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Alan T. Prince (1975–1978)

Alan Price
Dr. Alan Price

Operation Morning Light – "The year of the AECB's grand adventure"

Dr. Alan T. Prince was the president of the Atomic Control Board (AECB) from 1975–1978. A geologist by trade, Prince was recognized for his expertise in the geological field, receiving the Coleman Gold Medal in Geology from the University of Toronto. Preceding his term as the AECB president, Prince held senior positions within the energy sector and the mining industry.

For three years, Dr. Prince was the president of the AECB, a deceptively short period of time given the events that occurred. During this time, communication with the Canadian citizenry became a priority for the AECB; a priority which remains central to the present day. The AECB placed renewed importance on the nuclear sector's responsibility to be accountable for their decisions. Consequently, The Nuclear Liability Act came into force, the Canadian Safeguards Support Program was initiated, The Nuclear Control and Administration Act was tabled in the House of Commons, and radioactive contamination clean-up initiatives were implemented.

Royal Canadian Air Force Crew
Royal Canadian Air Force Crew,
Operation Morning Light in 1978.

However, towards the end of his term, Prince faced a challenge which surpassed anything else associated with this defining era in the history of Canada's nuclear sector. On January 24, 1978, a nuclear-powered Soviet surveillance satellite, COSMOS 954, re-entered the atmosphere, scattering radioactive debris across a 124,000 km2 expanse in the Northwest Territories. COSMOS 954 was launched in September of 1977. Shortly after the satellite was launched, NORAD detected decay in the satellite's orbit, which caused it to crash.

By design, the COSMOS 954 was intended to eject its nuclear reactor into space in the case of an emergency. The ejection feature failed; consequently, highly radioactive debris was dispersed in northern Canadian regions, from Great Slave Lake to northern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Canada and the United States coordinated a clean-up initiative named Operation Morning Light. At the peak of the search for radioactive debris, over 200 people associated with Operation Morning Light were working in the affected region. The AECB was responsible for retrieving and handling radioactive materials, and for conducting environmental and health assessments.

The COSMOS 954 satellite crash was a significant event in Canada's nuclear regulatory history. Members of the AECB, accustomed to working behind a desk, were pulled to the front lines to manage this crisis, an event one CNSC employee coined “the AECB's grand adventure".

Operation Morning Light
Nuclear emergency response
capabilities tested with Operation
Morning Light in 1978.

Fortunately for the AECB and for the Operation Morning Light team, the majority of the COSMOS 954's reactor core was eliminated during re-entry into the atmosphere. However, by October 1978, over 4,000 flakes of radioactive debris were recovered from the region, including core fragments. It took nine months, 4,500 hours of flying time and $13,970,143 to recover from the crash of the COSMOS 954.

As a result of the COSMOS 954 incident, international nuclear policies were drawn into question. There was a call from Canada, the United States and a collection of European countries to prohibit satellites from containing radioactive material. In November 1978, the United Nations authorized its Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space to establish a working group to study nuclear-powered satellites and increase the safety of this technology in the exploration of space.

To discover more about the history of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the Canadian nuclear sector, browse our interactive timeline.

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