Canada and the Bomb:
Past and Future

by Gordon Edwards, Ph.D.,
CCNR President

Canada and the First Atomic Bombs

When C. D. Howe heard, on August 6, 1945, that a uranium bomb had destroyed the city of Hiroshima, he was not surprised. As Minister responsible for Canada's part in the World War II Atomic Bomb Project, he knew it was intended.

He had prepared a statement for the press in advance. "It is a distinct pleasure for me to announce," he said, "that Canadian scientists have played an intimate part, and have been associated in an effective way with this great scientific development."

Three days later, a plutonium bomb destroyed Nagasaki.

For the first time, Canadians were told that uranium from Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, and scientists working in a secret laboratory in Montreal, had played an important role in the Anglo-Canadian-American Atomic Bomb Project -- the largest secret project in human history.

The tripartite A-Bomb Project was a joint venture that began in 1940-41. It was cemented with a secret Agreement signed by Roosevelt and Churchill in Quebec City, August 1943.

The Quebec Agreement stipulated that the Bomb would not be used "against each other," or "against third parties without each other's consent". It also established a Combined Policy Committee of six to deal with the Bomb: three Americans, two Brits, and the Honourable C. D. Howe.

By the time the first A-Bombs were used, Roosevelt and Churchill were gone. Truman and Atlee, their successors, knew nothing about the atomic bomb before they came to office.

But Mackenzie King was still Prime Minister, and he knew. On October 11, 1945, he wrote in his diary: "How strange it is that I should find myself at the very centre of the problem, through Canada possessing uranium, having contributed to the production of the bomb, being recognized as one of the three countries to hold most of the secrets."

Stranger still is the secrecy that still shrouds Canada's historic role, and the lack of public awareness regarding Canada's current nuclear policies.

Uranium and Plutonium from Canada

Until 1939, uranium was an unwanted waste product from radium mining. There were tons of it lying around Port Hope, Ontario, since a refinery had operated there in the 1930s to extract radium from ores from Great Bear Lake.

Early in 1939, German scientists proved uranium atoms could be split, or fissioned, releasing energy. If a chain reaction could be achieved, an "atomic bomb" was possible. Within months, French scientists, using heavy water smuggled from Norway as a moderator, were trying to provoke a chain reaction. They fled to England with the heavy water when Germany invaded France.

In 1940, the British figured out how to make an atomic bomb by enriching natural uranium -- a slow, difficult, expensive process. In utmost secrecy, they asked the Americans for cooperation, and the Canadians for uranium.

Following Pearl Harbour, the Americans took over. Uranium for the world's first A-Bombs was refined at Port Hope for the U.S. Army. At first, it came from Great Bear Lake; later, from the Congo. Some of the uranium was enriched for the Hiroshima bomb; the rest was irradiated in the world's first nuclear reactors to produce plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb.

In 1942, the British moved their own plutonium-production research team to Montreal -- away from the Luftwaffe, closer to the Americans. Canada paid all expenses, and Canadian scientists joined the team.

The Montreal Lab focussed on the best ways to produce plutonium for Bombs. The French group was there too, with their heavy water. It was known that reactors moderated with heavy water would produce more plutonium.

The decision to build Canada's first heavy water reactors at Chalk River was taken in April 1944 by the Combined Policy Committee, meeting in the office of the American Secretary of War. It was a top-secret military decision.

According to the inscription on a large bronze plaque at Chalk River:

A nuclear chain reaction was first initiated in Canada on September 5, 1945, when the ZEEP reactor went into operation here at Chalk River. Originally part of an effort to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, the reactor was designed by a team of Canadian, British, and French scientists and engineers assembled in Montreal and in Ottawa in 1942-43.

Spreading the Bomb

Exactly one month after Hiroshima, just one day after the start-up of ZEEP, Igor Gouzenko -- a clerk in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa -- revealed the existence of an extensive Soviet spy ring in Canada. One of its goals was to learn about the Bomb. Two of the British scientists at the Montreal Lab were later identified as soviet spies.

Canada had become important. By war's end, the Montreal team had developed superior methods for extracting plutonium. This knowledge helped Britain and France to launch national nuclear weapons programs.

A small plutonium extraction plant was built at Chalk River, and there the British conducted crucial pilot plant work needed to design their large military reprocessing plant at Windscale. The first British Bomb incorporated some of the plutonium produced in Canada's NRX reactor, which started up in 1946.

For twenty years after Hiroshima, Canada sold plutonium produced in Chalk River reactors to the American military to help defray the cost of nuclear research. And when Canada gave India a clone of the NRX reactor, India used it to produce plutonium for its first A-Bomb test in 1974.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Our common future is threatened by the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the growing stockpiles of plutonium. Canada is not officially against the possession or use of nuclear weapons or plutonium. Canada even supports the NATO policy of "first-use" of nuclear weapons. As long as the electorate remains silent, Canadian policy will remain mired in the past.

The time has come for Canada to formulate a coherent policy on the subject of nuclear weapons and to vote at the United Nations, in the company of the majority of the world's nations, for comprehensive negotiations to eliminate such weapons.

India's five nuclear explosions, and Pakistan's six explosions, have shown that the status quo, in which the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council keep their nuclear weapons indefinitely while all others are prohibited from acquiring them, is unsustainable.

Canada must no longer be a nuclear fence-sitter: on the one hand ardently supporting the Non-Proliferation Treaty and international law, while on the other hand supporting, and hiding behind, the nuclear arsenals of the United States and NATO. The actions of India and Pakistan have demonstrated the futility of this approach.

It is appropriate to condemn the governments of India and Pakistan for their actions. But such gestures are not enough.

Canada's proper response -- and perhaps the only means by which we can reverse the escalation of the nuclear arms race in the Indian sub-continent -- would be to join the growing global movement pressing all Nuclear Weapon States to commence negotiations leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons, as they are legally obliged to do under existing international law.

The Canadian government should also join the "New Agenda Coalition" of middle power states working for the elimination of nuclear weapons that was announced by Ireland on 9 June 1998.

Shortly before the recent round of nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan, an Angus Reid poll showed that 92 percent of Canadians want Canada to play a leading role in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons.

The overwhelming majority of Canadians believe that the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is the only way to prevent the spread and ultimately the use of these weapons. Canada must commit itself unequivocally to this goal.

But in order for Canada to do so, Canadians must make their voices heard.

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