Project Iceworm

Camp Century

Project Iceworm was the code name for a US Army Top Secret proposal during the Cold War (a study was started in 1958), to build a network of mobile nuclear missile launch sites under the Greenland ice sheet. The ultimate objective of placing medium-range missiles under the ice – close enough to Moscow to strike targets within the Soviet Union – was kept secret from the Danish government.

To study the feasibility of working under the ice, a highly publicized ‘cover’ project, known as ‘Camp Century’ was launched in 1960. However, unsteady ice conditions within the ice sheet caused the project to be cancelled in 1966. Details of the missile base project were classified for decades, and first came light in 1997, when the Danish Foreign Policy Institute (DUPI) was asked by the Danish Parliament to research the history of nuclear weapons in Greenland during the Thulegate scandal.

In 1968 a US bomber carrying nuclear weapons crashed near the US Air Force’s Thule Air Base on the northwest side of Greenland which is part of Denmark, spreading radioactive debris. Thulegate refers to the media response in Denmark after a report revealed the government had given tacit permission for nuclear weapons to be located in Greenland, in contravention of Denmark’s 1957 nuclear-free zone policy.

To test the feasibility of construction techniques, Camp Century was built at an elevation of 6,600 feet (2,000 m) in northwestern Greenland, 150 miles (240 km) from the US Thule Air Base. The American radar and air base at Thule had been working successfully since 1951. Camp Century was, at the time, described as a demonstration of affordable ice cap military outposts.

The (secret) Project Iceworm was to be a system of tunnels 4,000 km in length, used to deploy up to 600 nuclear missiles, which would be able to reach the USSR in case of nuclear war. The missile locations would be under the cover of Greenland’s ice sheet and were supposed to be periodically changed. While Project Iceworm was secret, plans for Camp Century were discussed with and approved by Denmark and the facility – including its nuclear power plant – was profiled in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ magazine in 1960.

A total of 21 tunnels were built with a total length of 3,000 meters; these tunnels also contained a hospital, a shop, a theater, and a church. The total number of inhabitants was around 200. From 1960 until 1963 the electricity supply was provided by means of the world’s first mobile/portable nuclear reactor, designated the PM-2A and designed by Alco for the US Army. Water was supplied by melting glaciers and tested to determine if germs such as the plague were present.

Within three years after it was excavated, ice core samples taken by geologists working at Camp Century demonstrated that the glacier was moving much more intensively than had been anticipated, and would destroy the tunnels and planned launch stations in about two years. The facility was evacuated in 1965 and the nuclear generator removed. Project Iceworm was cancelled for good and Camp Century closed in 1966. Nevertheless, the project generated valuable scientific information and provided scientists with some of the first ice cores, still being used by climatologists today.

According to the documents published by Denmark in 1997, the US Army’s Iceworm missile network was outlined in a 1960 Army report titled ‘Strategic Value of the Greenland Icecap.’ If fully implemented, the project would cover an area of 52,000 square miles, roughly three times the size of Denmark. The launch complex floors would be 28 feet below the surface – and the missile launchers themselves even deeper – and clusters of missile launch centers would be spaced 4 miles apart. New tunnels were to be dug every year, so that after 5 years there would be thousands of firing positions, among which the several hundred missile could be rotated.

The Army intended to deploy a shortened, two-stage version of the US Air Force’s Minuteman missile, a variant the Army proposed calling the ‘Iceman.’ The entire ‘Project Iceworm’ idea must be viewed with the context of U.S. military inter-service rivalry of the late 1950s, as the US Army competed against the Navy and Air Force for a share of America’s new, and expanding nuclear deterrent. The Army’s nuclear power program, authorized in 1954, gave the Army the stepping stone it used to reach for greater nuclear clout.

Although the Greenland Icecap appears, on its surface, to be hard and immobile, snow and ice are visco-elastic materials which slowly deform over time, depending on temperature and density. Despite its seeming stability, the Icecap is, in fact, in constant, slow movement- spreading outward from the center. This spreading movement, over the course of a year, causes tunnels and trenches to narrow as their walls deform and bulge, eventually leading to a collapse of the ceiling.

By the summer of 1962 the ceiling of the reactor room within Camp Century had dropped and had to be lifted 5 feet (1.5 meters). During a planned reactor shutdown for maintenance in late July 1963, the Army decided to operate Camp Century as a summer-only camp and did not reactivate the PM-2A reactor. The camp resumed operations in summer 1964 using its standby diesel power plant, the portable reactor was removed that summer, and the camp was abandoned altogether in 1966.

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