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Vietnam War Nuclear Mission

Jul. 23, 2015

The closing stages of the Vietnam War were marked by high drama and desperation. A little-known incident involved a team of US scientists on a top-secret mission. Their job was to remove fuel from a nuclear reactor -- before North Vietnamese forces could get to it. It was a race against time, and the price of failure would be nuclear devastation. We spoke with one of the mission’s members, and reviewed the operation’s logbook.

Wally Hendrikson is elderly now. He spends his retirement at Hanford Site in Washington State. At the time of the Vietnam War, he was a nuclear fuel specialist at the Idaho National Laboratory. When he was 39, officials sent him and fellow scientist, John Horan, to Vietnam. Their mission: to recover fuel from a nuclear reactor.

Hendrikson was ready to help. “I appreciated the importance of getting the fuel out,” he says. “I was quite willing to do that -- to take the personal risk for the government.”

The secret operation was in the city of Da Lat, about 200 kilometers northeast of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. American scientists had installed a research reactor there. It was called the TRIGA Mark II. Scientists began building the TRIGA in the 1960s. It was a symbol of US support for South Vietnam during the Cold War.

The reactor’s uranium fuel rods were US-made with the most advanced techniques -- technology that even the Soviet Union didn’t have. That’s what made them so important years later in March 1975, as North Vietnamese troops closed rapidly in on the facility.

On March 24, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sent a secret telegram to the US Embassy in Saigon. He ordered the fuel to be removed. He feared the technology would fall into North Vietnamese hands. Executing the order was anything but simple. When Hendrikson arrived at the US Embassy in Saigon, he realized how difficult the job might be.

“We were told distinctly that if we could not remove the fuel and get it out of the country, we were to make it inaccessible and to pour concrete [over it],” he says. “To get concrete and lift it 20 feet in the air and pour it down to cover the core.” But it was what the scientists were told next that was most shocking.

If all else failed, they were told, they must blow up the nuclear reactor. “We were to dynamite the core,” says Hendrikson.

To the scientists, the act was unacceptable in humanitarian terms. But the Defense Department and its officials had considered the plan.

Retired Army Colonel Rich Miller told NHK, “Early in the discussion the thought of blowing up the reactor in place was brought up and I actually did some calculations on how much TNT it would take, and so on.”

Details of the mission were recorded in a log book by John Horan. The book notes that Hendrikson and Horan landed at Cam Ly Airport, near Da Lat, to a scene of chaos. North Vietnames forces were closing in.

The log book entry reads: “On March 30, 10:45am, after landing, the co-pilot refused to enter the taxiing runway, where many refugees were waiting.”

Refugees flooded the airport. They were fleeing the approaching North Vietnamese, and looking for help from the US. The scientists wanted to help. But they were overruled.

Another entry reads: “The Pentagon would not authorize carrying refugees on the return flight to Saigon after our equipment was unloaded.”

And in following entries: “Ambassador Graham Martin said: no refugees out -- no mission.”

“Blow up the reactor.”

Ambassador Martin insisted on transporting the refugees, and urged Pentagon officials to allow it.

The log said: “Flash message sent to Pentagon. In 90 minutes, approval was received.”

Miller says defense officials then decided against dynamiting the reactor. “We recommended against it because the spread of radioactivity wouldn’t have been a good idea,” he says. “I thought it would be a big propaganda tool for communists. So that idea, as far as I knew, was dropped as not being reasonable.”

Finally, Hendrikson and his team arrived at the reactor and began recovering the fuel. They had only until the transport plane returned, at 1PM the next day. The job was dangerous. The workers had to build a protective wall to keep safe from radiation. To limit exposure, they worked in a rotation of 4-person shifts. While one member hoisted the fuel rods, others would hide behind a protective wall, shielding themselves from radiation.

Pictures show the team removing the fuel rods. Instead of a crane, workers used their hands to save time. From the top of the reactor, they lowered a hook into the core, and used it to lift the fuel rods, one by one.

In the morning that same day, North Vietnamese forces reached a base just 8 miles from Da Lat.

Retired Major General Nguyen Quy says the soldiers had orders to secure the nuclear facility. “We heard a lot about the reactor,” he says. “That it was prized because it was made in the United States.”

Hendrikson’s team continued to work late into the night. It’s unknown how much radiation exposure they received. Finally at 2AM on March 31st, the team finished the job.

That same day, a transport plane loaded with the recovered fuel left for the US, as scheduled. Two days later, the North Vietnamese took Da Lat. The US scientists had completed the mission just in time. North Vietnamese soldiers photographed the reactor’s empty core. The last-minute efforts of the US scientists had averted the unimaginable option of dynamiting the reactor.

Hendrikson felt relief. “I’m not used to military situations,” he said. “The town was a tourist town. A university was there. It was a great agricultural area. And you don’t do that sort of thing under normal conditions -- you don’t think of that. I can’t justify that. I think it would have been a war crime.”

Vietnamese authorities later rebuilt the reactor at Da Lat, using technology and nuclear fuel from the Soviet Union. Forty years after the war, the facility still stands. It remains the only functioning research reactor in Vietnam.

Yuka Tsuchiya, a professor at Ehime University and an expert on US diplomacy during the Cold War joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Professor, this information, that there was an option to blow up the reactor, is quite shocking. Is it well-known?

Tsuchiya: Absolutely not. Most American people, or any other people in the world, didn't even know there was a US-made nuclear reactor in South Vietnam. We should be grateful that the two scientists completed their mission, and therefore did not have to blow up the reactor.

Shibuya: From a historical standpoint, how do you view the scientists’ mission to recover the reactor’s fuel?

Tsuchiya: It was a heroic deed, but at the same time, it symbolized how many casualties the superpowers fighting the Cold War inflicted upon their own people -- not just their enemies. The two scientists were lucky to survive the mission, but if they had arrived a few days late, they may not have been so lucky.

Beppu: Well then, let me ask this question, Vietnam was one of the center-stages of the cold war confrontation at the time. But why did the US government decide to put a research reactor and also nuclear fuel into South Vietnam?

Tsuchiya: President Eisenhower promoted the “Atoms for Peace” campaign through the end of the 1950s. The campaign involved disseminating information about US activities related to the civilian use of atomic energy in agriculture, medicine, and industry. The campaign also exported U.S.-made nuclear reactors and fuels overseas. There were several reasons behind this. First, US officials felt they had to counter the Soviet "peace offensive" by showing that America was not an aggressive, belligerent country, and that their nuclear policy was not only about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but for the welfare of human beings.

Second, there was harsh technological competition between the Eastern and Western bloc. So, exporting reactors was like building technological colonies overseas. The countries that accepted U.S. technologies could be counted on to keep friendly relations with the U.S. for many years, and therefore they would not stray out of the Western, capitalist bloc.

Beppu: So we could say that it was a very well calculated strategy that fits the Americans interests. It was fitting the cold war strategy of the United States, and then at the same time, while the government was pursuing this program, they were spreading nuclear arsenals and they were developing it, so how do you explain this too?

Tsuchiya: The rosy images of the "peaceful" use of atomic energy made it invisible that the same technology was also used for nuclear weapons. They diverted people's attention from the thermonuclear tests that were going on in the Pacific and other oceans exactly at the same time as the Atoms for Peace campaign. They also created the myth that civilian use of atomic energy was somehow "peaceful," and therefore safe.