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How the “Iceworm” worked – a secret American underground base in Greenland

Worker "Iceworm" in the department with a nuclear reactor, 1962. Getty Photos
Worker “Iceworm” in the department with a nuclear reactor, 1962. Getty Photos

In 1959, the US authorities launched the “Iceworm” project – a network of nuclear missile sites under the ground in Greenland. There they carried out a system of tunnels up to 4000 kilometers long and created a whole infrastructure for the lives of 200 people. It was a full-fledged colony under the ice, but because of too much danger the project was closed, and nuclear waste was decided to be buried forever in the earth.

Recent research indicates that the remnants of resources are dangerous for the future ecology and they need to be evacuated, but nobody wants to solve the problem. Danish and American authorities ignore the situation, unable to decide who should deal with the problem.

One of the tunnels leading inside the Iceworm. Getty Photos
One of the tunnels leading inside the Iceworm. Getty Photos

Perfect place

During the Cold War, the US military considered Greenland a very advantageous point for the missile base: the territory is located relatively close to Russia, and from the enemy’s scouts can hide under the ground. Moreover, Denmark almost did not deal with the security of its island, so the creation of the project could be hidden from the local authorities.

In 1960, the US Army agreed with the Danish authorities to build a research center in Greenland near the airbase in Tula. In fact, it was a cover: the US military built a network of missile systems and placed 600 nuclear weapons there.

Although the research project was fictitious, it nevertheless was of benefit: thanks to the analysis of ice scientists have gone deep into the history of climate change many years ago. Specialists worked at the station for about a year – they had their own rooms, a common kitchen, toilets, a shower room, a library, a hospital ward, an operating room, a laboratory, a large warehouse, a hairdresser, a shop, a church and a theater.

The infrastructure was connected by a chain of tunnels, essentially forming a colony. Electricity supplied the world’s first portable nuclear reactor PM-2A, which produces two megawatts of power for the plant.

Inside the "Iceworm", higher-quality cadres have not survived. Photo by the US Department of Defense
Inside the “Iceworm”, higher-quality cadres have not survived. Photo by the US Department of Defense

The main material for the construction of the base was wood and steel, but in general all the tunnels were simply cut in the ice, which is what the name “Iceworm” comes from. According to forecasts, the underground base had to work for about 10 years without significant funding, but the ice moved to the territory ahead of schedule and jeopardized the whole project. For several years, the staff was gradually evacuated, work in the center was reduced, and in 1967, the “Worm” was abandoned.

What happened after the evacuation

The US military assumed that uninterrupted snowfalls and fragments of melting glaciers would “bury” the base under a dense crust overnight. But in 2016, researchers found that global warming caused thinning of the ice sheet and led to a slow melting of the tunnels. If this continues, radioactive waste will eventually surface, and the wind will carry radiation to different areas.

Before the evacuation, specialists took away key elements of nuclear weapons, but the main part of the infrastructure remained – buildings, railways, drains, diesel fuel and radioactive waste. According to researchers, 20,000 liters of chemical residues are still on the site, along with 24 million liters of biological waste in the gutters

The road to the "Iceworm." Photo by Henrik Thomsen
The road to the “Iceworm.” Photo by Henrik Thomsen

It seems that there is nowhere to hurry – scientists believe that the melting of ice will lead to a chemical disaster at the station in about 100 years. But the process of total “harvesting” can drag on for many years, although so far the US and Denmark have not even agreed on a work plan.

Formally, the base remains the property of the US military, but until the end it is not clear who should clean the waste. In both countries they refuse to allocate a budget for a labor-intensive project and are responsible for possible risks: it is difficult to say whether the base is safe after tens of years from the closure.

In May 2017, the Foreign Minister of Greenland, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, lost his job after complaining to the UN and Danish and American authorities. The official accused them of inaction and unwillingness to solve the problem of the abandoned station.

With the dismissal of the regional leadership, nothing has changed – the topic is almost never discussed. The scientist and professor of Brown University Jeff Kolgan believes that delaying the decision of the situation is a mistake, as we must think about “cleaning” now. “There will be a whole series of unforeseen problems, which we do not expect,” says the expert.

In the 1960s, the US military had little reason to believe that their secret ice base would cause environmental problems in the future. In the end, it was encased in ice and had to stay deep in the frozen earth for a long time.

Jeff Colgan
The scientist and the professor of Brown University
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