Antarctica's Failed Atomic Power Plant: Still Deadly 30 Years On

May 23, 2011· 3 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Continued fallout from leaking nuclear reactors in Japan has put the atomic energy industry on hold in the Western world, just when nukes were staged to make a comeback.

India and China are plunging ahead with plans to build several nuclear plants to energize human populations soaring into the billions, but Germany and others have shelved new proposals and halted site construction since the accidents in Japan. President Obama had previously voiced a desire for more nuclear fuel in the U.S., but the administration hasn’t mentioned that option during the past two months.

Taiwanese singer Lee Mi bares her feelings in the Rather Nude Than Nuke campaign to raise nuclear safety awareness. This stunt would be painful in Antarctica. (Photo: Nicky Loh/Reuters)

Now comes news that a faulty plant—nicknamed Nukey Poo, for its leaky reputation—may have contributed to cancer among many of its government employees during a shortened, 10-year history.

Where was this now-notorious facility—formally known as PM-3A—located? In Antarctica, at the big U.S. base of McMurdo.

Authorized and funded by a 1960 act of Congress, the McMurdo plant was switched on in March 1962 and managed by the U.S. Navy. It worked, more or less, for 10 years, but hundreds of malfunctions, shutdowns and, ultimately, a leak marked its history. Still, PM-3A wasn’t closed because the Navy couldn't live with its well-documented inefficiencies. The site was shut because operating—and fixing—a nuclear plant in such a remote part of the world proved too expensive.

The idea for building a nuclear plant in Antarctica originated in the mid-1950s. The Eisenhower Administration considered atomic energy a cost-effective way to power a permanent Antarctic station, where shipping fuel oil was both difficult and expensive—$1 to $3 per gallon (equivalent to $7 to $22 today). While the Antarctica Treaty—written in 1959—forbids testing of nuclear weapons or burying nuclear waste on the continent, the pact allowed the generation of nuclear power.

Apparently, Eisenhower seized on the idea as a way to “sell” domestic nuclear power to the American public, through a 1950s program dubbed “Atoms for Peace.”

A “portable” nuclear plant was sent by ship to Antarctica. The plant was intended to provide power for the research station—the biggest in Antarctica, today with a summertime population of 1,500—and to distill water. But operating the novel facility in one of the most forbidding places on the planet proved tricky. Power failures were common, as were cracks. The Navy documented 438 official “malfunctions” during the plant's life. The 1972 discovery of a leak caused by cracks throughout the reactor forced its shutdown.

Typically, a decommissioned nuclear plant is encased in cement and walked away from. But the Antarctic Treaty forbids dumping nuclear waste on the continent.

Officially shut down in 1972, Nukey Poo was disassembled during 1973's Operation Deep Freeze. Its reactor would be shipped back to California, along with 101 drums of radioactive earth. Years later, another 11,000 cubic meters of contaminated rock were removed; it took until May 1988 for the site to be declared officially decontaminated.

That could have been end of story, except for a human element. Navy workers employed at the facility are now dying, some with horrific cancers. Navy man Charlie Swinney, who died in Cleveland a year ago, was said to have 200 cancerous tumors. His widow, and other Navy men, suggest the radiation-contaminated soil around the facility led to his cancers.

A retired Navy veteran from San Diego, Bill Vogel, believes Swinney’s cancers—like those of other veterans based at McMurdo—are related to Operation Deep Freeze, in which 1,500 Navy men worked more than 10 years on or near the malfunctioning plant.

The Navy’s 1973 final report on the plant cites increased levels of radioactivity in both air and water, especially during 1971. The 89-page report concludes: “Acting on the Contractor’s recommendations and in view of the cost ($1,298,000), time (26 months) and exposures (40-60 Rem) involved … and the uncertainties involved in accomplishing the inspection and repair … the Officer in Charge recommends the PM-3A be removed.”

There’s not been another nuclear plant built on the continent. McMurdo switched back to diesel power, still in use today. Nukey Poo’s workers came home, many impacted forever.

jon_bowermasterA six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook.