Soviet image of a RORSAT-type nuclear-powered spy satellite

Soviet image of a RORSAT-type nuclear-powered spy satellite.
Photo Credit: via hi-news ru

Canada History: Jan 24, 1978 Soviet radiation across the Arctic

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On September 18, 1977, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (CCCP) launched a reconnaissance satellite dubbed Cosmos-954.

In Russian it was a “Controlled Active Satellite” while the Americans knew it as a “RORSAT”- radar ocean reconnaissance satellite.  Its purpose was to monitor ocean traffic, especially of NATO vessels including nuclear submarines.

It was powered by about 50kg of Uranium -235.

Within weeks however there was a problem. US trackers noticed it had  begun deviating from its designed orbit. The Soviets meanwhile tried to regain control of their wobbling spy satellite, but without success. An apparatus designed to eject the reactor core into a higher “safe” orbit, also failed.  By mid-December the Soviets secretly advised the US of the problem with the ejection mechanism. They both knew it was soon coming down.  Initially, the Soviets said there would be no problem as the craft would disintegrate and burn up posing no real concern.

Approximate debris path, although the search area was much wider and longer covering 124,000 sq km across provinces and territories
Approximate debris path, although the search area was much wider and longer covering 124,000 sq km across provinces and territories

In tracking the satellite it was finally made clear it would come down with its radioactive core, somewhere over Canada.

It was late morning on January 24, 1978 that a fireball was seen streaking across the northern sky.

But Kosmos 954 didn’t burn up, instead it broke into pieces and scattered material including  bits of the highly radioactive core over some 124,000 kilometers of the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Nunavut, and Saskatchewan.

An idea of the landscape and difficulty in locating and recovering the pieces of 954 in the Arctic, many of which had melted into the snow and ice
An idea of the landscape and difficulty in locating and recovering the pieces of 954 in the Arctic, many of which were tiny had melted into the snow and ice © Library Archives Canada Mikan-4073498

Heated questions were raised in Canada’s Parliament about whether Canada had been informed in a timely manner and whether the Russians and Americans were holding back information.

Nevertheless  a massive detection and clean-up effort was undertaken called “Operation Morning Light”. For months American and Canadian aircraft flew over the vast area trying to detect radiation, followed by a huge ground search and recovery.

Many of the thousands of bits of radioactive material recovered were tiny even to the size of a grain of salt, shown here compared to a Canadian coin
Many of the thousands of bits of radioactive material recovered were tiny even to the size of a grain of salt, shown here compared to a Canadian coin © CNSC-YouTube

As of July 1978, Erik B. Wang, Director of the Legal Operations Division of the Department of External Affairs, indicated the cost of search and recovery to that point was some 12 million dollars.

Initially a large section of the satellite was found by accident by civilians in the Arctic.

A piece of 954 sticking out of a small crater from impact and heat that it made in the ice. This initial piece was accidentally found by a group of civilians on an expedition.
A piece of 954 sticking out of a small crater from impact and heat that it made in the ice. This initial piece was accidentally found by a group of civilians on an expedition. © via CBC news 1978

Meanwhile the joint US-Canada recovery effort continued in the air and in extensively on the ground beginning the same day of the crash and continuing for months until October 15, when it was called off.

Initially a large section of the satellite was found by accident by civilians in the Arctic while the military eventually recovered some 4,000 bits, many tiny, and almost all radioactive, totally about 65 kg but only a tiny 1% of the fuel.

In the end Canada only billed the Soviets for $6 million but included the right to add costs for future unexpected expenses.  After dragging for a few years, in 1981 the Soviets paid $3 million as full and final payment.

Soldiers as part of Operation Morning Light, digging into the snow to recover a piece of the Soviet spy satellite.
Soldiers as part of Operation Morning Light, digging into the snow to recover a piece of the Soviet spy satellite. © Library Archives Canada e010836478.jpg

While other nuclear satellites had fallen from space, it was always in the sea. This chapter raised many questions about nuclear safety in space especially over concerns should the satellite have spread its nuclear reactor over a city.

Russian launched its last nuclear powered satellite in 1988. There are still some 30 nuclear powered satellites in orbit: 29 Russian, one American . The US “SNAP-10a” was launched in 1965 but stopped responding only 43 days later. It, like most others, shouldn’t re-enter the atmosphere for another 3,000 years which by that time the radioactivity will be relatively harmless.

However, any one of these could be hit by other space debris, or tiny space meteorites with uncertain results. A radioactive cloud is now orbiting in space after the reactor on Kosmos 1900 was hit by something and leaked it’s coolant.

Additional information- sources

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One comment on “Canada History: Jan 24, 1978 Soviet radiation across the Arctic
  1. Marc Montgomery Marc Montgomery says:

    My father was a physician and medical officer for the Canadian government. I was born in Whitehorse in 1971 and lived there until 1977. From Whitehorse we moved to Frobisher Bay (now Iqualuit) and lived there during the time of the Cosmos 954 crash. In 1980 we moved from Iqualuit to Yellowknife and lived there for 3 years. I found your article after doing research spurred from the memory of a conversation I had with my father discussing the possible causes of the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma I had diagnosed in 1992 and the Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma my brother was diagnosed with in 2002. He said to me that he thought the cause was environmental because of nuclear things that happened in the North. My brother and I recently both had genetic testing done because my father, whom I just spoke of, died of colon cancer in 2011. My brother has since also had colon cancer and mouth cancer as well. The results for the genetic testing for my brother and I had was negative. When my genetic counselor questioned me about any environmental factors it prompted me to remember the conversation I had with my father and do some research. I found your article which has raised many questions about the impact this event may have caused to the health of my family. I thought you may find this interesting as something to possibly investigate further.

    With warm regards,
    Patricia N (M)