A Nuclear Meltdown on Kebaowek First Nation’s Territory… with U.S. President Jimmy Carter?!

We have learned so much about the impacts of industry on the natural world. Billions of dollars have been spent on science and technology to figure out what kinds of impacts occur when we clear-cut forests, tear open the Earth for minerals, and dam sacred rivers. We have also learned about these impacts the hard way — mistakes. 

A series of mistakes happened at the Government of Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) over 70 years ago. In 1952, a nuclear reactor had a catastrophic meltdown, the first the world had ever experienced. It polluted the land at the facility and caused health consequences for the workers involved in the extensive cleanup of radioactive waste.  

This history of the nuclear meltdown is something that Kebaowek First Nation is trying to bring awareness to. The meltdown should remind us of the dangers of the proposed Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF), which would take in over one million metric tonnes of nuclear waste at CRL, the very same place where the reactor failed. Kebaowek First Nation is going to court with RAVEN’s support to have their free, prior, and informed consent honoured for the nuclear waste to be moved much further away from the Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River). 

So let’s dive into the history of the nuclear meltdown so we can better act in solidarity with Kebaowek First Nation.

Construction of Chalk River Laboratories

CRL was built in 1944 to become the site of first nuclear reactor in Canada, and the first anywhere in the world outside of the United States. During the Second World War, the British government decided to move its nuclear laboratory to a safer place where its scientists could work with scientists from the U.S. and other countries to develop nuclear weapons.  The remote location of CRL, away from the battlefront, was ideal for a heavy water reactor and associated plutonium extraction facilities that could contribute to the Allied nuclear war effort.

As is common practice of any industry in the past and even the present, facilities were built at Chalk River on Algonquin territory without the consent Algonquin First Nations. In fact, the facility is across the Kichi Sibi from a sacred site known as Oiseau Rock, where ancient pictographs have been defaced by settlers over the past few decades. The Algonquin-Anishinabek people continue to use and steward the site today.

After the Second World War ended in 1945, researchers at CRL finished building the NRX (“National Research Experimental”) reactor in 1947. The new reactor – and the scientists from around the world who came to Canada to design and operate it — brought CRL into a world-leading position for nuclear research and development.

The Accident

In December 1952, mistakes led to a catastrophic meltdown at CRL. The NRX reactor was set at low power to study the flow of coolant water through the tubes containing the uranium fuel rods. An operator accidentally opened air valves that allowed the reactor’s control rods to rise, increasing the intensity of nuclear reactions. His supervisor noticed and closed the valves, but the control rods did not fully descend into the reactor. The supervisor then miscommunicated with a colleague about which buttons to press to push the rods back down. The colleague instead withdrew other control rods in the “safeguard bank.”  When the wrong buttons were pressed, the heat of the reactor started to double every two seconds.

Panic ensued. Two workers tried to shut down the reactor with emergency levers but were too late.The control rods did not descend back into the reactor core. After a minute of the power increasing, employees dumped the heavy water from the  reactor core, ending the out-of-control uranium chain reaction. These measures prevented the meltdown but not without damage. 

4.5 million litres of radioactive water flooded the basement of the facility. Molten uranium poured out of shattered tubes. An explosion occurred when hydrogen and oxygen underwent a violent chemical  reaction. The damage could have been a lot worse, but the accident released very high amounts of radiation, causing everyone to evacuate the facility. 

According to the international standard for how bad nuclear meltdowns are, the CRL meltdown in 1952 is rated at five out of seven (Chernobyl was seven out of seven) and stands out as the worst in Canadian history.

The Cleanup

It took 14 months with 800 employees to clean up the nuclear meltdown at CRL. Since the military used nuclear energy for submarines, both the Canadian and American militaries helped clean up the mess of radioactive waste as it was in their best interests. Even Jimmy Carter, who would later be the president of the United States, helped with the cleanup of the NRX reactor.

Small teams had specific tasks of removing equipment from the facility. They rehearsed the amount of time they spent dismantling the reactor to minimize their exposure to radiation, which is why it took over a year to clean up the mess of the meltdown.  

Many studies have been conducted on the men who spent time cleaning up the reactor (and yes, they were all men because, well, you know, the patriarchy). No early deaths have been linked to radiation exposure from the cleanup, but the men experienced four times higher cancer rates than the average population. Some men went through permanent, life-altering surgeries to be cured of their cancer. Unfortunately, they also had to go through the legal system to fight for compensation for being exposed to nuclear radiation during the cleanup efforts at CRL. Many years later, the Government of Canada did compensate those who were still alive.

The human consequences of the cleanup were bad, and the environmental consequences are just as bad, if not worse. Since this was the first core meltdown of any nuclear reactor in history, scientists had rigorous debates over what to do with the mess. In the end, an emergency pipeline was built to dump the toxic wastewater onto the land about two kilometres away uphill from the facility. 

Could you imagine? Water with toxic amounts of radiation went directly into the soil, filtering into the Perch Lake Watershed and into the Kichi Sibi. The site where they dumped toxic water is still being monitored to this day.

All the parts from the NRX reactor were buried at the Chalk River Laboratories on Kebaowek’s territory. The big aluminum cylinder that held the uranium rods is under an eight-foot mound of soil. A platform rests above the mound so scientists can continue testing its radioactivity levels. The melted fuel rods were buried underground in wooden boxes, and when scientists excavated the rods in 2005, the boxes were degraded by the radiation and in direct contact with the soil. 

Conclusion

Guided by the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, European settlers came to Turtle Island with the idea that the land was empty. They believed that the land, with its rich resources, was being underutilized by the Indigenous peoples who were already here, and that Indigenous legal orders, governance structures, and stewardship practices were null and void. They saw the natural world as an unruly beast that needed to be tamed.

This destructive othering by settler society in Canada against Indigenous Peoples and the natural world is seen all throughout history. If settler society respected Indigenous sovereignty during the Second World War, in which Indigenous folks fought to honour the sacred Treaties they had with Canada, there may never have been a nuclear research and development facility on Kebaowek First Nations’ territory. Radioactive waste wouldn’t have been buried or dumped right onto the same lands that Kebaowek ancestors had walked for millennia. 

If CRL didn’t exist, Kebaowek wouldn’t be asserting their right to free, prior, and informed consent in court in the summer of 2024. They wouldn’t need to protect their land and the Kichi Sibi from radioactive contamination, putting the drinking water for millions of people at risk. They wouldn’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees just to say no to the project.

Mistakes happen. But if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, we hurt the things we love most in life. Donate to Kebaowek First Nation’s legal challenge to make sure we don’t make another massive mistake that could hurt the lives of millions of people, the land, and the sacred Kichi Sibi. 

Donate to support Kebaowek First Nation access justice now.

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