Reactor Accidents at Chalk River
Bjarnie Hannibal Paulson: Atomic Veteran
Cleaning Up the Radioactive Mess
Aftermath of the Accident
Reactor Accidents at Chalk River
Back in the fifties, there were two rather serious nuclear reactor accidents at Chalk River, Ontario.
The first occurred in 1952, when the NRX reactor underwent a violent power excursion that destroyed the core of the reactor, causing some fuel melting. Unaccountably, the shut-off rods failed to fully descend into the core. A series of hydrogen gas explosions (or steam explosions) hurled the four-ton gasholder dome four feet through the air where it jammed in the superstructure. Thousands of curies of fission products were released into the atmosphere, and a million gallons of radioactively contaminated water had to be pumped out of the basement and "disposed of" in shallow trenches not far from the Ottawa River. The core of the NRX reactor could not be decontaminated; it had to be buried as radioactive waste. Young Jimmy Carter -- later U.S. President, then a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy -- was among the hundreds of Canadian and American servicemen who were ordered to participate in the NRX cleanup following the accident.
Six years later, in 1958, several metallic uranium fuel rods in the NRU reactor overheated and ruptured inside the reactor core. One of the damaged rods caught fire and was torn in two as it was being removed from the core by a robotic crane. As the remote-controlled crane passed overhead, carrying the larger portion of the damaged rod, a three-foot length of fiercely burning uranium fuel broke off and fell into a shallow maintenance pit. The burning fuel lay there, spreading deadly fission products and alpha-emitting particles throughout the reactor building. The ventilation system was jammed in the "open" position, thereby contaminating the accessible areas of the building as well as a sizable area downwind from the reactor site. A relay team of scientists and technicians eventually extinguished the fire by running past the maintenance pit at top speed wearing full protective gear, dumping buckets of wet sand on the burning uranium fuel.
Over a thousand men were involved in the cleanup operations following these two accidents. More than 600 men were required for the NRU cleanup alone. Official AECL reports stress that very few of these men were over-exposed to radiation -- that is, most of the recorded radiation doses did not exceed the levels that were considered permissible for atomic workers at that time. The reports also imply that no adverse health effects were caused by the exposures received. However, no medical follow-up has ever been done to see whether the population of men involved exhibited a higher-than-normal incidence of cancer later in life.
Bjarnie Hannibal Paulson: Atomic VeteranWhen I first met Bjarnie Hannibal Paulson in 1979, he lived in Montreal. He had had over 40 operations for cancer during the previous 15 years. In 1964 he was operated on for cancer of the rectum. In 1966 part of his nose was removed because it was cancerous. He has since had numerous operations for cancer of the scalp, cancer in the chest area, cancer in the pubic region, and cancer in the peri-anal region. Doughnut-shaped growths have been removed from both his breasts. He has a regular appointment to visit a cancer clinic so that new growths can be detected and removed as they occur.
In 1958, when Paulson was a corporal in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) stationed at St-Jean, Quebec, he was transferred to Camp Petawawa to assist in the clean-up at Chalk River following the NRU accident. Corporal Paulson was well-qualified for the job, since he was an instructor in Atomic Warfare and Radioactive Decontamination. Hundreds of raw army recruits at Petawawa were to be sent into the NRU reactor building with mops and scrub brushes, wearing three layers of protective clothing, and breathing through respirators equipped with charcoal filters. Paulson's job was to brief the men on radiation, explain the protective equipment, and escort them into the contaminated area in groups of fifteen.
Cleaning Up the Radioactive Mess
Because of the intense penetrating gamma radiation fields, against which the protective gear offered almost no protection, the men were only allowed to work for about an hour. By that time they were ankle-deep in sweat inside their rubber suits, and they had accumulated a dose of radiation exposure which approached the annual permissible dose limit for atomic workers. Once out of the contaminated area, they had to remove their protective clothing, one layer at a time, at three special decontamination "stations". Then they headed for the showers, where they scrubbed vigorously to wash off any radioactive particles that might be clinging to their skin or trapped in their hair. The men's bodies were closely monitored with a radiation counter, and if any trace of contamination was detected, they were sent back to the showers for more washing and scrubbing.
Unlike gamma radiation, alpha radiation has very little penetrating power. Alpha rays (which are actually energetic particles) cannot penetrate through an ordinary sheet of paper. They cannot even penetrate the layer of dead cells on the surface of the skin to damage the living cells underneath. Nevertheless, once alpha rays come in contact with living cells (usually through the inhalation or ingestion of alpha-emitting radioactive substances) they are extraordinarily effective in causing cancer -- at least twenty times as effective as a comparable quantity of gamma rays or x-rays. Indeed, the most potent cancer-causing agents known to man are alpha emitters: radium, radon gas and its radioactive "daughters", and plutonium. The protective clothing, the respirators, and the showers were intended primarily to protect the men against tiny alpha-emitting particles of uranium oxide and plutonium oxide which were everywhere in the contaminated area of the NRU building back in the summer of 1958.
Paulson believes that some of these mote-like particles lodged in the hair follicles of his body, where they would escape detection (since the alpha radiation could not penetrate past the roots of the hairs) but where they could irradiate the living basal cells underneath the hair roots. This would explain why cancers are occurring only in the hairy parts of his body. It would also explain why the cancerous growths in his scalp and on his face are all on the right side of his head; Paulson was trained to remove his respirator by sliding his right hand in under the respirator and lifting it up. This, he believes, could have spread alpha contamination to the right side of his face and scalp. Other parts of his body could have been contaminated in a similar fashion, through contact with his hands or with contaminated clothing. Most of this contamination would be washed off in the shower -- but if some of the particles lodged in his hair follicles, he would carry them with him for a long time afterwards; perhaps even for the rest of his life.
Aftermath of the AccidentWhen the NRU clean-up was completed, Mr. Paulson was cautioned by his superior officers to observe strict secrecy about all aspects of the decontamination operation. He promised to do so. He was also advised not to have any medical x-rays for a year or two.
Not long afterwards, Mr. Paulson left the Air Force. He moved to Montreal with his wife and six children and settled into civilian life. But by 1964, he found himself getting sluggish and progressively weaker. He couldn't walk any distance without getting fagged and breaking into a sweat. At first the doctors at the Queen Mary Veteran's Hospital couldn't find anything wrong with him; they suspected him of malingering. Then they found a carcinoma of the rectum and removed it. They told him he would need further operations to repair the damage and enlarge the opening.
At first, Mr. Paulson took it all in his stride. Then he started noticing peculiar holes developing in the right side of his nose. Deep down inside he knew it was cancer, but he didn't want to admit it. He used his wife's makeup to cover up the holes. At that time, he was working as an embalmer and prosector for the McGill Medical School -- preparing cadavers for subsequent dissection by medical students. He knew a lot about radiation, and he knew a lot about biology. He began to put two and two together. Could his Chalk River experience have anything to do with his medical problems?
One day, his wife left the house early and took her makeup with her. Later in the day, one of the doctors at McGill was startled by the appearance of Mr. Paulson's uncamouflaged nose. He took a biopsy, and diagnosed it as cancer. That marked the beginning of a long series of operations -- on Mr. Paulson's nose, his scalp, his chest, and his pubic and peri-anal regions. Because of these proliferating skin cancers, he had to discontinue heat therapy for a back ailment that dated back to Korea.
When the truth could no longer be denied, Mr. Paulson was thrown into a deep depression. He quit his job at McGill because he could no longer bear the sight of the cadavers. It made him think about himself and his cancers. He turned to drink.
After a few years and many more operations, he quit drinking, pulled himself together, and applied for a veteran's pension to supplement the meager family income. Because of his solemn promise of secrecy, however, he didn't mention the Chalk River episode. Instead he applied for other disabilities dating back to his military service in Korea: black river malaria, and a chronic nervous disorder which led to a nervous breakdown in 1966. He attributes the nervous disorder to his role as a demolition officer in Korea. On one occasion, he set a booby trap which killed at least twenty people -- women and children, mostly. He had trouble sleeping after that. He found that his nerves were bad, and continued to get worse. Of course, the cancers didn't help.
The pension board denied his claim because the malaria symptoms had not developed until after he was back in Canada, and they have since abated somewhat. The nervous disorder was not considered to be a pensionable disability. It was decided that there was insufficient evidence to show that these problems had resulted from his military service.
Meanwhile, the cancer operations continued, followed by painstaking plastic surgery to cover up the holes. He found that he couldn't work at any task for more than a couple of hours, due to a lack of stamina. Finally, in 1979, Mr. Paulson broke his 20-year-old promise and, in another application for a veteran's pension, cited the Chalk River clean-up as a probable cause of the cancers that had so disrupted his life. At one of the pension board hearings, to his amazement, he was told that there was no record of his ever having been at Chalk River.
Mr. Paulson searched his memory. On one occasion, he remembered being sent into one of the most heavily contaminated areas of the NRU reactor building with another Air Force corporal named McCormand. Their mission was to position a bulky and heavily contaminated industrial vacuum cleaner so that it could be lifted out by a remote controlled crane. They overstayed their time by about 70 seconds because of difficulties in sawing through the vacuum hose with a hacksaw. The civilian scientists, watching them from behind thick glass shielding, were shouting at them to get out, and beating on the door.
Mr. Paulson discovered that Mr. McCormand was still alive and living in Toronto. Mr. McCormand, it turns out, had had medical treatments for cancer of the throat. He attributes his cancer to a faulty respirator which he wore during the Chalk River clean-up. He had also applied for a veteran's pension, and in the early stages of his application, he was given the same sad story: no record of his being at Chalk River, either. But Mr. McCormand managed to line up two witnesses who could testify to his having been there, and ultimately he was granted a small cash settlement in lieu of a pension.
Going PublicWhen Mr. Paulson's latest request for a pension was turned down, he was deeply discouraged. He contacted Project Genesis in Montreal, who referred him to the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR) to explore other possible avenues of action. As CCNR President, I suggested that we try to contact other men who were involved in the cleanup operation, because some of them might be suffering from similar medical problems. If so, that would greatly strengthen Paulson's case. Since neither Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) nor the RCAF would supply the information necessary to locate these other men, Paulson decided to go public with his story in hopes that others in similar circumstances would read about his case and make themselves known too.
Bjarnie Hannibal Paulson at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, 1980.
~ photo by Robert Del Tredici ~
AECL representatives don't like the idea very much. They told a Montreal Gazette reporter that it was unthinkable that Mr. Paulson's cancers were due to his radiation exposure at Chalk River, because his exposure was well within the regulatory guidelines. They did not seem to realize that the radiation exposures recorded by AECL were gamma and beta exposures only. They did not consider the possibility that alpha contamination of hair follicles might produce a very much larger dose over an extended period of time. Both McCormand and Paulson had burns inside their eyes, probably from gamma radiation; but their cancers were more likely caused by alpha radiation.
When asked whether AECL had ever done a medical follow-up of the more than 600 men involved in the NRU cleanup, the same AECL representatives replied that such an action was considered unnecessary because of the low radiation exposures. They remarked that six hundred was too small a number to be of any statistical significance.
Although AECL has the records of most of the men involved in the cleanup, they have refused to make the information available. They have also indicated no intention of doing an epidemiological study themselves.
The only epidemiological studies on workers exposed to low levels of radiation in Canada have been those done on uranium miners who are exposed to the inhalation of alpha-emitting dust and gas. Those studies have indicated that low levels of alpha radiation are far more effective in causing lung cancer in uranium miners than one would have expected from the high-exposure data. Apparently, AECL believes that what you don't know won't hurt you. Certainly, as far as the nuclear industry is concerned, no news is good news when it comes to radiation-induced cancer.
Long-Term ImplicationsThis episode from the past may have important policy implications for the present:
- What kind of protection do workers have against radiation-induced cancer? What chances do they have of obtaining compensation if they suffer from this kind of delayed occupational illness? Must the burden of proof always be on their shoulders to prove that their cancers were job-related? Can there not be a sort of "no-fault" insurance for atomic workers which guarantees coverage in the event of cancer? Since the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion is that any dose of radiation can cause cancer, would this not be the most just procedure?
- What kinds of medical problems are experienced by workers who are exposed to low-level radiation in specific situations? This question can be answered only by epidemiological studies. Since regulatory standards for both public safety and occupational safety depend on accurate estimates of the health effects of radiation at low doses, should not the industry be required to do detailed medical follow-ups of worker populations who are so exposed? It is a sobering thought that neither AECL nor Eldorado Nuclear, both Crown Corporations, have ever seen fit to conduct such studies.
- What kind of precautions should be taken during decontamination operations to minimize the possible adverse health effects on workers? Wouldn't the experiences at NRU and NRX provide a valuable object lesson for others engaged in cleaning up after reactor accidents, such as the one at Three Mile Island? But how useful are those experiences if no one bothers to monitor the subsequent health effects among the workers?
DisillusionmentBjarnie Hannibal Paulson is a disillusioned man. He volunteered in 1939 to fight Hitler's forces in Europe, and when ordered to help his country to honour its United Nations commitment in Korea, he didn't ask any questions. He assumed that he was doing the right thing. Later, when he was summoned to Chalk River to help in the NRU cleanup, he didn't object. He did what he thought was his duty. He was proud to be of service.
But now he's not so sure. Now he's the one who is asking for help, and no one if giving it. No one admits to owing him anything. It makes him feel cynical, and angry. Why did he bother to lay his body on the line? At least in Korea, he knew the danger, and he accepted it. But at Chalk River, no one ever told him what the danger was. In the outdated radiation manuals he used in the RCAF, it never said that cancer could be caused by alpha radiation. It only said that high doses of gamma radiation could cause cancer. He never knew that there is no such thing as "a safe dose".
He wonders what happened to the other men who were involved in the cleanup. He also wonders what happened to the hundreds of Canadian servicemen who were ordered to go down to Nevada to witness the atomic bomb tests first hand, exposing themselves to radioactive fallout as part of a military maneuver. Of course, Paulson's cancers might not be due to radiation -- but he has no way of knowing, no way of checking, and no chance of proving his case, because the authorities aren't interested in doing the necessary studies or even making available the information in their possession.
~ finis ~
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