BRUNSWICK — President Trump’s flippant yet repeated comments about the possibility of the United States purchasing Greenland – Denmark’s semi-autonomous island, which is 25 percent larger than Alaska – are both amusing and worrisome. Amusing because the comments show an astounding lack of diplomatic decorum, and worrisome because the Russians are paying attention, as they are well aware of previous American attempts to utilize the island for military purposes. Since the early 1950s the U.S. has maintained Thule Air Base on the northwest of the island for the purpose of detecting missiles launched against North America, previously from the Soviet Union and now from Russia.

However, the Russians also are aware that in the 1960s, a top-secret U.S. Army operation code-named Project Iceworm attempted to place up to 600 nuclear missiles at another base underneath Greenland’s thick ice shelf. The location of the missiles, so close to our Cold War adversary, would have had enormous offensive capability. Flight time to their targets in the Soviet Union would have been mere minutes, and, therefore, virtually impossible to stop. The missiles were to be constantly moved over rail lines in a network of tunnels dug deep beneath the ice, a plan intended to foil Soviet intelligence from knowing which of the 2,100 silos would house the missiles. A Cold War version of the old shell game.

Officially, the Army claimed to be operating a facility named Camp Century, whose purported purpose was to conduct experimentation in Arctic construction techniques and engage in other “research.” The installation that Camp Century concealed – Project Iceworm – was powered by an experimental nuclear reactor, which, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, produced over 47,000 gallons of radioactive waste that still lies buried, along with the entire camp, under more than 100 feet of ice. Other estimates put the figure at more than 63,000 gallons. The thinking at the time was that the ice would keep the waste entombed forever.

The whole operation proved impractical, as the Army engineers had miscalculated how fast the ice shelf was shifting. The 21 tunnels began to shift and collapse because of the pressure from the ice, the rail tracks buckled, and the reactor began to melt the ice below and it began to sink. Without fanfare, the whole project was abandoned in 1967.

However, the ice is now melting faster than anyone back then had thought possible. In a 2016 article, Science magazine reported that “melting could begin to release waste stored at the camp, including sewage, diesel fuel, persistent organic pollutants like PCBs, and radiological waste from the camp’s nuclear generator.” Fortunately, even with the effects of climate change, the base won’t be exposed for another 90 years or more. Still, who will take ownership of the problem and expend vast sums of money to remediate the environment: the USA or Denmark?

Project Iceworm was so secret that the Danish government was not formally asked for its permission to allow the establishment of the base; thus, it could disavow any knowledge if the operation were ever exposed. Denmark officially did and still does have ban nuclear weapons there, but the country’s prime minister and foreign minister had tacitly allowed U.S. nuclear weapons to be kept in Greenland, at Thule Air Base and at Project Iceworm. The Danish Parliament was unaware of this clandestine decision. (Ultimately, no U.S. missiles were ever deployed to Greenland.)

If President Trump should ever get Denmark to sell us Greenland, perhaps he could get the former base listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and thus preclude any nuclear-waste cleanup for the purpose of preserving a part of our history.


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