by Gordon Edwards
Canada and the First Atomic Bombs
When C. D. Howe heard that a uranium bomb had destroyed the city of
Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, 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
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 says 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 when they came to office.
But Mackenzie King had witnessed it all. On October 11, 1945,
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
Uranium and Plutonium
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
Early in 1939, German scientists proved uranium atoms could be split,
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 catalyst, were trying to provoke a
chain reaction. They fled to England with the heavy water when Germany
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
Following Pearl Harbour, the Americans took over. Uranium for
world's first A-Bombs was refined at Port Hope for the U.S. Army. At
first, it came from Great Bear Lake; after 1943, 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
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
According to the inscription on a large bronze plaque:
"A nuclear chain reaction was first initiated in Canada on September
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
On September 6, 1945, Igor Gouzenko -- a cipher 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 identified as spies....
By war's end, the Canadian team had developed superior methods for
extracting plutonium. The Montreal experience helped Britain and France
to embark on national nuclear weapons programs after the war.
Canada's NRX reactor started up in 1946. A small plutonium extraction
plant was built at Chalk River, and there the British conducted pilot
plant work for their large Windscale reprocessing plant. The first
British Bomb incorporated some plutonium produced in NRX.
For twenty years after Hiroshima, Canada sold plutonium produced at
Chalk River to the American military to help defray the cost of nuclear
research. After Canada gave India a clone of the NRX, India used it to
produce plutonium for its first A-Bomb test in 1974. Surprise,
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 of nuclear weapons or plutonium. 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"
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
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. The challenge and the responsibility is ours.
Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., teaches math at Vanier College in Montreal.
He is President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
More information is available at www.ccnr.org.
Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., President,
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
c.p. 236, Station Snowdon, Montreal QC, H3X 3T4 Canada
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