camp Century in 2016 suggested that the warming climate now melting Greenland’s ice could expose the camp and its waste, including lead, fuel oil, PCBs and possibly radiation, by 2100, relations between the U.S, Denmark and Greenland grew tense. Who would be responsible for the cleanup and any environmental damage?

Portable nuclear reactors today

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

The Pele reactor’s fuel will be sealed in pellets the size of poppy seeds, and it will be air-cooled so there’s no radioactive coolant to dispose of.

Being able to produce energy with fewer greenhouse emissions is a positive in a warming world. The U.S. military’s liquid fuel use is close to all of Portugal’s or Peru’s. Not having to supply remote bases with as much fuel can also help protect lives in dangerous locations.

But, the U.S. still has no coherent national strategy for nuclear waste disposal, and critics are asking what happens if Pele falls into enemy hands. Researchers at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Academy of Sciences have previously questioned the risks of nuclear reactors being attacked by terrorists. As proposals for portable reactors undergo review over the coming months, these and other concerns will be drawing attention.

The U.S. military’s first attempts at land-based portable nuclear reactors didn’t work out well in terms of environmental contamination, cost, human health and international relations. That history is worth remembering as the military considers new mobile reactors.

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Paul Bierman, Fellow of the Gund Institute for Environment, Professor of Natural Resources, University of Vermont

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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(12) Comments:

  1. Posted by Observer on

    So the lesson is because technology from 60 years ago didn’t work as well as possible, therefore…what?

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    • Posted by Anne Crawford on

      Therefore we need to be cautious and sceptical and measured in how we assess technology and the great “gifts” of science.

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      • Posted by Karl Popper on

        One of the greatest “gifts” of science is that it offers an epistemological approach to knowledge that embeds self-correction into its method. Perhaps best seen in longer historical arcs, than in the minutia of change. Admittedly humans are biased and this impedes the process, but the biases are exactly what the system was designed to address. Quite genius really. And it seems to work fairly well.

        Of interest, it seem doubtful that people sitting around being cynical about it could have created the same technologies as they use to spread their cynicism.

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        • Posted by Jay Arnakak on

          unfortunately, scientific “method” and technology are two totally different things, epistemology notwithstanding.

          • Posted by Karl Popper on

            Those are fair distinctions to make Jay, but I don’t think you can say they are unrelated. Consider, would the development of technologies of the kind we are interested in and discussing here be possible without science? Aren’t the engineers who develop nuclear tech, for example, are doing applied science?

    • Posted by Luke the Nanook Nuke on

      You said “what”. I will tell you what. If climate warming is to be truly curbed in the next 30 years, nuclear power must play a significant role in that solution. Wind and solar power are a good supplemental power sources of electricity BUT; they are unreliable when most needed and we haven’t economically mastered battery storage. Check out the California and German experience with wind and solar generation.
      Bill Gates and other smart investors are working on SMRs (small modular reactor) that will be a windfall for the Canadian Arctic in due time. Safety is their main concern and so development is slow, BUT they should be available in 4-8 years for the Arctic.
      The Russians are pretty savvy with SMRs. They have incorporated them into maritime vessels that can be floated to any remote settlement for a standalone electric power source. This would be ideal for the Canadian Arctic. When nuclear fuel needed to be changed, the vessel could leave and another SMR vessel could be floated to the settlement. 90% of Arctic settlements have deep maritime access.
      Water is the best insulation for nuclear radiation. In nuclear power plants, spent nuclear fuel is stored in water pools and gives absolute radiation confinement. If there was a problem with a floating SMR, the vessel could be immediately floated away from a populated area. If there was a meltdown, which is extremely remote, the vessel could theoretically be sunk off shore and the radiation would be totally confined.
      You said “what”. The floating SMR will be revolutionary for the Arctic. For example, unlimited year round electricity, and de-salinization of sea water giving settlements unlimited fresh hot water. Everything will be powered by clean, abundant electricity: vehicles, snowmobiles, heating in homes and public buildings, including indoor heated community swimming pools year round.
      That’s what!!!
      Let’s get an open debate going on the benefits/drawbacks of nuclear power in the Arctic and climate warming. As we know, the Artic is most affected by climate warming and the residents should become the most informed persons in the world about possible solutions. You know where I stand. Let the debate begin!

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      • Posted by note bene on

        ….we do know where you stand but you are not confident enough to put your name on your opinion.

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    • Posted by sir_steveoh on

      Those who forget history are forced to repeat it!

  2. Posted by The Old Trapper on

    Nuclear power has the same issue today that it has had since the 1950’s – namely how to dispose of the radioactive spent fuel and associated “plumbing”. There is also the issue of what to do in the case of an accident or natural disaster (see Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima).
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    No matter how safe you make it it cannot be made idiot proof and if there is one thing the north has in abundance it’s people who are not nuclear scientists, technicians, and engineers.
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    Heck the GN can’t find and keep nurses (never mind doctors and dentists), and now you want to add nuclear engineers and technicians to their payroll?
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    Solar works. Wind works. Yes battery storage needs to be better, and it is improving year after year. Don’t like those options. try small scale hydro power, or for those communities on the ocean (sorry Baker Lake) get some tidal power research going. Just FYI, the Moon is not going anywhere so there will always be tides either coming in or going out, battery back-up for slack tide.
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    I’ve heard about micro nuclear reactors for over a decade. No thanks. So GN get with the Green Plan, time is running out.

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    • Posted by Luke the Nanook Nuke on

      Regarding the storage of spent nuclear fuel you should know that Canada, Sweden and Finland are the leading nations on the technology of safe underground storage of nuclear waste. These countries have regulated the nuclear industry so well that storage is not a major safety issue. The Director of Nuclear Spent Fuel storage at Ontario Hydro told me personally that a Boy Scout troop could safely camp in their temporary nuclear dry storage area for weeks without getting any harmful radiation…it’s that safe.
      It is the Americans who are dealing with the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) issue concerning spent nuclear fuel storage. They have spent billions of dollars trying to solve this issue and it has been so politicized that everyone is scared silly about this problem… which is really not a problem. They spent over $10 Billion on the nuclear storage site a Yucca Mountain in Nevada and to date have no spent nuclear fuel stored there !!!!
      Canada is an international leader in safe nuclear technology, which includes the underground storage of spent nuclear fuel. Ontario Hydro is a world leader in the safe generation of electrical power with nuclear energy. They had a long learning curve, made a few mistakes that didn’t result in any Chernobyl type disasters and now are among the safest operators in the world.
      The Canadian Arctic would be one of the safest places on earth to store spent nuclear fuel. There are no earth quakes or volcanoes; there are vast areas of underground granite formations that would be ideal for safe, long term storage; most of these areas are accessible to deep water shipping for a portion of the year.
      The construction of these underground storage sites would generate employment for the Inuit population in the short term and long term employment as storage maintenance employees. This is not a “one and done” type of project like a lot of natural resource projects ,where companies come in, dig up all the minerals and then leave an empty hole in the tundra. We are talking about well-paying jobs lasting for a 100 years or more.
      Furthermore, this is an industry that the NG could control like a Crown Corporation. They could initially hire nuclear storage experts from Ontario who would train Inuit at the storage sites to take over their jobs in due course. These jobs would not require a University education. These are technical jobs that could be mastered in a couple of years; like an apprenticeship program for construction and storage.
      This is an opportunity of a lifetime. If climate warming is to be slowed down, electricity generated by nuclear power is the long term solution. As the climate warms more countries will have to cut their fossil fuel emissions and turn to wind, solar and nuclear. The densely populated countries in Europe like France already generate 80% of their electricity from nuclear generating stations. Their population has the same problem as the US in that most of the environmental protection organizations like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club have used outdated data to scare everyone about the hazards of nuclear power generation and the storage of spent nuclear fuel. These countries badly need an off shore, isolated storage location. Welcome to HANSI (High Arctic Nuclear Storage Incorporated)…..

    • Posted by P on

      Tidal power doesn’t work when the ocean is frozen

  3. Posted by Jimmy on

    “Solar works” – during the warmest time of the year when energy demand is lowest.
    “Wind works” – sometimes. High maintenance. We’ve had two in this community. They were both taken down, so I have to assume they didn’t “work” that well.
    Small scale hydro has already been rejected by this community.
    Tidal power only works where you have a tide. Our tidal range is just a few inches.
    Battery construction and disposal is not very “green”.
    There are safe options for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel.
    By the way, fossil fuels will be with us for a long time to come.

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