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USSR Bombs Canada

Aug 4 2013 -- My summer read that I am working on right now is, Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen. In Chapter 18 “Meltdown” she goes into some fascinating details about the only atomic device dropped by the USSR on another nation, in fact that turned out to be Canada.

Since the launch of the soviet built Kosmos 954 satellite in the fall of 1977, it fell to NORAD to tracking the satellite. By Christmas they were aware that it was in a decaying orbit.  Just before noon GMT on January 24, 1978 the U.S.S.R. lost its battle to try and stabilize the Kosmos 954 Satellite and it came hurtling out of the sky, finally crashing over a huge are area near Great Slave Lake in a remote part of Northern Canada.

Kosmos 954 was huge by satellite standards, as big as a school bus, 46 feet long, weighing 4.4 tons. The Satellite emitted powerful beams that were used to penetrate the ocean to track submarine movements.  Of course these penetration beams required a huge amount of energy, so it was powered by an on board nuclear reactor that was fuelled by over 110 pounds of Uranium 235. This material is the famous enriched uranium used in making atomic weapons.

As the orbit became less stable American experts from the Nevada test site, the CIA, a defence contractor known as EG& G and the DOE’s Emergency Command centre were involved in trying to determine what to do with the information. Ever since Orson Wells famous War of the Worlds broadcast the CIA was aware that mass hysteria could be worse than the actual incident. Central to their fear was that if some well meaning astrophysics or astronomers at a local university or planetarium misinformed the mayors of a few cities there could be panic and mass evacuations as one by one major metropolitan areas declared themselves the expected crash site of a fully operating live nuclear reactor dropping from the sky.
Timing could not have been worse; America was already suspicious about Nuclear power. For example this incident happened during the filming of the Hollywood movie “The China Syndrome

According to a CIA report declassified in 1997, Richard Mingus who worked at the U.S. Department of Energy’s emergency command centre in Las Vegas at the time spearheaded the American effort.  His job was fielding calls at the command centre, and to prevent Americans from panicking. All that the agency would report was that a “Space Aged Difficulty” had occurred. Nothing about a nuclear powered satellite with potential lethal fallout.  The Americans sent U2 spy planes over the Canadian North to survey the area. Meanwhile the DOE loaded radiation detection vans on to a transport plane.  They must have looked
quite the site when they were unloaded in the arctic. The American had always assumed they would be used in an urban area so the vans were painted to look like bread delivery vans. 

The Canadian effort fell to the newly created CNSC Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The project was dubbed operation morning light. In this video two bureaucrats talk about the only interesting thing they were ever involved in.

The largest piece of wreckage found was this massive highly radioactive chunk from the reactor core. But most of the material recovered was pinhead-sized dots of radioactive debris. The American say some 90 percent of the material was cleaned up, but their version is based on the assumption that most of the reactor vaporized on re-entry. Canadian sources say less than 1/10 of 1% of the 110 lbs. of uranium were found.  

After a few weeks of cleanup some fish were sampled for radiation and a few towns were survey for radioactive material and then everyone left.

There remains from this incident two interesting ideas to speculate on:

First what if some 30lbs of fission grade uranium is still in Slave Lake? What if this was found and later sold to terrorists and used in a dirty atomic truck bomb in a large urban area? 

Second was that according to that same declassified report, if the USSR could have coaxed Kosmos 954 in to making it through just one more orbit, it would have crashed in the highly populated urban corridor of the U.S. east coast. 

You can read more here