The Current

Retired workers want compensation for cleaning up nuclear spills at Chalk River in 1950s

Almost 60 years ago, a group of AECL workers put on protective gear and took turns stepping into a chamber brimming with radioactive material. Now they are fighting for compensation.
George Kiely, Al Donahue and Martin Habraken are campaigning for compensation for AECL workers who were exposed to radiation after incidents in Chalk River, Ont., in 1952 and 1958. (Julie Ireton, CBC)

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Al Donahue still remembers the frantic day the alarm went off at Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. in Chalk River, Ont. 
A sign from inside Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. at Chalk River, Ont., from the 1950s. (CBC Archives)

RelatedStaff exposed to radiation at Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. in 1950s want same compensation military received 

"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," he says.

Workers volunteered to decontaminate the site

On May 23, 1958, the National Research Universal nuclear reactor suffered a serious mechanical failure. It overheated, ruptured, and a fire ensued, according to official reports.

Hearing the alarm meant all hands on deck. About 300 AECL staff volunteered to decontaminate the site over the next 10 days.

An accident at National Research Universal reactor

4 years ago
Duration 0:43
An accident at the NRU reactor in Chalk River spreads radioactive dust throughout the 12-storey building.

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 and a full protective suit while breathing through a mask as he cleared debris from the reactor.

In 1958, George Kiely was suited up and went in under the reactor to help clear debris. (Julie Ireton, CBC)

Their radiation exposure was being closely monitored. After just 10 minutes, Kiely had reached the maximum.

Gail MacDonald's dad, Don Kilby worked at AECL in 1958 and was exposed to radiation during the subsequent cleanup. He died in 2009. (Julie Ireton, CBC )

"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."

When they had exhausted the radiation exposure of each willing staff member at AECL, they called in Canadian military.

Fifty years later, Kiely found out those officers and soldiers were getting paid compensation for their 10 minutes under the reactor.

Military personnel received compensation

In 2008, military 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.

But there was no packet of compensation money for Atomic Energy workers like Donahue or Kiely.

The men launched a letter writing campaign in 2009 to get the attention of politicians.​

The money isn't really the part. It's the equality, you know?- George Kiely

They got one response — from Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette.

Al Donahue and Martin Habraken have been sending letters and reaching out to the last remaining AECL workers for several years. (Julie Ireton, CBC)

Hervieux-Payette invited former AECL workers and their advocates to the Senate on March 22, 2016, when she presented a motion to the Senate, asking that the AECL workers be compensated.

It looked like the men might finally get the same credit as military members.

Then Hervieux-Payette retired.

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 campaign.

Inside the AECL labs at Chalk River, Ontario c. 1950s (CBC Archives )

The file is currently in the hands of Natural Resources Canada.

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?"

Listen to the documentary, 10 Minutes of Work above.

This documentary was produced by CBC's Julie Ireton and The Current's Lara O'Brien.

The Current did request comment from Natural Resources Canada. Here is part of their statement:

"The government acknowledges the continued efforts of former AECL employees to have the contributions to the clean-ups in the 1950s at the Chalk River Laboratories recognized."

"In March of 2016, the Honourable Senator Hervieux-Payette brought forward a Senate motion calling on the government to establish a program similar to the Atomic Veterans Recognition Program (AVRP) for civilian AECL employees or their estates."

"At this time, there is no program similar to the AVRP, however, the government continues to give due consideration to the Senate motion."