The Army’s Underground Nuclear Ice Village

The Army’s Underground Nuclear Ice Village

In 1959, the US Army began building an immense complex underneath the frozen surface of Greenland. It would be a centre of research, to the benefit of mankind! It would also be a great place to launch Cold War nukes.

The installation was named “Camp Century” – instead of after some famous dead American – because, as an Army report stated, the base’s Danish collaborators held “a distinct aversion to maps which read like an obituary column”. So, “Century” it was.

Camp Century was to be a place of unprecedented scientific research – a new centre for exploring the means by which mankind could both conquer and understand the natural world. At least that was the line. But really, and as stated on the very first page of the aforementioned report, Camp Century was a Cold War power move: “With the advent of such weapons as the atomic bomb, the supersonic longrange bomber, and the intercontinental ballistic missile, it was inevitable that military attention should be drawn to the remote arctic regions which lie athwart the shortest air routes between the major land masses of the Northern Hemisphere.”

That is to say, the US, in the depths of Cold War tension, wanted an easier way to sling missiles at Moscow. An underground base, covered with snow and ice, would be a brilliant strategic accomplishment – the report makes repeated reference to such a design being particularly well-protected against “attack”. And so the Army’s engineers got to work in earnest.

Enormous trenches were dug out of the ground. Immensely heavy pieces of equipment and pre-fab structures were lugged to the construction site at an agonising 3km/h. A specially designed “portable” nuclear reactor – the smallest of its kind at the time – was delivered by ship to power the entire complex.

And considering the entire thing was buried beneath a frozen wasteland, the amenities sounded pretty cushy: Camp Century boasted fresh running water for the over 100 men residing within, a rec room, library, hospital, church, and kitchen, in addition to the requisite labs and communication facilities (it was a military base, after all).

It was a remarkable engineering project, but building a nuclear-powered igloo missile silo proved more difficult than anticipated. The immense heat from a nuclear plant and everything it powers, combined with walls of snow? You can see where this is going. Constant melting, digging and re-digging, as well as the shifting ice plates, turned the construction marvel into something of a nightmare. It was abandoned in 1966, before any nukes were ever known to have been brought to the site. A search party in 1969 found only twisted wreckage.

So was it a success? Sort of. The Army had its strange underground world for several years, yes. Until it collapsed onto itself. But it never served to thwart Russian nukes, nor did it house any of its own. But did it ever need to? Luckily, that never ended up mattering. Still – it’s a reminder of the lengths to which the Cold War spurred, to such a radical extent, a manic desire to outdo the enemy. Enough to build a nuclear power plant in a block of ice. [BLDGBLG]

Photos courtesy of Ray Hansen and Frank J. Leskovitz