Overcoming Our Denial About Nuclear Bombs

Saskatchewan is among a handful of places on the planet that has played a major role in the proliferation of nuclear bombs. But for the most part, we don’t yet know our history.
The Beaverlodge mine which opened near Uranium City in 1953 provided uranium for the US nuclear arsenal until the late 1960s. It’s estimated that Canadian-supplied uranium fuelled one-third of the US arsenal at the time. In the late 1970s, the Cluff Lake mine, a joint venture of the NDP crown, Saskatchewan Mining and Development Corporation (SMDC) and Cogema, began providing uranium to France even though it hadn’t yet signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and was still doing atmospheric testing. (Cogema is part of the French state consortium, now known as Areva, which is involved in everything from nuclear power to nuclear weapons to nuclear waste reprocessing, and recently sat on the Saskatchewan government-appointed Uranium Development Partnership (UDP).) When uranium exported by Cameco is enriched in Kentucky to fuel US light-water nuclear power plants, it leaves massive depleted uranium (DU). This is then pooled and becomes available to the US for making radiological, DU weapons which have been used in recent wars, especially Iraq, and for making H-Bombs.  Meanwhile all this uranium mining in Saskatchewan’s North leaves toxic and radioactive wastes which will endanger watersheds, habitats and environmental health for thousands of years.
Other places have also played a role in nuclear weaponry, including around Elliot Lake, Ontario, where uranium mining has impacted the Serpent River First Nations. But we still seem to know more about the nuclear legacy in other countries. The April 2010 The Walrus carried a potent picture essay, entitled “Dark Element”, about uranium mining near the city of Zhovti Vody. It is sub-titled “A Ukrainian prairie city built in the Soviet era to supply ore for nuclear weapons reckons with the industry’s deadly legacy.” I sometimes wonder if the scarcity of investigative journalism into this deadly legacy within Canada is because the uranium mines are far away from large southern cities, and near First Nations and Métis communities.
Saskatchewan’s involvement in nuclear weaponry has been part of Canada’s larger complicity. During WWII the federal crown, Eldorado Nuclear, which was privatized to help form Cameco in the 1980s, re-opened its mine at Port Radium NWT to provide some of the uranium used by the US Manhattan Project to develop atomic bombs. This uranium was refined at the Port Hope, Ontario refinery before going to fuel the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Had it not been for the broad-based peace movement in Canada, armed-and-ready nuclear weapons (the Bomarc missile) would have been stationed on Canadian soil in the early 1960s. But our complicity in nuclear weaponry continued. The Chalk River NRU nuclear reactor that started up in 1957 and has been in the news so much for leaking radioactive tritium and failing to deliver isotopes for nuclear medicine, was initially designed to produce plutonium, some of which went to the US weapons program. The Candu nuclear plant design coming out of Chalk River research uses natural uranium and can provide plutonium. This Canadian technology helped India develop the bomb in the 1970s, and contributed to the arms race with China and Pakistan. India still refuses to sign the NPT; meanwhile the marketer of the Candu, the Atomic Energy Corporation Ltd. (AECL), along with Cameco and Harper government officials, are negotiating nuclear technology and fuel export agreements with India. From its start the AECL has had a questionable track record; in 1973 it tried to sell the Candu to the military junta of Argentina, and in 1974 it tried to sell it to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Its marketing strategy highlighted the Candu’s ability to produce plutonium.  (The history of Canada’s involvement in nuclear weapons is discussed in chapters 11 and 18 of my 2007 book Canada’s Deadly Secret.)


It’s always easier to point the finger at some other country for creating and escalating the global nuclear threat. But, as in ordinary life, we have to face up to and own our own responsibilities for doing harm if we are going to make amends. Saskatchewan governments of all stripes (CCF, Liberal, NDP, Tory and Sask Party) have either been in denial of or out-rightly distorted our historical complicity in nuclear weaponry. This is partly because so much of the development of this industry has occurred in secrecy; it wasn’t until 1962 that Eldorado Nuclear even admitted it was involved in the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. While Premier Tommy Douglas supported the widespread call for nuclear disarmament in the late 1950s, Saskatchewan people were totally unaware that uranium was being shipped across the border to make nuclear bombs. Governments that sold uranium to France, even though it refused to sign the NPT, or who continue to ship uranium to the US which, when enriched, leaves stockpiles of DU for weapons, are still engaging in denial or deception.

The recent Nuclear Security Summit hosted by Obama began to pin-point loop-holes that encourage nuclear proliferation. After decades of denying that the Chalk River isotope plant accumulates highly enriched uranium (HEU), and that enriched uranium is the easiest way to make a bomb, the federal government has finally agreed to ship this spent fuel back to the US for conversion into non-weapons material. Even though a few years ago some of us pointed out to the CBC (The Current) and Globe and Mail the danger from HEU, it took the Obama Summit for this to be reported.

Nevertheless, this is a good, small step. If Canada is to play any role in overcoming the threat from nuclear proliferation, we’ll have to do some serious soul-searching. Saskatchewan, among the largest uranium-producing economies on the planet, should look honestly at its complicity in profiting from nuclear bombs. We won’t get to a sustainable society by burying our heads in the sand or lying to ourselves.

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