News Local

Atomic clean up retirees still waiting

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

Illustration courtesy Canadian Nuclear Laboratories/Pembroke Daily Observer/Postmedia Network
Chalk River Labs, which is operating under the company Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.

Illustration courtesy Canadian Nuclear Laboratories/Pembroke Daily Observer/Postmedia Network Chalk River Labs, which is operating under the company Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.

The campaign to get proper compensation for former Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) employees who cleaned up after a pair of nuclear accidents at the Chalk River site in the 1950s is still ongoing.

 

While the effort received the support of the Canadian Senate a year ago, to date nothing else has been done.

Martin Habraken, who with Al Donohue have been working for nearly nine years to get these employees recognized, said they are still waiting for Ottawa to respond yet,

“We're waiting for Jim Carr to make a move,” he said, who is the current federal Minister of Natural Resources. It would be up to him to proceed with permitting the compensation or not.

On the afternoon of March 22, 2016, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for the creation of a program similar to the Atomic Veterans Recognition Program (AVRP). That paid $24,000 tax free to military personnel, most were based at Garrison Petawawa, who worked on decontaminating the Chalk River site in 1952 and 1958.

While civilian employees faced the same risks and had trained the soldiers in dealing with nuclear materials, they weren't eligible to get payments from the military program, and there was no other outlet to turn to for compensation.

The motion, brought forward by Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette, the senator who took up the cause, called for this as a way of correcting a historic wrong.

Habraken said him, Donohue and former AECL employees Noel Mirault and George Kiely were present in the Senate Chamber's visitors gallery when the motion was passed.

Habraken and Donohue aren't directly connected to AECL except for friendship with employees. Habraken has been acting on behalf of Camille Charette, both as a friend and as the executor of his estate. Charette was also involved in the nuclear clean ups, and had been denied payments along with his co-workers. Unfortunately, he passed away Aug. 23, 2015.

The two accidents at AECL (now Canadian Nuclear Laboratories or CNL) in the 1950s came at a time when the nuclear industry was in its infancy, but developing in leaps and bounds.

The first accident, occurring Dec. 12, 1952, involved the NRX reactor and resulted in the destruction of the reactor's core. There were no injuries caused by the initial accident, which had been triggered by a massive 100 megawatt power surge.

The control rods which control the reactor could not be lowered into the core because of mechanical problems, and three were then accidentally removed, leading to overheated fuel rods and a meltdown of the core. Several explosions which followed damaged the building and the reactor. One million gallons of radioactively contaminated cooling water was released as a result of the accident, flooding the reactor building's basement.

The building and the remains of the reactor were highly radioactive, but the contamination was limited to the structure itself and didn't spread to the surrounding plant site.

Most of the staff were evacuated from the site later that afternoon. Military support was called in two days later on Dec. 14, 1952.

It was decided to replace the reactor rather than repair it, due to the extent of the damage, and so the process of cleaning up the debris began, a process which involved AECL and military personnel. Efforts were made to limit the time and exposure to radiation for those working on it.

The United States military sent people to assist as this was the first accident of its kind, and they wanted to learn and train for nuclear incidents. Among the U.S. personnel taking part in the clean up was a young reactor officer from a submarine named Jimmy Carter, the future President of the United States.

The second incident involved the NRU reactor, the same one which has been producing isotopes for the company for more than 50 years. On May 23, 1958, some fuel-rods within it overheated, and while personnel were removing them using a robotic crane, one of the uranium-filled rods caught fire and broke, the largest part of it falling down into the maintenance pit, still burning.

To extinguish the fire, AECL personnel used buckets of wet sand and tossed them upon the burning fuel rod, exposing them to high levels of radiation in the process. Parts of the reactor had to be removed the next day, as well as associated debris and the contaminated sand. Again, the military was called in to support the operation.

Habraken said the decontamination work occurred within enclosed spaces; in 1958, that mainly involved vacuuming up radioactive sand. AECL called for volunteers to do this, and each worker could only work there for about 10 minutes, in order to lessen radiation exposure. When they ran out of volunteers to do this, the military was brought in to finish off the job.

He said AECL people had to train the military members about radiation protocols and the like, as well as ways to clean things up. Move ahead to 2008, and the enacting of the Atomic Veterans Recognition Program. This had been set up to recognize and compensate soldiers who had taken part in training exercises which involved being in the vicinity of above ground nuclear weapons tests. Under it, the Department of Defence allowed military personnel to apply for payments of $24,000 apiece if they had taken part in the nuclear tests or had participated in the Chalk River decontamination work of 1952 and 1958. They do not have to prove the existence of illness or health issues related to nuclear radiation.

When AECL employees who were front and centre of that work applied to the program, after facing the same or greater risks as the soldiers had, they were rejected because they were not DND personnel. "That's when the fight began," Habraken said.

After getting nowhere through their lobbying efforts, Habraken said in 2014 he spotted a newspaper ad in the Ottawa Sun explaining how the Senate can take up the cause of those under-represented in Parliament.

Figuring they had nothing to lose, he and Donohue started writing letters to all 108 Senators, pleading their case for the AECL workers. One Senator wrote back and agreed to meet with them. That was Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette. On a frigid day on Feb. 4, 2014, Habraken and Donohue met the Senator for an hour and presented their situation. She told them she would investigate further.

This led to that day in the Senate in 2016.

Habraken said he will continue to pressure the Natural Resources Minister to bring this Senate motion to the House of Commons, and after that it will be wait and see.

”We're going to have to deal with the minister,” he said, adding they will keep their fingers crossed.

In a recent story done by the CBC, it stated the file was in the hands of Natural Resources Canada. A statement from the department as reported on by the broadcaster acknowledged the role AECL employees played in the clean up, but stopped short of promising the establishment of a compensation plan.

“The government continues to give due consideration to the Senate motion," the statement read.

SUhler@postmedia.com