Family

Operation Morning Light: A Code Name for Radioactive Debris Collection

I have a story to tell you, but it goes back a few years, so make yourselves comfortable.

It starts forty years ago this month, in January 1978, when the Russian satellite Cosmos 954 exploded on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. It sent debris flying over 124,000 square kilometres of the northern part of the planet. But that isn’t all; the debris was radioactive, and some of it landed near where I was living.

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Map of debris disbursement by Robin des Bois

Canada claimed three million dollars in damages from the Soviet Union, and the Statement of Claim between Canada and the USSR says, “the satellite carried on board a “… nuclear reactor working on uranium enriched with isotope of uranium-235”. On January 24, 1978, the satellite entered the earth’s atmosphere intruding into Canadian air space at about 11:53 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time to the north of the Queen Charlotte Islands on the west coast of Canada. On re-entry and disintegration, debris from the satellite was deposited on Canadian territory, including portions of the Northwest Territories, Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

I recently joined a Facebook group of people who once lived in Pine Point, Northwest Territories, and we have been discussing this grim anniversary.  Pine Point was a Cominco mining town on the south side of Great Slave Lake, and it housed the people who worked in the lead and zinc mine, the ore crushing mill, and the offices. My husband, Geoff, and I lived there from 1978 to 1981.

Geoff moved there in early 1978 but I was teaching in Trail, British Columbia at the time and did not follow him there until the school year ended in June. I, too, worked for Cominco in Pine Point for a short while, as the illustrator of a mill operating manual, but I quit when I was expecting our first child. Geoff was an engineering designer, and as such he worked in various areas of the mine and mill.

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A Canadian C130 and Crew from Robin des Bois

Shortly after I arrived I remember seeing a woman in a hazmat-style bodysuit with a face mask wandering around in our back garden—the garden where we had planted lots of vegetables which were flourishing. I asked Geoff what it was about and he explained that she was one of a team of people searching for satellite debris, and although it seemed odd, I didn’t think very much about it. At that time, almost everything seemed odd to me.

The location and removal of the debris were undertaken in two phases, and I saw the second of those. What is most alarming about this is that, as the Statement of Claim points out, “all but two of the fragments recovered were radioactive. Some fragments located proved to be of lethal radioactivity. It was necessary for the debris to be handled with great care as it is well established that radioactive material can have serious physiological effects and in some cases can be fatal.”

The discussion on the Facebook group page includes the recollections of various people, including one who actually saw the satellite explosion.  One woman recalls seeing people wearing anti-radiation suits scanning the people and the lockers in the school.  Several people point out that it seems strange that, although the debris collection team was in protective clothing, the townspeople were not evacuated and none of us was advised to take any special precautions beyond avoiding strange-looking metal objects.

The Facebook group has also expressed some scepticism about a law firm that is putting together a class action suit for victims of this event and who are creating a list of people who have (or have died of) rare cancers. There is a suspicion that this may be a ruse to line the pockets of the lawyers, but there is also a lack of confidence that anyone could prove how any particular cancer was caused. This is especially true of workers at a lead and zinc mine, in an age when many people were smokers.

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Operation Morning Light from Robin des Bois

Each of us has a personal story to tell, and my story includes the fact that my husband died of a rare form of cancer (Thymoma) four days before his 54th birthday. I am now wondering to what extent the mine, the mill, and/or the satellite debris might have contributed to his illness. In addition, although it never occurred to me before, I am now wondering if radioactivity may have affected me and my pregnancy.

I have written to the person with links to the law firm to find out if Geoff’s illness might have been caused by the radioactive debris, but I very much doubt whether that can be proven. There is so much we don’t know, but that lack of knowledge is making me ask questions that I probably should have asked long before now. I certainly should have asked them before I ate those vegetables!

I wish this story had a happy ending or any kind of ending, but it looks as though it may just be one more thing to wonder about.

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