MAC: Mines and Communities

Greenland in double jeopardy from nuclear waste

Published by MAC on 2016-10-17
Source:, Reuters, Brown University

A melting ice sheet could expose biological, chemical and radioactive threats

In February this year, Greenland's parliament narrowly endorsed ending the country´s ban on uranium mining.

But, as Arctic ice continues to melt, another radioactive danger is begining to emerge - that of nuclear wastes, bequeathed by the US base at "Camp Century".

The Greenland parliament is set to demand that the US, joined by Denmark "without further delay, ensure clean-up of the more than 30 different U.S. military installations" at the camp.

See previous on MAC:

2016-02-08 Denmark and Greenland new uranium deal

2013-05-07 Greenland: 48 NGOs call for continuation of zero tolerance uranium policy in the Danish realm

Greenland calls for clean-up of toxic U.S. Cold War bases

Alister Doyle

Oct 17, 2016

Greenland's government urged the United States and Denmark on Monday to clean up 30 rusting Cold War-era U.S. military installations there, saying it was losing patience over risks of radioactive and chemical waste.

The island, which has wide powers of self-rule within Denmark, said Copenhagen had a responsibility for the abandoned U.S. military locations on its territory.

"In Greenland, there are more than 30 abandoned American military installations where the environmental and health implications of abandoned waste have not been established," its government said in a statement.

"Having waited in many cases more than 70 years for the polluter to take care of cleaning up or paying for such operations, Greenland is losing patience with changing Danish governments' vague responses," it said.

A resolution by Greenland's parliament, due to be adopted next month, would instruct the government to ensure that "the U.S. and Denmark, without further delay, ensure clean-up of the more than 30 different U.S. military installations," it said

In August, a scientific study said global warming might in future decades unlock radioactive waste stored at Camp Century, an abandoned military camp built in 1959 deep under Greenland's ice sheet.

The study said any clean-up would be extremely expensive now and recommended delaying the work until thawing caused by climate change reached the point where it almost exposed the waste, which includes toxic chemicals, fuel and sewage.

Greenland's government said radiation risks at Camp Century, from coolants for a nuclear generator used to produce power, seemed low compared to those from debris left by the far better documented crash in 1968 of a B-52 bomber carrying hydrogen bombs off north Greenland.

The United States now operates Thule Air Base in northern Greenland, including an early warning system to detect inter-continental missiles launched against North America. It has sharply scaled back its presence since the Cold War ended in 1990.

Asked for comment, the Danish Foreign Ministry reiterated a statement from August that it was taking the problems seriously.

"The government will look into the possibility of expanding existing climate monitoring to the area surrounding Camp Century," it said. That could help track how fast the ice is receding and when Camp Century risks becoming exposed.

(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Study on climate’s impact on abandoned military base sparks debate in Greenland, Denmark

Research finding that a melting Greenland Ice Sheet could expose biological, chemical and radioactive waste at Camp Century prompts calls for Denmark to take responsibility for site clean-up and compensation.

Gillian Kiley

October 14, 2016

A study coauthored by a Brown researcher indicating that climate change is poised to release hazardous wastes at an abandoned U.S. military base in Greenland has led Vittus Qujaukitsoq, Greenland’s minister of industry, labour and trade and foreign affairs, to publicly demand that Denmark prepare to clean up the base and compensate residents who live near it.

In his statement, Qujaukitsoq referred to the study “The abandoned ice sheet base at Camp Century, Greenland, in a warming climate,” published this summer in Geophysical Research Letters and coauthored by Jeff Colgan, the Richard Holbrooke Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies and associate professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown’s Watson Institute.

According to the October 13 edition of the Danish newspaper Berlingske, Qujaukitsoq also demanded renegotiation of the Danish-American defense agreement in Greenland. Søren Espersen, member of Danish parliament and chairman of Denmark’s foreign policy committee, strongly objected to this demand, the newspaper reported.

The study, which Colgan wrote with an international team of colleagues, discussed both the historic and climatic context of the base and anticipated the potential for political acrimony.

“Our study highlights that Camp Century now possesses unanticipated political significance in light of anthropogenic climate change,” the researchers wrote. “The potential remobilization of wastes that were previously regarded as properly sequestered, or preserved for eternity is an instance, possibly the first, of a potentially new pathway to political dispute associated with climate change.”

History of Camp Century

During the Cold War, the U.S. government and Denmark signed a treaty to jointly defend Greenland, a Danish territory, from Soviet attack, Colgan said. Camp Century was established in Greenland in 1959 and was intended “to test the feasibility of building nuclear missile launch sites close enough to reach the Soviet Union,” according to an article in New Security Beat by Colgan and his coauthor William Colgan of York University in Ontario. Camp Century shuttered after eight years, in 1967.

“The base was abandoned with minimal decommissioning,” the researchers wrote in the Geophysical Research Letters study, “as engineering design of the era assumed that the base would be ‘preserved for eternity’ by perpetual snowfall.” According to the study, the Army Corps of Engineers removed the base’s nuclear reactor core but left the camp’s infrastructure and all other waste behind.

According to the study, waste left at the site includes diesel fuel, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), biological waste including grey water and sewage in unlined sumps, and radiological waste in the form of coolant for the portable nuclear generator at the base.

Melting ice

Since the camp was decommissioned, Jeff Colgan said, “falling snow has buried the camp roughly 115 feet further underneath the ice.” Climatic projections, however, “predict increased surface melting in northwestern Greenland through 2100,” according to the study.

Colgan and Colgan point out that climate change has warmed the Arctic more than any other region on Earth. They and their coauthors predict that the waste, which they found covers 136 acres, could begin to reemerge in 2090.

“The PCBs are likely the biggest concern for animal and human health, if they are remobilized into surface waters,” according to Colgan and Colgan, who add that the pollutants could reach the ocean, disrupt marine ecosystems and accumulate in the food chain.

“It is very understandable that Greenland’s government wants clarity on who is responsible for the pollution and whether they will accept the eventual costs of environmental remediation,” Jeff Colgan said, but “as we emphasized in the study, there is no environmental risk in the near-term, and likely the pollution will stay buried in the ice for several decades at least. Right now, what’s needed is monitoring and research to assess if and when clean-up actions are necessary.”

Clean up abandoned U.S. military base in Greenland

Ken Bower

October, 2016

Greenland is renowned for being one of the most untouched places on earth. An abandoned U.S. Air Force base with over 10,000 aviation fuel barrels mar the pristine landscape to this day.

The US Air Force base, Bluie East Two, was abandoned in 1947 and everything was left behind: vehicles, asbestos laced structures, and well over 10,000 fuel barrels. Many of the barrels are still filled.

I spent time at the base camping out over the last two summers in order to photograph the pollution.

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