~ A Chronology ~
BEFORE WORLD WAR II
Uranium is discovered. It is the heaviest naturally occurring element on earth. It is named after the newly discovered planet Uranus.
1789 to 1939 :
For 150 years, uranium has little commercial value and no strategic importance. It is used as a colouring agent in pottery and glass.
Henri Becquerel discovers that uranium ore spontaneously gives off an invisible, highly penetrating form of energy, which he calls radioactivity.
Marie Curie and her husband Pierre discover that uranium ore also contains two hitherto unidentified elements, radium and polonium, each millions of times more radioactive (per gram) than uranium.
1898 to 1925 :
Radium is used to make dials glow in the dark, and to shrink malignant tumors. It is also used as a quack nostrum.
Radium becomes the most valuable substance on earth, in the early 1920's selling for $120,000 a gram. It is mined in Czechoslovakia, England, France, Russia and the Colorado Plateau (USA).
1925 to 1930 :
By mining rich deposits in the Congo, a Belgian company drives the price of radium down to about $75,000 per gram, forcing its competitors out of business and achieving a world monopoly.
Evidence shows that ingestion of minute quantities of radium can be deadly:
- radium dial painters develop severe anemia, radium jaw, and bone cancer; and
- radium researchers and members of the public die of radium-related diseases.
Gilbert LaBine discovers radium at Great Bear Lake in northern Canada. Dene men, referred to as "coolies", are first hired to carry bags of radioactive ore.
1931 and 1932 :
Canadian Government publications warn of the serious health hazards associated with chronic exposure to even minute quantities of dust from high-grade radioactive ores -- in particular the Great Bear Lake ores.
Mine workers and ore carriers are not told of these concerns.
1932 to 1940 :
Evidence reveals that underground miners beathing radon gas given off by radioactive ores will eventually suffer an increase in lung cancer and other lung diseases.
These hazards are not communicated to the miners, nor are adequate ventilation practices put in place.
Canadians and Belgians compete for the radium market. The price declines from $70,000 to $25,000 per gram.
All radium mines are closed by 1940 due to a glut of radium, declining demand, and the onset of WWII.
THE WWII ATOMIC BOMB PROJECT
1938 to 1939 :
German scientists discover that uranium atoms can be fissioned, or split, releasing energy. Scientists everywhere soon realize that if a "chain reaction" can be achieved, a powerful "atomic bomb" can be built using uranium.
The U.S. Government orders 8 tons of uranium for military research from Eldorado, the Canadian company that owned and operated the Great Bear Lake mine. Uranium is extracted from existing radium residues.
March 1942 :
The US Government orders 60 tons of Canadian uranium from Eldorado; as a result, Eldorado decides to re-open the mine at Great Bear Lake -- in secrecy -- with special permission from the Canadian government.
Again, miners are sent into poorly ventilated areas where they receive high radon exposures.
Again, ore concentrates are carried in cloth bags, without benefit of protective clothing or showers, by nomadic people -- the Sahtu-Dene -- who have lived, fished, and hunted for thousands of years on the shores of Great Bear Lake.
June 1942 :
In secrecy, Canadian Minister of War C. D. Howe decides to nationalize Eldorado, making the mining-and-refining company the exclusive property of the Canadian government.
July 1942 :
The US Army orders another 350 tons of uranium from Eldorado.
September 1942 :
The U.S. Army acquires 1200 tons of rich uranium concentrates from the Congo -- this material had been secretly stored, since 1939, in a warehouse on Staten Island, in New York Harbour, by its Belgian owners.
December 1942 :
The U.S. Army orders another 500 tons of uranium from Eldorado, before deliveries on the earlier, 350-ton contract have been completed.
However, when asked to refine the Staten Island concentrates on a priority basis, Eldorado interrupts its delivery of Canadian uranium to the US and begins to process the Congolese uranium instead.
At this point over 220 tons of uranium from Great Bear Lake have already been delivered. From this point on, uranium from the Congo, refined at Port Hope, will dominate the Manhattan Project.
1943 to 1945 :
Uranium from Canada, Colorado, and the Congo is used in the World War II Atom Bomb Project:
- the bulk of the uranium is enriched for use as a nuclear explosive in the Hiroshima bomb;
- a large amount of uranium is used as metallic fuel for the world's first reactors; inside each reactor, a fraction of the uranium fuel (less than one percent) is transmuted into plutonium, which is then extracted and used as a nuclear explosive in the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs;
- a small amount of polonium extracted from uranium ore is also used, in combination with beryllium, to provide the initial burst of neutrons needed to detonate both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.
[ Canadian Uranium in Bombs ]
[ Nuclear Weapons ] [ Plutonium Imports ]
[ Canada's Nuclear History ] [ COMPLETE CCNR DIRECTORY ]