Under Greenland’s Ice: Nuclear Waste

In 1959 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Camp Century beneath the surface of the northwestern Greenland Ice Sheet. There they studied the feasibility of deploying ballistic missiles within the ice sheet. The base and its wastes were abandoned with minimal decommissioning in 1967, under the assumption they would be preserved for eternity by perpetually accumulating snowfall.

In 2016 scientists showed that global warming could release the radioactive waste stored in the ice if Greenland’s ice continues to melt…

The general existence of Camp Century was understood by both the Danish and U.S. governments, which together signed the 1951 Defense of Greenland Agreement under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)….Reports, for example, suggest Danish permission for the operational disposal of radiological waste in the ice sheet. However, it is unclear whether Denmark was sufficiently consulted regarding the specific decommissioning of Camp Century, and thus whether the abandoned wastes there remain U.S. property. Article XI of the 1951 treaty states that “All property provided by the Government of the United States of America and located in Greenland shall remain the property of the Government of the United States of America. … [it] may be removed from Greenland free of any restriction, or disposed of in Greenland by the Government of the United States of America after consultation with the Danish authorities…”

Given the multinational origin and multigenerational legacy of Camp Century, there appears to be substantial ambiguity surrounding the political and legal liability associated with mitigating the potential remobilization of its pollutants. Interests likely differ across NATO members, particularly Denmark, the U.S. and Canada, partly because of their distinct levels of historical participation and their future potential for pollutant exposure.

Excerpts from  William Colgan et al, The abandoned ice sheet base at Camp Century, Greenland, in a warming climate, , Aug. 4, 2016

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