Chapter V

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station Renovation

A. Establishment and Early Facilities

Aside from the expeditions in 1911 and 1912 by Roald Amundsen (Norway) and Robert F. Scott (England) and the overflight in 1929 by Richard E. Byrd (U.S.), the geographic South Pole remained unoccupied until 1956, when the U.S. established a research station for the International Geophysical Year. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is the only facility that has been continuously operated in the Antarctic interior since the IGY, a period of 39 years. Amundsen-Scott is also distinguished by having acquired 39 years of continuous scientific data sets, an extensive research program covering several disciplines, and the political and symbolic value of its special location. (The North Pole is unsuitable for a continuously occupied facility because its ocean position consists of seasonably unstable and rapidly moving sea ice only a few meters thick.)

Structures built for the IGY were prefabricated huts of insulated canvas over wood frames (called Jamesways), intended to last 3 years. Eighteen people wintered over at the South Pole in these huts. In 1962 wooden, insulated, prefabricated "T-5" buildings and steel arch tunnels covering fuel bladders and station supplies replaced the Jamesways. By 1967, 18 feet of drifted snow had damaged the arches and buildings.

Today's geodesic dome and steel arches and the structures under them - the current core South Pole Station facility - were designed in the mid-1960s and procured, delivered, and erected between 1969 and 1975. The 1975 station was built to house 33 people, summer and winter, within the protective dome. By 1976 scientific requirements had led to the construction of additional Jamesway berthing and a Clean Air Facility. Subsequent pressure from the science program required retaining the Jamesways, originally temporary housing for builders, as a summer camp. In the late 1970s research needs led to additional temporary structures.

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B. Status Today

The present science program at the South Pole and the necessary operations and maintenance staff to support it require a summer population of 140, nearly four times beyond the station design.

The facilities built in 1975 are near the end of their design life. Inspections in 1993 identified over 300 building and safety code deficiencies, of which one-fourth were viewed as a threat to life or health. Most safety concerns have been addressed, but deficiencies remain in industrial areas, particularly the garage and shop facilities. Brown-outs have damaged scientific equipment and resulted in the inability to offer support to proposed high-quality research. Waterline and sewer failures have required emergency repairs, diverting effort from planned maintenance and research project support.

Administrative and engineering controls are being employed to reduce safety risks in the industrial areas. For example, carbon monoxide monitoring in the garage has reduced the exposure of workers by indicating maximum allowable levels during a shift; these ceilings have reduced worker productivity by 30%. Additional controls will be required with the further aging of the facilities.

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C. Redevelopment Plans for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

The extreme climate, the station's isolation (McMurdo is 838 miles away), and the inability to land airplanes during the eight coldest months dictate that a facility at the South Pole be designed as if it were to carry people on an interplanetary journey. Structures, power, water, light, cooking, repair, and communications at the South Pole are life-support systems, not conveniences. These requirements, combined with the limited construction season at the South Pole, mandate long lead times for planning. Preparation for replacing the station was begun in 1990.

Planning started with architectural and engineering designs and studies of environmental impact. It continued with experimentation in materials and practices and included prototype construction. Any future facility would correct current deficiencies and improve operational infrastructure. At a minimum, the redevelopment would provide a safer working and living environment, replace thermally inefficient buildings and inadequate utility systems, and supply platforms for science. In addition, the NSF believes that the redevelopment should:

C1. First Options

In 1994 NSF initiated a series of three reviews of the plan that had been advanced by its Office of Polar Programs. Based on anticipated science and support requirements (e.g., augmentation of the balloon-launch facility and expansion of astrophysics research), the Office had suggested replacing the station with a larger one. The initial plan called for a 150-person station. A Peer Review Panel, a Non-advocate Review Panel chaired by Palmer Bailey, the Deputy Director of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research Engineering Laboratory, and a Blue Ribbon Panel chaired by H. Guyford Stever, a former NSF director and Presidential Science Advisor, endorsed the plan and suggested improvements.

Following these reviews the National Science Board in November 1994 then examined a more-detailed Program Development Plan. The Board recognized that many demands were being placed on the NSF facilities budget and thus asked that other options also be considered. NSF responded with several alternatives. (Table V-1.)

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C2. NSF's Choice

In March 1995, still concerned about keeping the cost down but also desiring to sustain the current scientific effort, the Board approved continued planning for the 110-person "Enhanced," which initially would accommodate 110 people in summer and 28 in winter. The $11-million additional cost of the enhancement, as compared to the 110-person station, allows for cost-effective future expansion to support 150 people by providing for earlier construction of systems or areas that would be difficult or costly to expand later, such as the power plant, the galley, water production and treatment facilities, and a multi-purpose room. The cost to go from the 110-Enhanced to the 150-person station would be $19M. The cost to go from a 110-person station with no enhancement to a 150-person station would be about $40M. The plan is constructed so as to allow continuation of the science program during construction.

This plan addresses the critical safety and health issues in the first years of the project, which would require 8 years to complete. At completion, this station would support the same level of science conducted at the South Pole in FY 1996.

Smaller stations could still require a substantial number of support personnel. Therefore, the cost-effectiveness of scientific research would decrease unfavorably, disproportionately to the savings. For the 75-person station, for example, the science population would fall by more than 40% under current operational plans.

Given new budget realities of Federal discretionary budgets, the NSTC believes that fresh consideration of the South Pole station plans is called for. The plans will benefit greatly from further cost-benefit analysis that examines the trade-off between the size, lifetime, and capability of the station vs. the anticipated requirements of the science program. It is essential that the cost savings arising from alternative management approaches, remote operation, robotics, and international cost-sharing be explicitly considered. Both scale and schedule should be re-examined as appropriate to possible new budgetary constraints, such as funding the South Pole station construction within the USAP budget.

Nevertheless, some conditions at the present South Pole Station must be dealt with immediately because they involve risks to the health and safety of personnel or endanger the environment. The USAP should give highest priority to prompt remedy of this situation.

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D. International Cost Sharing

As described in the previous chapter, international cooperation is extensive throughout the U.S. Antarctic Program and is the norm among Antarctic Treaty nations; the United States has collaborated with most of them. As an example of an in-kind exchange, during the 1995-1996 season Italy provided helicopter support to U.S. scientists in the Transantarctic Mountains in return for U.S. refueling of Italy's coastal station at Terra Nova Bay. Research cooperation includes international planning of projects, collaborative experiments at multiple sites, shared projects at the same site, and coauthorship of research papers, with each nation funding its own researchers.

At the South Pole, where seven foreign governments and three U.S. agencies besides NSF currently support science, the U.S. now funds all (that is, U.S. and non-U.S.) construction, operations, and logistics. The other nations fund their scientists and their research equipment. As a consequence, the U.S. reviews, approves, and coordinates all experiments; manages the support needed for all participants; and maintains safety and environmental standards. This sustains our influential presence at the South Pole, the convergence of territorial claims.

There are many different possible levels of international cooperation. One level is the present situation, described above. Another option would allow access only to U.S. citizens, with the station thus sized and priced smaller. This latter option is unattractive, since it could profoundly alter the nature of scientific collaboration currently enjoyed in Antarctica.

In a third option, the station would be fully international. The U.S. would be a prorated partner with other Treaty nations in designing, building, operating, and managing the station. The scientific program, safety and environmental standards, and facility improvements would require agreement by the participating nations. Each country would provide its own logistics or pay another country or a contractor for logistics. Since the U.S. is the only nation with heavy-lift ski-equipped airplanes (LC-130s), and it has the nearest airport and seaport (McMurdo), international demand for airlifts to the South Pole could compete with U.S. use of these unique assets.

A more moderate option, however, would allow the U.S. to share some costs internationally. The U.S. would design, build, operate, and manage the core facility, but reserve some berthing and science capacity for scientists who are not funded by the U.S. NSF would seek international financial participation in redeveloping and operating the station. The U.S. would provide all operational support on a cost-reimbursable basis: foreign countries would pay their share of construction and operations prorated against the total number of participants (scientists or technicians) and the use of space and energy. The layout could be developed around separate modules for foreign participants or constructed as an integrated facility. While the option would require some degree of consultation with international partners in laying out the science program, NSF would oversee all support activities to assure compatibility with safety and environmental standards. This would largely preserve our level of influence at the South Pole.

The NSF, guided by Presidential Memorandum 6646, has not entered into formal discussions with other nations regarding possible cost-sharing of South Pole station redevelopment. We support the initiation of such discussions, particularly along the lines of the last option discussed. That is, international participation is to be encouraged commensurate with the scientific involvement of other countries, but sufficient U.S. operational control and authority should be maintained to enforce U.S. safety and environmental standards and to reinforce geopolitical objectives with our South Pole presence. This will almost certainly require that the USAP build and operate the core South Pole station infrastructure. The attraction of any of these options, and the concomitant impact on the budget requirements, can be evaluated only after initial timely discussions with potential international partners.

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E. Critical Safety and Environmental Projects

Several areas at the South Pole station pose problems for the safety of personnel or the environment. Although safety measures have been taken to mitigate the threats, these areas are in poor condition, and maintenance is increasingly costly. The conditions in three areas warrant immediate action without regard to any replacement of the station. NSF has requested $25M in its FY 1997 budget request for specific improvements to address critical safety and environmental concerns for the heavy equipment maintenance facility ($8M), the power plant ($12.5M), and the fuel storage facilities ($4.5M).

E1. The Maintenance Facility

The garage and shop have deficiencies that risk health and safety and degrade performance. The buildings are undersized, requiring different trades to use the same space concurrently, lowering efficiency. Administrative controls have reduced risk to personnel, but additional measures will be required as the facilities age. Monitoring shows up to a 30% reduction in productivity.

Needs include (1) exhaust ventilation systems capable of lowering hazardous airborne contaminants to acceptable levels; (2) fire suppression systems where fuels, lubricants, and other flammable materials are near ignition sources; and (3) facilities and equipment to work on heavy industrial vehicles and other large items.

E2. Power

The power plant is the life support of the station, providing electricity, heat, and potable water. The current plant operates at capacity, resulting in brown-outs during peak demand. Although emergency power exists, it is for minimal life support only. Given the harsh environment on the polar plateau, where winter temperatures can drop to -120°F, adequate power and backup power are critical. The three current 350kw generators are relatively fuel inefficient, the 20- to 25-year-old power plant structure is overcrowded, and power distribution systems are in need of replacement The conditions and the eight months of isolation argue persuasively for reliable primary and backup power.

E3. Fuel Storage Facilities

Storage for up to 300,000 gallons of fuel is required at the South Pole to sustain the station for the eight months of winter isolation and through a possible emergency disruption to the annual fuel resupply. Fuel is currently stored in fuel bladders, without secondary containment, that risk leakage or spills. In addition to meeting minimum environmental standards, double-walled steel storage tanks will help ensure that the station has the fuel necessary to last through the season and possible emergencies.

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