Al Donahue still remembers the frantic day the alarm went off at Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. in Chalk River, Ont.
“As soon as I heard the alarm, I was with a group of welders and I took them out to the camp area,” recalled Donahue, now 88 years old and living in nearby Pembroke. “Then I went back in and got the people out.”
On May 23, 1958, the National Research Universal (or NRU) nuclear reactor suffered a serious mechanical failure. It overheated, ruptured and a fire ensued, according to official reports.
The NRU reactor was state of the art, worth millions and had the potential of causing catastrophic radiation contamination if something went wrong.
Staff volunteered to decontaminate site
Hearing the alarm meant all hands on deck. About 300 AECL staff volunteered to decontaminate the site over the next 10 days.
“We stayed with it right from the day of the accident until the cleanup was finished,” said Donahue, who worked in the AECL purchasing office.
George Kiely, who worked in metallurgy at AECL for 31 years, also volunteered.
Kiely remembers trying to hold on to a big, awkward vacuum with gloved hands while wearing a full protective suit and breathing through a mask as he cleared debris from the reactor.
A supervisor told him what to expect.
“These little particles are going to look like pellets, and the idea is to try to pick up as many of those pellets as you can. And you won’t be able to stay in there very long — and we’ll keep track of you,” Kiely recalled being told.
Just 10 minutes of work
Kiely and the other workers had to work fast. Their radiation exposure was being closely monitored.
In just 10 minutes, Kiely reached the limit.
“You’re just getting started and then the guys are, ‘Come on! Get out of here! You’ve reached your level.’ So I dropped it, went out and undressed.”
Workers took turns with the vaccuum until they’d exhausted the radiation exposure of each willing staff member at AECL.
Then the Canadian military arrived.
Military called in to help
Canadian Forces members reached Chalk River on June 4, 1958.
Fifty years later, Kiely found out those officers and soldiers were getting paid compensation for their 10 minutes under the reactor. Personnel who had participated in the decontamination at Chalk River in 1958, as well as a previous incident in 1952, each received $ 24,000 compensation in 2008.
The money came through the Atomic Veterans Recognition Program (AVRP), developed by the Department of National Defence. According to a 2016 Senate report: “Payment by the AVRP does not seem to be dependent on developing an illness or health problem linked to nuclear radiation; participation alone warrants compensation.”
But there was no packet of compensation money for AECL workers like Donahue or Kiely.
The compensation for military personnel left Kiely bewildered. “We did it first. We were the ones to do it, and then the military came in as a last resort,” he said.
In 2009, Donahue, Kiely and Martin Habraken — a friend of Camille Charette, a deceased AECL employee who helped clean the reactor — launched a letter writing campaign in 2009.
“I had 37 people contact me when I first started trying to obtain justice,” Donahue said. “Out of 37, I counted 16 that are already gone.”
Don Kilby was among them. Like Donahue, he worked in the company store and suited up when the call went out in 1958.
“Dad would tell us about having to go in, only being allowed in there for short periods of time, minutes, then coming out and having these thorough showers,” said Gail MacDonald, Kilby’s daughter.
He died in 2009, within two weeks of a leukemia diagnosis.
“The doctor said he’d never, ever seen blood cells explode like Dad’s did,” said MacDonald. “It makes us wonder if it was due to the exposure to the radiation. I know none of us are qualified to say that, but it creates questions in our minds.”
After MacDonald got the “brush off” from federal ministers, she sought out Habraken and the other ex-AECL workers.
A champion emerges
The letter writers reached out to 105 senators. They got one response — from Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette.
She met with Donahue, Kiely and Habraken in 2014.
The senator asked her staff for a report about the 1952 and 1958 incidents, the military’s role and the compensation program. Released in 2016, it concluded: “Efforts should be made to either extend the current compensation program or develop a separate program for the civilians that participated at these events.”
Hervieux-Payette invited former AECL workers and their advocates to the Senate on March 22, 2016, when she presented a motion to compensate them.
“Finally the motion came up, and it was passed unanimously,” Habracken recalled. “We got applause. They all applauded.”
It looked like the men might finally get the same credit as military members.
Then Hervieux-Payette retired.
Back to the campaign
There aren’t many AECL workers left who worked at the Chalk River facility in the 1950s. Those who remain are starting over with a new government, a new campaign.
The file is in the hands of Natural Resources Canada. In a statement to CBC News, the department noted: “Employees of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) played an important role in the two major clean-up and decontamination efforts at the Chalk River Laboratories during the 1950s.”
The department also noted Hervieux-Payette’s Senate motion for compensation. According to the statement, “At this time, there is no program similar to the AVRP. However, the government continues to give due consideration to the Senate motion.”
For Kiely, it’s not about the money. In fact, he has no idea what he’d do with $ 24,000. “I haven’t thought what I’d do with it,” he said. “The money isn’t really the part. It’s the equality, you know?”