Kosmos 954 and its unlikely journey to the NWT 35 years ago


photo courtesy of the United States Department of Energy An artist’s rendition of the Kosmos 954 satellite that crashed in the NWT on Jan. 24, 1978.

An artist’s rendition of the Kosmos 954 satellite that crashed in the NWT on Jan. 24, 1978.
photo courtesy of the United States Department of Energy

Thirty-five years ago, a foreign object made international headlines when it crashed in our backyard, relatively speaking.

The Soviet Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite (RORSAT), dubbed Kosmos 954, was powered by a nuclear reactor and carried over 45.3 kilograms of enriched uranium when its fiery trajectory ended near Lutsel K’e in the early morning of Jan. 24, 1978.

NWT residents who were awake at around 5 a.m. that day may have seen a fireball streaking across the night sky. Debris scattered over 120,000 square kilometres, leaving many to wonder – without the Internet as a handy reference tool – whether the danger of radioactivity was real or not.

In Hay River, news of the event was first published in the Feb. 1 issue of The Hub.

Armed Forces planes and helicopters had already begun crisscrossing NWT airspace and eyewitnesses had come forward with vivid descriptions of what they saw.

They described a fiery red thing, with a darker outline, moving at great speed and leaving behind a trail of smaller glowing parts,” the article explained. “It sounded like a meteorite, probably, and for the first couple of hours that is what was generally assumed.”

Most of the debris landed in the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, all the way northeast to Baker Lake, which is about 1,600 km north of Winnipeg.

Approximately 4,000 particles of material were ever found, according to a letter from the Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General on Dec. 19, 1978.

In the March 15, 1978, edition of The Hub, a story revealed more information in regard to the local particles recovered.

In all, 24 particles were picked up and packaged for removal in this area,” it said. “None of these particles offered any danger, except of a most minimal nature.”

After the pattern of dispersal had been established, it was concluded that 80,000 square kilometres of land east of Hay River had received a light dusting of highly radioactive material, according to the website of the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre in Yellowknife.

Operation Morning Light was the code name used for the joint Canada-United States operation to locate and clean up the radioactive debris.

Some of the microscopic debris fell over Hay River.

David Johnson, who worked for Northern Transportation Company Ltd. at the time of the crash, said he received an unusual visit one day in late January.

I was working in the marine trailer at the time and all of a sudden these students showed up,” he said. “We called them particle pickers. They had Geiger counters (to detect radiation) and the big white suits, and they came into my office and said that I had to leave right away.”

Apparently Johnson had stepped on something and had brought it back into his office.

It must have been on my boots,” he said. “For the next couple of days I couldn’t work in my office. Back then, the real concern wasn’t as much radiation as the lack of information that was available about the crash.”

Chris Brodeur, owner of The Hub at the time, said he remembers a meeting taking place for people to exchange information about the event.

The organizers advertised the meeting in The Hub the week before, but couldn’t afford to pay for it, so Brodeur decided to send the bill to the people responsible for the crash in the first place: the Soviets.

I sent a bill to the Soviet embassy in Ottawa,” he said with a laugh. “They didn’t reply to me, but they contacted Foreign Affairs, who then angrily got a hold of me and asked why I had sent the Soviets a bill.”

The political fallout from the crash was so severe that it was a major topic of discussion in the House of Commons following the event.

Joe Clark, the leader of the opposition at the time, hammered the Liberal government about not having warned the Canadian public of the crash ahead of time.

Pierre Trudeau, then the prime minister, said the satellite had been tracked for several days prior to its crash, but no one knew exactly where it would end up.

— Myles Dolphin