(I’m not asking for a friend, nor do I need an answer urgently.)
I got sucked down the rabbit hole of looking at Distant Early Warning (DEW) and North Warning System (NWS) sites listed here on the satellite view of Google Maps. It is truly fascinating (and environmentally horrifying). Some of the sites are close to small settlements but it seems as though the majority of them are in the middle of nowhere. Literally hundreds of miles away from anything or anyone.
So how were / are those sites powered? There are no obvious solar or wind facilities (and those techs probably weren’t advanced enough in the 50s when a lot of the DEW locations were built). I don’t know enough about geothermal energy to know whether that would be a possibility but I’d have a tough time believing that you could run very high powered radar stations with it, at least not in the 50s. So are there tiny nukes at these locations? And if so, what would keep someone from flying into the unmanned locations with a helicopter during the summertime and stealing the fissionable materials?
The DEW radar stations were powered by diesel generators. An ungodly amount of diesel fuel had to be delivered to each station, which I believe was done on an annual basis (in other words they’d spend a few weeks shipping a crap-ton of diesel fuel to the site and then they would run off of that diesel for the entire year).
I don’t think that they ever installed nuclear generators at these sites, but I don’t really know for certain. They were definitely looking into the idea, though. The SL-1 nuclear reactor was a test platform with the eventual goal of the project being to create small nuclear reactors with a minimal crew to run them, specifically to power remote sites like the DEW stations. If you are not familiar with the SL-1 reactor, it’s rather famous (or infamous) for having prompt critical event that resulted in a steam explosion that killed all three of its operators. The reactor and the explosive incident have been featured in several movies and documentaries.
And, of course, Wikipedia has a page about it:
Poking around online, I found this declassified report on the diesel generators used at the DEW sites (pdf warning). Lots and lots of info here:
The Soviet Union used radioisotope thermoelectric generators to power unmanned lighthouse in the Arctic Circle in similar situations. They are not nuclear reactors; they use the heat released radioactive decay of certain elements to generate electricity.
Thanks engineer_comp_geek! I am familiar with the SL-1 and the rumors of a love triangle being why 3 people died. The book Atomic Accidents by Mahaffey did a good job of telling the SL-1 story (and a bunch of other atomic tragedies).
I did run across some articles that talked about what an environmental disaster the DEW sites were (and probably still are even after mitigation) so the diesel generator sure makes sense. I can’t imagine how much diesel fuel it would take to run one of those sites for a year.
Even more confounding is that some of the newer sites seem to only have a helipad. I wonder how many choppers it would take to carry enough fuel for one site for a year?
I also noticed that most of the sites seemed to be by the larger bodies of water. Maybe the fuel got delivered by ship when it was warm enough for icebreakers to get to the sites? The logistics of doing that for dozens of sites all with different geographic challenges that close to the Arctic Circle alone seems staggering.
And thanks dorvann for the RTG info. I think the same mechanism is used to power long range space probes too.
As a follow-up question, I assume that there would be a lot of data flowing from the DEW stations. Is there any documentation on how the data got transmitted? Is the function of some of the non-radar stations (called auxiliary and intermediate) to act as a receiver in the right place to pick up data from multiple radar sites? And if so, since the non-radar stations were also in the middle of nowhere, how did the data get from those to the rest of the world?
I will try to locate the article, but comms is still a difficult problem and there are currently efforts to improve comms from far northern sites. There was a story in the last year or so about a Canadian company proposing better ways to supply and power the comms relay stations. Up around Alert the geostationary satellites usually used to transmit data from remote sites aren’t in effective line of site to the equator. So those high latitude stations use microwave relays to send the data a few hundred miles south to a ground station that can see the satellites. All those relays and ground stations are unmanned of course. They currently rely on diesel generators (I believe) and are resupplied once a year via helicopters from Alert. As you can imagine that is expensive! The company was proposing an alternative. I can’t remember the details. But people are working on the problem.
Of course this doesn’t apply to the actual radar stations, if there are still any, those would still need diesel generators to power the radars. The relays are used for getting the data down south.
Pretty much this. I was the facility manager for the remote radar sites in Alaska for a couple of years, a few of which occupy old DEW and White Alice sites. The new sites are manned by a minimal crew of 2-4 people who maintain the generators, the dome or train buildings, the cable car systems (at some sites), the sewage system, etc. They also maintain snow removal equipment for the sites that have air strips and keep the runway open in winter. Diesel delivery is a big deal, of course, brought in by barge at the coastal sites, and by AF planes at the interior sites. Food and repair parts come in by small planes every few weeks, contracted out of Anchorage or Fairbanks. They also had a rock crusher that could be broken down and barged to a different site each year to crush rock for runway maintenance. This website is for the company that has the present contract for the work.
I did more digging and ran across a site that has a lot of info on the DEW / NWS sites. Unfortunately it appears to be suffering from link rot. But one of the links that did work shows a few maps of the sites. For example:
So it looks like the stations close to salt water had their diesel tanks right along the water line which explains how the diesel fuel got delivered in those cases. This would also explain the trail from the facilities to the large body of water as there would need to be a pipe from the bunkers to the facility, right?
Chefguy I’d love to hear more about the day-to-day stuff like how the crews deal with sewage and other waste. I noticed a survival hut in a couple of the maps. What were the circumstances that required the use of the survival hut?
What are train buildings and what did the cable car systems look like? Were there a lot of mountainous sites that needed cable cars? Are there any sites that still use cable cars?
What did diesel delivery look like for remote facilities not close to water? C130s full of diesel bladders?
What kinds of danger did the stationed crews encounter? How long were the crews in place before getting replaced?
Any tales of crews going nuts and going on a rampage? Or tales of being cut off and having to resort to cannibalism? Or, OR any discoveries of UFO’s under the ice and then infection from an alien shapshifter and all the assorted paranoia invovled with that? And Wilford Brimely.
The sites have actual sewage treatment equipment. The outflow is tested regularly for bacteria count to make sure the are is not being polluted, and dumping things like bleach or other products into drains is strictly forbidden as it kills the bacteria. The sites also create garbage cells for trash.
A survival hut would be used if someone happened to be cut off from the main buildings or was in danger from a wild animal.
Yeah, inland sites have runways that are long enough for a C130 to land. They really tear up the gravel air strips, though.
Danger: well, they work with heavy equipment, drive on very narrow roads to reach the radome (if you look at the link I provided, you are seeing a photo of the Tin City site. Way up at the top right of the photo you can see the radome perched on a cliff), some sites like Barter Island have to be constantly on the lookout for prowling polar bears. Many years ago at that particular site, a polar bear came through the wall after an employee and attacked him. Another employee was able to grab a hunting rifle and kill it before it killed the man, but he was severely injured. Then there is the problem of being evacuated. The weather at some of the sites gets so severe that a plane can’t get into them for several weeks. We’re talking hurricane force winds out there.
Most of the sites have geodesic domes that serve as equipment shed, living facility and radome. The former two are linked together. A “train” site is just some long buildings connected together that house the same sort of things, with a separate radome. Barter Island is one of those sites. If you google “barter island radar site” and click on images, the first one shows both the train and the dome.
The cable cars are at sites where it’s impossible to keep the road to the radome open in winter (can’t remember how many sites had them). Here are some photos of Tin City, one of which shows the cable towers leading up to the radome. One of the contract employees in Anchorage does nothing but provide maintenance and repair of the cable car systems. Being on the Alaska coast means that rime ice is a big problem on most everything, including the cables, the towers and the cars. The cable cars have ice chippers that clear the ice off the cables, but sometimes the openings in the towers are completely occluded, which means someone has to climb out of the car and bash through the ice to continue. :eek:
It takes a particular type of person to work long months at these remote stations and there are quite a few who have been doing this for years. Supervisors back in Anchorage stay in constant contact with them and are adept at determining if someone is getting “squirrely” and needs to come out for some vacation. I don’t recall how much paid vacation there is, but it’s generous. The sites have satellite, large libraries of books and videos, and the usual games, etc., but a lot of them are just fine keeping to themselves. Outdoor activity is extremely limited in some of the sites. For example, Cape Romanzof is located inside an extinct volcano. Once you leave the immediate area of the domes and airfield, there is nothing but rubble and rock, which is very dangerous to try to walk or hike on. At other sites like Indian Mountain, guys go panning for gold or hunting.
Great info everyone, thanks! Y’all have given me a bunch of links and keywords to search for. And chefguy I really appreciate you sharing your personal anecdotes about the sites. I’ve got several new rabbit holes to disappear down now.