Canadian Coalition
for Nuclear

Regroupement pour
la surveillance
du nucléaire

Canada's Nuclear Industry and
the Myth of the Peaceful Atom

Part One

by Gordon Edwards

This text -- a capsule history of Canada's nuclear industry from the 1940's to the 1980's -- was published as Chapter 6 of the book

Canada and the Nuclear Arms Race,
ed. Ernie Regehr and Simon Rosenblum
James Lorimer & Company (1983)



Through its dealings with other countries, Canada has played a major role in fostering the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world. This brief history concerns itself with Canada's involvement as a supplier of nuclear reactors and uranium, leading to both "vertical proliferation" -- the ever-accelerating competition for bigger, better, faster and smarter bombs among the existing nuclear powers -- and "horizontal proliferation" : a more insidious process whereby dozens of national and subnational groups are slowly but surely acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. It will also describe how the Canadian nuclear lobby has influenced the way Canadians view the proliferation problem.

. . . back to TABLE OF CONTENTS

Atoms for War: Uranium and Plutonium for Sale

Canada's involvement began at the very beginning. The World War II atomic bomb project was the largest secret operation in history. It involved elements of the military, government, industry and academia in Canada, Britain and the United States. At its height, it employed over 500,000 people, producing two of the most destructive weapons the world has ever known: the Hiroshima bomb, made from highly enriched uranium, and the Nagasaki bomb, made from plutonium.

The Hiroshima bomb , "Little Boy"               The Nagasaki bomb , "Fat Man"             

These two replicas were photographed by Robert Del Tredici          

Building the bombs was relatively easy compared to the major technical difficulties involved in obtaining the two nuclear explosive materials: highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Canada helped the United States to overcome these obstacles.

Canada supplied the American military with uranium from the Port Radium mine in the Northwest Territories. In addition, uranium ore concentrates from the Congo were found in a warehouse on Long Island, stored there by its Belgian owners for safekeeping. All of this uranium was refined at Port Hope, Ontario. Some of it was processed directly into weapons-usable material -- highly enriched uranium for the Hiroshima bomb -- at a top-secret enrichment facility covering several acres of land near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The remainder was used to fuel special military nuclear reactors built at Hanford, Washington, in order to produce plutonium (which does not exist in nature) for the Nagasaki bomb. The Hanford reactors required an exceptionally pure form of graphite to moderate the nuclear reaction -- for without a moderator, a uranium-fueled nuclear reactor simply cannot function, and therefore cannot produce the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, at a secret laboratory in Montreal financed entirely by the Canadian government, war-time research on a more efficient way to produce plutonium was carried on. The basic idea was to use heavy water instead of graphite as a moderator. It was expected, on theoretical grounds, that a reactor moderated by heavy water would produce two or three times as much plutonium as other kinds of reactors. The theory was proven correct after the war, when Canada's NRX reactor (built at Chalk River, Ontario) earned an international reputation as the world's most efficient plutonium-producing reactor, using heavy water as a moderator.

The work in Montreal was carefully supervised by British and French scientists, who had brought to Canada the world's only existing supply of heavy water, spirited out of Norway by a French diplomat to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Nazis. Canadian scientists welcomed the opportunity to work with the Europeans on the atomic bomb project. In addition to the heavy water research, the Montreal laboratory performed important chemical experiments involving plutonium separation, also known as "reprocessing". Meanwhile, Canada arranged for the Americans to manufacture their own strategic supply of heavy water at a reconverted chemical plant in Trail, British Columbia.

By the end of the war, Canadian participation in the atom bomb project had become more expensive than all other scientific research activities of the Canadian government combined. A large, secret organization had come into being under the direction of British scientists -- the French had returned home when the war ended -- and it was soon producing results.

The dust had scarcely settled over Hiroshima and Nagasaki when, on 5 September 1945, the first Canadian nuclear reactor (called ZEEP) began producing plutonium for the continuing American bomb program. Nearby, construction of another, larger reactor for the same purpose (the NRX) was under way.

Both reactors were located at Chalk River, 150 miles northwest of Ottawa, where -- at war's end -- bulldozers were preparing a huge nuclear site in accordance with a secret military decision taken in Washington, D.C. in 1944. Within weeks of the war's ending, however, the Americans and the British were preparing to abandon the Canadian project in order to pursue their own military programs at home. For although the war was over, the nuclear arms race was just beginning.

On 6 September, one day after the ZEEP reactor started up, a cipher clerk in the office of the Soviet Military Attaché in Ottawa defected. Igor Gouzenko revealed the existence of an extensive Soviet spy network in Canada, whose mission included obtaining information about the atomic bomb. Incidents such as this heightened the mutual fear and distrust that have characterized the nuclear arms race ever since, even though the uncontrollable nature of this race was well understood from the outset.

On 15 November 1945, just three months after the first atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, the three countries involved in the atom bomb project -- the U.S., the U.K. and Canada -- issued a Joint Declaration containing three prophetic insights. It stated:

  1. that nuclear weapons provide "a means of destruction hitherto unknown, against which there can be no adequate military defence";

  2. that "no system of safeguards will of itself provide an effective guarantee against the production of atomic weapons";

  3. that atom bombs are weapons "in the employment of which no single nation can, in fact, have a monopoly."

In other words, the Joint Declaration prophesied that unless nuclear weapons are totally abolished, every country will sooner or later acquire them. At some stage, then, all-out nuclear war would likely result. And, in the absence of any adequate military defence, devastation on a global scale would ensue. To prevent this, the Joint Declaration urged the United Nations to find a way of "entirely eliminating the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes and promoting its use for industrial and humanitarian purposes."

But prejudices and preconceptions die hard. For millennia, military conquest has run like a bright red thread through human history. In the days following the Japanese atomic bombings, British Prime Minister Clement Atlee offered his opinion that nuclear weapons would not be relinquished unless war itself was renounced. In his view, although people can easily understand that

rivers as strategic frontiers have been obsolete since the advent of air power, it is infinitely harder for people to realize that even the modern conception of war is now completely out of date. The only course which seems to offer a reasonable hope of staving off imminent disaster for the world is joint action by the U.S.A., U.K. and Russia based upon stark reality. We should declare that this invention has made it essential to end wars.

In the dying days of World War II there was, however, no basis for mutual trust. The USSR had not even been informed by its Western allies about the atomic bomb program. The Soviets interpreted the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an implied threat against themselves, which was partly true. The Allied Forces had apparently adopted Hitler's technique of terrorizing civilian populations from the air. Having used their dreadful weapon twice in a single week against an enemy which did not even have a nuclear research program, would they hesitate to use it again?

On the other side, fear of the Soviets replaced fear of Hitler as the driving force behind the American nuclear weapons program. The ambitious U.S. arms buildup was spurred by the realization that some day, someone might do to America what America had already done to Japan. Against such an imagined threat, only one defence seemed possible: a counter-threat of massive retaliation which would inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. In the meantime, any perceived communist aggression could be met with nuclear bombardment if all other measures failed.

Echoing America's determination to build a nuclear arsenal, the Soviets , the British and the French were equally determined to establish nuclear deterrent forces, as were the Chinese and many other nations. The profound insights contained in the Joint Declaration of 1945 were all but forgotten. The language of nuclear deterrence swiftly became the logic of nuclear proliferation.

In the ensuing Cold War atmosphere, the U.S. intensified its wartime policy of strict secrecy and non-cooperation with all other nations, including, in large measure, Canada and Britain. The U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1946 placed a total embargo on the export of all nuclear-related materials and information, in a desperate attempt to retain the American monopoly on the atom bomb.

As it turned out, exclusive U.S. control was not to last long. Russia exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, followed by the British in 1952. That same year, America detonated its first "hydrogen bomb" or "H-bomb," with an explosive force more than a thousand times greater than the Hiroshima bomb. The Soviets were only eight months behind the Americans with their own H-bomb, while France and China were hard at work to join the nuclear arms race.

But Canada chose a different course. Back in the autumn of 1945 Canada renounced any intention to build atomic bombs. Not long afterwards, responsibility for the Chalk River complex was transferred to the civilian National Research Council, which funded the project until 1952, at which time it was turned over to the newly created crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Canadian nuclear research, it was said, would be dedicated exclusively to bringing the peaceful applications of nuclear energy to commercial fruition. Nevertheless, for twenty years after World War II, Canada sold plutonium (from Chalk River) and uranium (from Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Mackenzie District) for use in the American and British nuclear weapons programs.

To a limited degree, revenues from plutonium sales helped to finance Canada's enormously expensive nuclear research program, including the construction of a second research reactor (called NRU) at Chalk River. Plutonium revenues also helped pay for repairs to the NRX reactor, which suffered a devastating accident in 1952, as well as a massive cleanup operation following severe contamination of the NRU reactor during another nuclear accident in 1958. However, it is fair to say that the government's motivation in selling plutonium was not primarily economic. A sense of loyalty, coupled with a desire to maintain close ties with the nuclear establishments in America and Britain, was the dominant consideration.

Meanwhile, stimulated by lucrative military contracts, Canadian uranium production boomed. It peaked in 1959, with twenty-three mines operating in five districts. Over 12,000 tonnes of uranium were exported in that year, valued at more than $300 million. Uranium ranked fourth among Canada's exports, after newsprint, wheat and lumber. It was almost all for bombs.

Many private fortunes were made in the uranium trade, but Canada as a whole derived little economic benefit from it. Indeed, as a result of Canada's participation in fueling the nuclear arms buildup during the 1940s and 1950s, over 50 million tonnes of loose radioactive residues were dumped in huge tailings piles near Elliot Lake, Bancroft, Uranium City and Great Bear Lake. The cost of disposing of these long-lived toxic wastes is expected to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. At some future time, Canadian taxpayers will be presented with the bill. Those who made the profits -- and the bombs -- are not legally liable.

We will return to the details of Canada's uranium trade later in this chapter. But first, we will examine the origin of the nuclear power industry and its subsequent role in the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons.

. . . back to TABLE OF CONTENTS

Atoms for Peace: The Non-Proliferation Treaty

On 8 December 1953, speaking to the UN General Assembly, President Eisenhower announced a new direction in U.S. nuclear policy. He proposed "to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers [and put it] into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace." A new international agency would be established, dedicated to "Atoms for Peace." In particular, nuclear power reactors would be developed "to provide abundant electrical energy to the power-starved areas" of the world.

Eisenhower's speech created an impression that the peaceful application of nuclear energy would be completely divorced from any possible military application. He even hinted that the nuclear powers would beat their swords into ploughshares, promising that the Atoms for Peace program would "diminish the potential destructive power of the world's atomic stockpiles." Taken at face value, it seemed that the new American initiative could fulfill both of the main objectives of the 1945 Joint Declaration by "entirely eliminating the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes and promoting its use for industrial and humanitarian purposes."

Canada enthusiastically supported Eisenhower's plan. Once adequately developed, nuclear power was expected to become an enormously profitable venture. Canada was fortunate to be in on the ground floor, it was thought. From a commercial point of view, the timing seemed perfect. Just one year earlier, in 1952, Ottawa had had the foresight to create a crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), to take over the Chalk River complex and to develop and market the peaceful applications of nuclear energy. Now, thanks to Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace concept, Canada's nuclear program might finally begin to pay for itself.

Between April 1955 and October 1956, Canada assisted in drafting the statute governing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA non-proliferation objectives were carefully designed not to interfere with the activities of the nuclear salesmen. According to article 2 of the statute, "the Agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic power to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, as far as it is able, that assistance provided by it is not used to further any military purposes." Nuclear regulation was clearly intended to take a back seat to promotional interests.

Over the next decade, the CANDU nuclear power system was developed at a cost of more than one billion dollars.

E a r l y   C A N D U   R e a c t o r s
Power Station
Date of
Power Rating
of Plant
Rolphton Ont.
(NW of Ottawa)
      22 MWe
25 years
Douglas Point
Tiverton Ont.
(near Kincardine)
    200 MWe
16 years
Pickering A
Pickering Ont.
(E of Toronto)
4 x 540 MWe
24 to 26 years
Bécancour QC
(Trois Rivières)
    250 MWe
6 years

Only the Pickering plant, built by Ontario Hydro, was destined to become a commercial success. All the others, built by AECL, were subsequently plagued with poor performance records and serious design problems.

During this initial busy period, overseas contacts were also being established. In 1956, under the terms of the Colombo plan of foreign aid, Canada gave India an NRX-type research reactor (called CIRUS), worth almost $10 million. In 1959, Canadian Westinghouse contracted to supply a 125 MW power reactor to Pakistan (called KANUPP). In 1963, AECL offered to assist India in the construction of a 200 MW CANDU power reactor (called RAPP-1), modeled on the Douglas Point plant. A second unit (called RAPP-2) was sold to India in 1967. Of course, India and Pakistan gave solemn assurances that all these facilities would be used for peaceful purposes only. In exchange, Canada gave India and Pakistan loans of $33 million and $47 million respectively (the latter to be repaid over a fifty-year period with no interest charges, following a ten-year period of grace).

Around the time of the CIRUS and KANUPP agreements, the U.K. sold two power reactors -- one to Japan and one to Italy -- and France sold one to Spain. Canada also began selling uranium to West Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden and Euratom (the European nuclear power consortium), all "for peaceful purposes only." However, although many countries acquired research reactors during this period, no further export sales of power reactors occurred until the late 1960s. On a global basis, the Atoms for Peace program was off to a rather slow start.

During these early years, one perplexing question kept recurring: How can "atoms for peace" be distinguished from "atoms for war"? Uranium has only two significant uses: atomic bombs and nuclear reactors. However, these two uses are not mutually exclusive. If the uranium which is used to power a reactor is not weapons-grade material to begin with, it will inevitably produce plutonium as a by-product. That plutonium can be recovered later and used to make atomic bombs.

During the 1940s, Britain and France had developed their basic expertise in plutonium recovery in Canada, beginning with the Montreal experiments and ending with the construction and operation of a pilot plutonium separation plant built at Chalk River. This pioneering work, which proved essential to both the British and the French atomic bomb programs, was difficult and dangerous. In order to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel, everything must be done by remote control, because of the deadly radiation fields associated with the irradiated uranium as well as the extraordinary toxicity of the plutonium itself. The chemistry is further complicated by the presence of a great many radioactive substances unknown in nature. In 1950, during an experiment at Chalk River involving the extraction of plutonium, a chemical explosion injured six men, contaminating three of them and killing one.

Plutonium extraction on a large scale must be carried out in a special factory called a reprocessing plant, which resembles an oil refinery in appearance. Building on basic knowledge gained in Canada, Britain and France soon became the undisputed world leaders in plutonium reprocessing technology. In most instances, as we shall see, this has been the key technology in the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons. The only other route to atomic bombs is via uranium enrichment, which poses more difficult technical problems in general.

From the outset, the Atoms for Peace program was afflicted with an unfortunate ambiguity. Plutonium, the essential ingredient for "cheap atom bombs," was simultaneously portrayed as the nuclear fuel of the future. From the earliest days of the atomic age, it was recognized that uranium supplies would not outlast oil supplies if nuclear power were to provide a significant proportion of the world's energy needs. To keep the reactors running, plutonium would have to replace uranium as a reactor fuel. Indeed, a whole new generation of nuclear reactors called "breeder reactors" would be required to replenish the plutonium supply as needed. In accordance with this grandiose vision of the future, as Victor Gilinsky of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has pointed out:

a desire for plutonium has been kindled by almost universally held assumptions -- our own included -- that the use of plutonium is a natural, legitimate, desirable, and even indispensable result of the exploitation of nuclear power for the generation of electricity. The powerful grip of this assumption has complicated efforts to prevent this nuclear explosive material from becoming widely and freely available throughout the world.

In effect, by selling uranium and reactors overseas, Canada has helped to create plutonium repositories around the world. For any government wishing to build atomic bombs in the future, this is very convenient, for, at any time, the plutonium can be extracted from the spent nuclear fuel already on hand and used as a nuclear explosive. It can even be done under the guise of Atoms for Peace, ostensibly to gain experience in handling the "fuel of the future." Eisenhower's 1953 speech had skirted around this uncomfortable truth. He had assured the UN General Assembly that "our scientists will provide special safe conditions under which a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure, [even without] a completely acceptable system of worldwide inspection and control." To this day, no one knows what he had in mind.

It was foreseen from the beginning that no system of international safeguards based solely upon auditing procedures, inspections and security measures could possibly prevent the diversion of plutonium from civilian reactors for military purposes. As early as March 1946, the U.S. Acheson-Lilienthal Committee concluded that

the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are, in much of their course, interchangeable and interdependent. From this it follows that although nations may agree not to use in bombs the atomic energy developed within their borders, the only assurance that a conversion to destructive purposes would not be made, would be the pledged word and the good faith of the nation itself. This fact puts an enormous pressure upon national good faith.

We have concluded unanimously that there is no prospect for security against atomic warfare in a system of international agreements to outlaw such weapons controlled only by a system which relies on inspection and similar police-like methods.

The same conclusion had been succinctly stated in the 1945 Joint Declaration. By the 1950s, however, it had been unaccountably forgotten.

Meanwhile, the nuclear arms race was accelerating year by year. In 1957, Britain exploded its first H-bomb in Australia. Two years later, France joined the nuclear club by detonating an atomic bomb over the Sahara Desert. A worldwide public outcry over the health hazards of radioactive fallout led to a treaty in 1963 banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water. However, in no way did the Limited Test Ban Treaty slow down the pace of the nuclear arms race. In the U.S. and the USSR, testing simply moved underground. France, refusing to sign the treaty, continued to explode its bombs in the atmosphere along with China, which detonated an atomic bomb in 1964 and an H-bomb in 1967. The Atoms for Peace program provided a convenient smoke screen to obscure what was really going on.

Other nations were also moving towards a nuclear weapons capability. In the early 1960s, ten years before India exploded its first atomic bomb, Indian scientists at Chalk River were asking Canadian scientists pointed questions about plutonium metallurgy -- questions having no known civilian application. Also in the 1960s, India, Pakistan and Taiwan all made separate efforts to acquire their own reprocessing plants. Only India succeeded, with American assistance. Then, in 1964, in the greatest possible secrecy, India decided to build an atomic bomb. Knowledgeable observers in Canada, Pakistan, America and elsewhere had little difficulty in guessing the truth. Just a few years later, in a top-secret report prepared in 1968, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimated that Israel had already developed its own atomic bomb.

By 1965, it had become obvious that assumptions made by the IAEA about the separation of civilian and military uses of nuclear power were simply not valid. The superpowers decided that something must be done to stop the bomb from spreading any further. Three years of negotiations took place before the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was approved in 1968. Two more years elapsed before it came into force.

Built into the NPT is a sharp distinction between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states. The distinction is frankly discriminatory, as the obligations imposed on each are quite different. Each non-nuclear-weapon state which is a party to the NPT has agreed to accept a system of full-scope safeguards policed by the IAEA. The safeguard measures (to be applied on all nuclear facilities, with no exceptions) include elaborate accounting procedures and on-site inspections -- exactly the kind of measures which were judged to be ineffective by the Acheson-Lilienthal Report of 1946. Moreover, nuclear-weapon states need not subject themselves to any such onerous requirements, according to the terms of the NPT. Thus the Soviets, who helped draft the NPT, have never allowed IAEA inspections of any of their own nuclear facilities.

The nuclear-weapon states signing the NPT agreed to provide "the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of atomic energy," in exchange for promises from the non-nuclear-weapon states not to acquire atomic bombs or any other nuclear explosive devices. The nuclear-weapon states also undertook to negotiate in good faith a complete cessation of the nuclear arms race towards the ultimate goal of total disarmament -- a pledge that has been honoured mainly in the breach.

Among the nuclear-weapon states, France and China flatly refused to sign the NPT. As an added inducement, nations that did sign were given the right to withdraw at any time on three months' notice. Even so, ten non-nuclear-weapon states with significant nuclear programs -- Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea, Spain and Turkey -- refused to sign. Despite these drawbacks, had the spirit of the NPT been rigorously upheld throughout the 1970s by all parties, it might have had a profound effect in restraining both vertical and horizontal proliferation. Without such a determined commitment, it was crippled from the start.

As subsequent events showed, vertical proliferation continued unabated while Canada and other nuclear vendors willingly engaged in nuclear trade with countries which had refused to sign the NPT. Major nuclear cooperation agreements involving Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea and Franco's Spain were soon entered into. The dictatorial and militaristic leanings of the ruling elites in these countries proved to be no impediment. In practical terms, their refusal to accept the NPT made little or no difference to their nuclear ambitions; they were still able to get what they wanted.

Soon, the international non-proliferation regime came to be regarded with cynicism. As in Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale of the Emperor's New Clothes, the splendid-sounding words cloaking the motives of the nuclear-weapon states and the reactor vendors appeared altogether transparent. Atoms for Peace was merely a slogan, not a genuine objective.

[ MORE . . . (Part Two) ] . . . or back to [ TABLE OF CONTENTS ]

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