Press coverage of the Society and its activities

Supplying Highly Enriched Uranium to NRU after 9/11/2001

Written by
Mike Ward
the North Renfrew Times
2020 Dec 02

The Society for the Preservation of Canada’s Nuclear Heritage Inc. (SPCNHI) has accumulated a large collection of artifacts, photographs, books and documents in the last three years. It also welcomes anecdotes about the nuclear industry. The following very-welcome anecdote was contributed by Mike Ward.
“In the later years of my career at AECL’s Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, I was Manager of Nuclear Facilities Operations (NFO), a division within Facilities & Nuclear Operations (FNO). The division included two sections: Radioactive Materials Transportation and Nuclear Materials Management.
Amongst other things, these two sections were responsible for the acquisition, transportation from suppliers, and storage on site of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) for use in fuel for the NRU reactor, and in targets for the production of medical isotopes and for research projects. In general the HEU was acquired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, USA.

On the morning of the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, a meeting at CRNL was scheduled at 10:00 a.m. Attendees included four representatives from ORNL and the US government administration in Washington. The purpose was to negotiate a term contract for supplying HEU to AECL from ORNL.
The Americans had stayed overnight in a hotel in Pembroke and duly arrived at CRNL and were escorted to the Conference Room in Building 600. They were totally unaware of what was happening south of the border. I had the unpleasant task of informing them about it, and suggested that we re-schedule the meeting to a later time so that they could make contact with home and the appropriate organizations.

At the end of the day we were faced with hosting them and extending their accommodation booking. Their return flights home had already been cancelled. There was thus the further challenge of finding a way for them to return to the USA.

Fortuitously we found out that there were AECL staff visiting Babcock & Wilcox in Lynchburg who were faced with a similar problem of getting back home in Canada. A rental car company in Lynchburg was persuaded to allow their vehicle to cross the Canada /USA border (unusual at that point in time!) to bring our staff home, and for the US guests to return it south of the border.

Our HEU negotiations were successful. However as a result of 9/11, the logistics of transporting HEU from ORNL became very complicated. Security became a big issue, but the need to re-supply NRU was also paramount. For the first HEU transfer soon after 9/11, a Canadian contingent from CRNL and members of the OPP SWAT team, along with a UPS or FedEx truck had to travel to Fort Drum in northwest New York State. The HEU was to be transported there from ORNL for handover to AECL.
On arrival at Fort Drum the CRNL team were greeted by a large contingent of security personnel. It was unclear to our team how many there were, but clearly many more than our OPP security team. There seemed to be many extra armed men hanging around on the periphery. The transport truck was something to behold: a huge specialized security vehicle. The Canadian contingent were warned not to get too close. It was apparent that one had to be wearing a specific electronic badge and there would be repercussions if one got too close without a badge, e.g., lock-down.

In the event the transfer was achieved, and the Canadians headed back across the border and on to CRNL. A subsequent post mortem review revealed that the USA had incurred a cost for the security/transfer considerably more than the value of the HEU and the revenue from the sale. Thus it became clear that an alternative method of transportation/transfer would have to be developed for future shipments. Remember it was shortly after 9/11 and the availability and movement of fissile materials were very sensitive issues.

At CRNL we had some experience of transporting such material by air. We had previously sent some to the UKAEA site at Dounreay in Scotland. That transfer was by an RCAF Hercules which was flying to U.K anyway. Accordingly we approached the RCAF to enquire if, in the circumstances, a Hercules could be available to fly to and from Knoxville Tennessee and bring back a package for us. The RCAF were very cooperative but indicated that all available Hercules were already committed in the required time frame. However they also indicated a willingness to liaise with their USAF counterparts to see if they could help. Obtaining a re-supply of HEU for NRU and Mo-99 production soon was becoming very important.

Lo and behold the USAF agreed to cooperate. We learned that a C5 Galaxy from California would be made available to fly to Knoxville, pick up the package and transfer it to Pembroke airport. A C5 is a huge, four-jet engine monster capable of carrying 62-tonne M1 ABRAMS battle tanks. Communication was arranged with the assigned pilot about the length of runway and whether that would be an issue for landing and subsequent takeoff. The short answer was, “No problem”.
This was great progress but the other logistics still had to be dealt with. Because of the sensitivity involved, AECL Head Office and federal intergovernmental relations had to come into the process. Everything went well and a date for the purchase and transfer was agreed.

Now the situation with security at CRNL had become much more complicated. I had to list the names and security clearance of informed participants and limit the number on the list to a “need-to-know” basis. The urgency of receiving more HEU on site was approaching and Paul Lafreniere, then Manager of FNO and my Supervisor, asked about the status of supply for NRU. I had to inform him that I could not tell him because he was not on said list. Paul was not a happy camper.

Nobody but those on the list and Pembroke airport management knew of the pending arrival of the C5. It was by far the biggest aircraft to land there. I am sure local people must have wondered to see such a large plane circling to land. The media were totally unaware. The C5 circled and put down on half the runway. The package was off-loaded into a van and with attendant Security staff transferred to CRNL. The C5 proceeded to the end of the runway, turned around, and took off with a lot of tarmac to spare.

Back in my office I was able to prepare and send a memorandum to Paul indicating that the required HEU had arrived on site and was in secure storage. A photograph of the C5 landing had been taken. It was photo-shopped to replace the USAF insignia by the AECL “Flying A” logo and “AECL”. I attached the amended photo to the memorandum.”

The Society would be very pleased to hear from others who are willing to contribute stories of their experience. Contact any member of the Society executive, or send your story to <>.