(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.