The U.S. Army Tried Portable Nuclear Power at Remote Bases 60 Years Ago

This story was first published on The Conversation. It is now available here under a Creative Commons licence.
A Geiger counter shouted in a tunnel 40 feet below the Greenland Ice Sheet's surface. It was 1964, at the height of Cold War. The tunnel was 800 miles away from the North Pole and contained American soldiers who were dismantling America's first portable nuclear reactor.

The Commanding Officer Joseph Franklin grabbed a radiation detector and ordered his men to get out. He then did a quick survey of the reactor before retreating.

He was exposed for about two minutes to radiation that he estimated to be 2,000 rads an hour. This is enough to make one sick. The Army sent Franklin to Bethesda Naval Hospital when he returned from Greenland. He set off a whole-body radiation counter to evaluate victims of nuclear accidents. Franklin was radioactive.

Because the reactor was made from parts that fit into a C-130 cargo aircraft, the Army called it portable. It powered Camp Century, one the most unusual military bases.

The Camp Century tunnels were originally made from trenches in the ice. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Camp Century was a network of tunnels that were built into the Greenland Ice Sheet. It was used for military research as well as scientific projects. According to the military, the PM-2A nuclear reactor required only 44 pounds of uranium in order to replace more than a million gallons diesel fuel. The reactor heat powered lights and equipment, allowing the 200 men in the camp to take as many hot showers they desired in the harshly cold environment.

The PM-2A was the third of eight Army reactors. Some of these were used for experiments in portable nuclear power.

Several were misfits. The Navy base at Antarcticas McMurdo Sound was home to PM-3A, also known as Nukey Poo. It caused a nuclear disaster in Antarctica with 438 malfunctions over 10 years, including a cracked and leaky containment vessel. Three men were killed when SL-1, a low-power, stationary nuclear reactor from Idaho, exploded during refueling. SM-1 is still located 12 miles from Fort Belvoir, Virginia. It cost US$2million to build and $68 million to clean-up. The ML-1 was the only mobile reactor that ever worked.

In 1965, the Army ended its truck-mounted portable nuclear reactor program. This is the ML-1. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Nearly 60 years since the PM-2A was installed, and the ML-1 project abandoned. The U.S. military continues to explore portable land-based nuclear reactors.

The Pentagon requested $60 million to fund Project Pele in May 2021. The Pentagon requested $60 million to fund Project Pele. Its goal was to design and build a small portable, truck-mounted nuclear reactor that could be transported to remote areas and war zones within five years. It could be turned on and off for transport in a matter of days.

Mobile nuclear power has been a success story for the Navy for a long time. In 1958, two nuclear submarines, Nautilus (the Skate) and Skate, visited North Pole, right before Camp Century was constructed. Two more nuclear submarines were lost in 1960. Their reactors, along with two nuclear torpedos containing plutonium, lie quietly on the Atlantic Ocean floor. Problems with portable reactors on land are different.

The USS Nautilus was launched in 1954. US Navy/Public Domain

Mobile nuclear power for battle claims it will supply almost unlimited, low-carbon energy and without the need to rely on vulnerable supply convoys. Some argue that the risks and costs outweigh any benefits. If mobile reactors can avoid inspection by international inspectors, there are concerns about nuclear proliferation.

The PM-2A was constructed in just 18 months. It was delivered to Thule Air Force Base, Greenland in July 1960. After being broken into pieces, it was then dragged across the ice sheet 138 miles in pieces. Finally, it was assembled at Camp Century.

The engineers shut down the reactor immediately after it became critical in October. This was because the PM-2A had leaked neutrons that could cause harm to people. To protect operators from radiation, the Army constructed lead shields and walls out of 55-gallon drums that were filled with ice and sawdust.

Two years of operation by the PM-2A saw fossil fuel-free heat and power, as well as far more neutrons than safe. These stray neutrons were a problem. The reactor vessel and steel pipes became radioactive with time. There was also a trace of sodium in the snow. The radioactive elements in the cool water from the reactor could have exposed personnel to radiation.

The metal pipes of the reactor that were being dismantled to ship them out emitted radioactive dust. The radioactive flakes of ice that had been melted by the reactor's neutrons were released as bulldozer snow.

Franklin may have taken in radioactive isotopes from the leaking neutrons. He had his kidney and prostate removed in 2002. The cancer had spread to his bones and lungs by 2015. On March 8, 2017, he died from kidney cancer. He was a decorated, revered major general.

Joseph Franklin (right), with fragments of the decommissioned PM-2A nuclear reactor at Thule AFB. U.S. Army Photograph from Franklin Family, Dignity Memorial

In 1967, Camp Century was closed. The base was used by scientists to drill through the ice sheet to extract an ice core. This core is still being used today by my colleagues and me to uncover the secrets of the ice sheets past. Climate change, Camp Century and its ice core are the subject of a book that I am currently writing.

The PM-2A was highly radioactive and was buried at an Idaho nuclear waste landfill. According to Army hot waste dumping records, it may have left radioactive cooling waters in a sump on the Greenland Ice Sheet.

In 2016, scientists at Camp Century suggested that Greenland's melting Greenlands ice, which was now warming, could expose the camp to its waste. This caused tension between Greenland, Denmark and the U.S. Who would pay for cleanup and environmental damage?

Schematic diagram of Camp Centurys' nuclear reactor located in Greenland ice. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

There are significant differences between the nuclear power production of today and that in the 1960s.

The fuel for the Pele reactors will be enclosed in small pellets about the size of poppy seed. It will also be air-cooled to ensure that there is no radioactive coolant.

In a warming world, it is good to be able produce energy with less greenhouse gases. The U.S. military's liquid fuel consumption is comparable to that of all the Perus and Portugals. It is possible to save lives in hazardous locations by not having to provide fuel for remote bases.

The U.S. has yet to develop a coherent national strategy for nuclear waste management. Critics are now asking what happens if Pele is taken by terrorists. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the National Academy of Sciences previously questioned the dangers of terrorists attacking nuclear reactors. These and other concerns will be highlighted as proposals for portable reactors are reviewed over the next few months.

The first U.S. military attempts to build portable nuclear reactors on land were unsuccessful in terms of cost, environmental contamination, human health and international relations. This history is important to remember as the military looks at new mobile reactors.

Paul Bierman is a Gund Institute for Environment Fellow and a Professor of Natural Resources at University of Vermont.