“How do you recognize a sailor from the Arctic Submarine Fleet?”


“In a tunnel 40 feet beneath the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, a Geiger counter screamed. It was 1964, the height of the Cold War. U.S. soldiers in the tunnel, 800 miles from the North Pole, were dismantling the Army’s first portable nuclear reactor.

Commanding Officer Joseph Franklin grabbed the radiation detector, ordered his men out and did a quick survey before retreating from the reactor.

He had spent about two minutes exposed to a radiation field he estimated at 2,000 rads per hour, enough to make a person ill. When he came home from Greenland, the Army sent Franklin to the Bethesda Naval Hospital. There, he set off a whole body radiation counter designed to assess victims of nuclear accidents. Franklin was radioactive.

The Army called the reactor portable, even at 330 tons, because it was built from pieces that each fit in a C-130 cargo plane. It was powering Camp Century, one of the military’s most unusual bases.

Camp Century was a series of tunnels built into the Greenland ice sheet and used for both military research and scientific projects. The military boasted that the nuclear reactor there, known as the PM-2A, needed just 44 pounds of uranium to replace a million or more gallons of diesel fuel. Heat from the reactor ran lights and equipment and allowed the 200 or so men at the camp as many hot showers as they wanted in that brutally cold environment.

The PM-2A was the third child in a family of eight Army reactors, several of them experiments in portable nuclear power.

A few were misfits. PM-3A, nicknamed Nukey Poo, was installed at the Navy base at Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound. It made a nuclear mess in the Antarctic, with 438 malfunctions in 10 years including a cracked and leaking containment vessel. SL-1, a stationary low-power nuclear reactor in Idaho, blew up during refueling, killing three men. SM-1 still sits 12 miles from the White House at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. It cost US$2 million to build and is expected to cost $68 million to clean up. The only truly mobile reactor, the ML-1never really worked.

Nearly 60 years after the PM-2A was installed and the ML-1 project abandoned, the U.S. military is exploring portable land-based nuclear reactors again.

In May 2021, the Pentagon requested $60 million for Project Pele. Its goal: Design and build, within five years, a small, truck-mounted portable nuclear reactor that could be flown to remote locations and war zones. It would be able to be powered up and down for transport within a few days.

The Navy has a long and mostly successful history of mobile nuclear power. The first two nuclear submarines, the Nautilus and the Skate, visited the North Pole in 1958, just before Camp Century was built. Two other nuclear submarines sank in the 1960s – their reactors sit quietly on the Atlantic Ocean floor along with two plutonium-containing nuclear torpedos. Portable reactors on land pose different challenges – any problems are not under thousands of feet of ocean water.

Those in favor of mobile nuclear power for the battlefield claim it will provide nearly unlimited, low-carbon energy without the need for vulnerable supply convoys. Others argue that the costs and risks outweigh the benefits. There are also concerns about nuclear proliferation if mobile reactors are able to avoid international inspection.” Salon

Comment: Answer – “He glows in the dark.”

In the winter of 1963, I was sent to Ft. Greely in the heart of Alaska 100 miles south of Fairbanks. My battalion was on the troop list for a contingency plan in the Norwegian Arctic. So we had to have officers skilled in training troops for arctic warfare. Accordingly a cadre of lieutenants were sent to the US Army Arctic Warfare Training Center.

The point? When I was Ft. Greely the whole place was run on nuclear generated electricity. pl


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6 Responses to “How do you recognize a sailor from the Arctic Submarine Fleet?”

  1. Gallo Rojo says:

    I have been reading about ADM Hyman Rickover and how he single handedly pushed the nuclear submarine fleet into existence. Fascinating man.

  2. JohninMK says:

    Not sure why the picture of the Typhoon over this story Colonel.

    One of the most deadly weapons system ever built but I’m unaware of them having power plant accidents and almost all are now decommissioned or about to be.

  3. JerseyJeffersonian says:

    Typical leftist failure of nerve. Oh, it can’t be done… Well, as you reported, Colonel, it already was done 60 years ago.

    So, it can be done, and is being done again today. The Russians have a pretty robust barge-mounted nuclear power plant up and running now, basically employing proven designs from warship or icebreaker reactors. If one uses a favorite search engine (I use DuckDuckGo.com preferentially) to run some searches using various terms, you can find stuff out there.

    I landed on the website of the IEEE, and found some very intriguing stuff, for instance, some on marine-platformed, relatively portable nuclear power stations. Also of interest at that website was a report on rapid progress being made by Chinese engineers in development of Thorium-based melted salt reactors. Other tech firms are also cited as developing their own melted salt reactors in several other countries.

    Somewhat off-thread is this article, which mentions the dawning awareness worldwide that the design and production of semiconductors is perilously concentrated in Taiwan, making it vulnerable as a choke point for the availability of semiconductors, something I had mentioned in another recent thread.


  4. joe90 says:

    How do you hide the heat without water? Isn´t that just a massive IR target?

  5. TTG says:

    There’s a link at “as many hot showers as they wanted” leading to a 1960s DoD official film on the building of the Greenland base. It’s a typical propaganda film of the time, but it’s very interesting and inspiring. I was feeling nostalgic for those old Army cold weather uniforms. Those thick wool shirts were better than anything you could buy. I picked up one of the parkas with wolf ruff on the hood in a surplus store in Troy, NY. It served me well throughout college. When I got to Hawaii, the local movers referred to my snowshoes as wicker things.

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