McMurdo Station – the New York of the Deep Freeze South

(Note: If you are impatient and do not want to watch cute photos of penguins, skip to 19:06 to learn more about the reasons why the PM-3A, a 1,500 kilowatt nuclear electricity generator and process heat supply system, was such a valuable contributor to sustained Antarctic research.)

Nearly all of the images that are used to describe the dangers of melting ice as a result of climate change come from the Arctic. Perhaps that is because it is a far more accessible place than the Antarctic. The Arctic is permanently inhabited and frequently visited; there are no native inhabitants who live in the Antarctic region, defined to be below 60 degrees south latitude.

Essentially all of the people who have ever visited Antarctica are scientists and their support staffs. People in the region are more dependent on artificial fuel sources for their survival than on any other place on earth. Delivering those consumable fuels requires a substantial transportation infrastructure that consumes a good deal of fuel in the process of moving fuel to the end of the line.

After the International Geophysical Year (July 1957-December 1958) far sighted thinkers determined that atomic power could be used to ease some of the burdens associated with sustaining year long scientific exploration and research on Antarctica. The PM-3A was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission; the contract for its design and construction was awarded to the Martin Corporation’s nuclear division.

Approximately 15 months after the project was funded, the 1,500 kilowatt power station (nicknamed Nukey-Poo) was providing electricity and heat to the McMurdo Station. It operated from March 1962 – September 1972, displacing the need to deliver millions of gallons of fuel oil. It was refueled one time, in 1970, after eight years of operation.

Though the initial plans called for the construction of a second unit at McMurdo Station, and envisioned additional units for other dispersed research stations (Byrd Station and South Pole Station), no additional nuclear plants were ever funded or built for Antarctica.

There are a number of reasons for that regrettable halt in the process of empowering science on the seventh continent:

  • Admiral Rickover did not like having another organization in “his” Navy designing and operating nuclear power plants.
  • Estimated costs for additional units were higher than the AEC expected, and the construction schedules were longer than desired. (Aside: I suspect those developments were partially due to the fact that the expected order quantities did not materialize.)
  • The Army Nuclear Power Program funding was redirected to the Vietnam War. President Johnson’s “guns and butter” budgets did not allow any resources for research.
  • A water leak discovered in September 1972 was determined to be impractical to repair, resulting in a decision to decommission PM-3A. (Aside: Support costs for one-of-a-kind systems are often high enough to result in early retirement when there are any significant issues requiring repair.)

Here is a quote from Charles “Chuck” Fegley, who served as Officer in Charge of PM-3A in 1964. The occasion for the quote was the 2010 placement of a plaque commemorating the existence and location of the reactor on Observation Hill, which overlooks the rest of McMurdo Station. The quote comes from a June 25, 2010 article by Peter Rejcek, published in the Antarctic Sun titled Powerful reminder: Plaque dedicated to former McMurdo nuclear plant marks significant moment in Antarctic history.

“…there were a lot of very dedicated men who gave a large portion of their military careers to developing and proving the feasibility of designing, constructing and operating small, portable nuclear power plants in hostile environments.

“These were not just the average sailor, soldier or airman, but the very elite, who went through an intensive academic, specialty and operational training program to be able to operate these plants safely and successfully.”

PS: Note the date of the decision to permanently shut down the PM-3A – September 1972. Does anyone doubt that the decision would have been different if the leak had been found just 18 months later? By March 1974, diesel fuel prices had increased by a factor of 4 as a result of the Arab Oil embargo and the decision by the world’s “powers that be” to increase the price of a barrel of crude oil from $3 to $12. That event affected both the price of diesel fuel at the refinery and the cost to deliver it to remote areas.

About Rod Adams

32 Responses to “McMurdo Station – the New York of the Deep Freeze South”

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  1. James Greenidge says:

    Good feature!

    To this day I believe there are no nukes in Antarctica or Greenland anymore because these international treaties equate a “nuclear free zone” as somehow being a “peaceful” zone (to keep from deflowering a “pristine continent”?) thanks to a Hiroshima stigma.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • Rod Adams says:

      @James Greenidge

      The international treaties were signed before PM-3A was built. They do not prohibit nuclear energy; they prohibit nuclear weapons.

      I remain convinced that the reason that nuclear energy is discouraged is that there are people that LIKE getting paid to deliver massive quantities of fuel to remote regions. It is a good business; once the stations are built and manned, they need a continuous supply of fossil fuel. While most of us like the fact that a tiny quantity of uranium in a carefully engineered core can replace millions of gallons of fuel and last for eight years, the people that supply that fuel have a completely different point of view.

      • James Greenidge says:

        I get that, the only thing is its been SO long and so many nations and organizations are camped out down there, it’s hard to believe none of them had a notion to plant a nuke plant to replace all those oil drums and soot and CO2 emissions wafting that so pristine environment, not even the Russians for Pete’s Sake — which fossil residues ran the risk of contaminating their Vostok borehole. Could it be as simple as oil and coal concerns in each those parties and nations discouraging nukes there? I ask myself, what groups would howl and whose pols would jump to their rant if anyone tried to plant a nuke down there today?

        James Greenidge
        Queens NY

  2. Daniel says:

    Not so fast James. Russia will have floating SMRs in 2016.

    Energy and desalination services.

    Kashing !!!

    Isolated parts of China, Vietnam, Brazil, Turkey and thirsty and not so isolated part of Middle East countries are lined up.

    Way to go Russia. Way to go.

    • donb says:

      A small nuclear reactor is certainly the way to go to provide heat and power for McMurdo Station. Getting fuel in is a dicey proposition. The tankers have to navigate around iceburgs, and need to wait until the winds are right so that the broken sea ice gets blown out of McMurdo Sound.

      Unfortunately, a floating SMR will not do the trick. The sea freezes every Winter in McMurdo Sound. A ship would likely be crushed by the ice.

      I spent a week total at “McMudhole” during the 1974-1975 season on my way to and from the field camp for the Ross Ice Shelf project. I found the large collection of oil tanks sited on the hills around the Station to be rather imposing. Even with a SMR, some tanks would remain to provide fuel for vehicles and aviation. It would be slick to have a nuclear powered source of heat and electricity that could replace the multi-thousand gallon fuel bladders used at the field camps.

  3. Mitch says:

    Australians & New Zealanders

    • Daniel says:

      Nukes in Australia. Not in my lifetime I am afraid.

      They just got a new government and closed the ministry of science.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @Daniel – Governments come and go. Reality bats last.

        • Gareth Fairclough says:

          @Rod – “Reality bats last”. I’ve never heard that one before Rod, mind if I steal that saying?

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Gareth Fairclough

            It’s not an original. I stole it from a friend’s bumper sticker. He is a Sierra Club member, ardent environmentalist, 60s vintage hippy, Prius driver who thinks nuclear energy is great stuff.

            Feel free to use it.

        • Daniel says:

          It is a game that is taking way way too long.

          • Rod Adams says:

            Patience, my friend. Human beings have been living and creating on this earth for many thousand of years. However, our history is getting started.

  4. Daniel says:

    I was listening to a radio interview this week end on energy.

    They were slamming Russia and China for selecting un democratic energy solutions.

    In the western world it is totally acceptable that marginal minorities pave the way to aristocratic choices that only the rich can sustain with heavy subsidies from the masses.

    I will skip democracy when it comes to energy. I call what China and Russia are ‘pushing’ visionary.

    Go to Peking now. Look up yo the sky. There is no sky.

  5. BobinPgh says:

    Everybody was better groomed back in the 50s- that’s enough electricity to run 1000 hair dryers!

  6. Engineer-Poet says:

    Does anyone doubt that the decision would have been different if the lead had been found just 18 months later?

    What, they misplaced their shielding?

    • Rod Adams says:

      @EP

      Thanks for the proofread. Should have been a ‘k’ not a ‘d’. Same finger, opposite hand on a QUERTY keyboard.

      • Reese says:

        You have a QUERTY keyboard? No wonder the typos! Har. Yeah, I’m always mixing up my Ls and Ss, Ks and Ds.
        Plus, you tend to post at “0-dark hundred in the blessed AM.” (h/t Colonel Potter.)

  7. Daniel says:

    Jésus And a half. Dr Klein former NRC Chairman And pro nuclear, is speaking in no incertain terms on Indian Point.

    Getting back at yesterday’s comment from Dr J ? I think so.

  8. mjd says:

    The interesting US Navy Final Report on McMurdo is here:http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&ved=0CCkQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.vbdr.org%2Fmeetings%2F2012%2FPresentations%2FMcMurdo_Station_Nuc_Reactor_Final_Report-Sec6-OCRed.pdf&ei=2ZZVUtP0F4GiiQK_kYBI&usg=AFQjCNEcnf3JYt2cPp6mA8hkGV3GqGrh0Q&bvm=bv.53760139,d.cGE
    What was really interesting to me is the section on “Personnel”. I found my own nuke career eventually crossed paths with two extremely capable McMurdo ex-nukes. But then, guess I’m dating myself.

  9. Eric_G says:

    Nice find. I know someone who’s down at Palmer Station tonight, although I saw a story this morning that all Antarctica operations are being shut down due to the budget impasse. I guess that means he’ll be back home in a few weeks.

    Off topic, but I like that they mentioned ham radio in the film. There’s still a ham station at Palmer and my friend (who’s a ham) once got a phone call from the Johnson Space Center, asking him if he’d be interested in having a QSO (conversation, or contact) from the ISS, because one of the astronauts wanted to log a contact with Antarctica.

  10. John ONeill says:

    The Russians do use some of their nuclear icebreakers in the Antarctic. One of them had been contracted to resupply McMurdo a year or so back, but the New Zealand government, which claims that sector of the continent, got conniptions and quietly pleaded with the Yanks to get an oil burner in instead. Shame, it would have been the first working vessel without a smokestack in New Zealand waters since the last visit of a USN submarine in the eighties. Any readers remember those visits?
    Scott Base, the New Zealand research centre just over the hill from McMurdo, built a small wind farm a few years ago. The wind there is pretty fierce,so I think they get a good capacity factor, and they share the power with McMurdo. Still plenty of oil getting shipped south though. Sounds like the government shutdown thing is throwing a big spanner into the works for the US Antarctic program at the moment.

    • Mitch says:

      John ONeill
      October 10, 2013 at 7:04 AM
      The Russians do use some of their nuclear icebreakers in the Antarctic. One of them had been contracted to resupply McMurdo a year or so back, but the New Zealand government, which claims that sector of the continent, got conniptions and quietly pleaded with the Yanks to get an oil burner in instead.

      Isn’t it incredible that there aren’t any nuclear plants in such a hostile isolated region only because political panty-wads have tantrums over splitting atoms, but smoke and soot and CO2 and discarded oil drums are a-okay? There really is a Hiroshima syndrome!

  11. Mitch says:

    The Arctic is permanently inhabited and frequently visited; there are no native inhabitants who live in the Antarctic region, defined to be below 60 degrees south latitude.

    Way back Pan Am times on PBS a Sheraton guy said they’d liked to’ve put a hotel complex in Antarctica to corner the tourism and science support market there, but it’s considered an industry like coal is, and as such forbidden.

    • John ONeill says:

      Cruise ships to the Antarctic Peninsular are becoming a major industry. Based out of South America but I know one guy that commutes from New Zealand to work on the boats. They had one sink a couple of years ago.

  12. John Englert says:

    I’ve always wanted to earn the Antarctic Service Medal.