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Atomic Canada

“Canadians of all ages believe Canada had nothing to do with the American atom bomb.”

Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during the Quebec Conference on Aug. 18, 1943.
Wikimedia
“These atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them,” wrote H.G. Wells in his 1914 sci-fi classic, The World Set Free.

Wells, who holds a track record for predicting technological innovations, was credited by Sir Winston Churchill for dreaming up the use of combat airplanes and tanks before the First World War. Still, The World Set Free added an entirely new colour to scientific inspiration, with Wells theorizing that unbelievable power could be born from splitting the atom.

This flash of fiction eventually became reality when Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, inspired by Wells’ novel, theorized a method to sustain a nuclear chain reaction in September 1933.  Eleven years and one Manhattan Project later, the United States would eventually drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.

But even in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer nearly 80 years later, very few know of Canada’s key role in the development of the atomic bomb, with the credit usually going to its better known British and American contributors.

“There is little published about Canada’s contribution in the creation of atomic weapons and the subject is not taught in schools,” Canadian nuclear disarmament campaigner and Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow wrote to The Globe and Mail.

“Canadians of all ages believe Canada had nothing to do with the American atom bomb.”

The Chalk River Laboratory in Ontario was born from the Montreal Laboratory and housed the first nuclear reactor outside the United States.
Wikimedia

When Americans showed hesitation to co-operate, born of paranoia over the British team’s many refugees, McGill University’s 3470 Simpson Street became their next choice.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Canadians joined the ranks of esteemed scientists like J.J. Thompson and Albert Einstein in the global frenzy for nuclear physics. Canada’s first female nuclear physicist, Harriet Brooks, discovered that elemental decay led to the release of radiation, while Ernest Rutherford, a McGill University professor, received a Nobel Prize for purporting the idea of a radioactive half-life and radioactive element radon.

As the Second World War ravaged on, countries dreamed of a weapon that would put the killing to an end. When chemist Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission in 1938, the dream became closer to a reality. That discovery, along with the development of Germany’s uranium stockpiles, commenced the race to create an atomic weapon.

The Allies’ odyssey began with a British-run nuclear weapons research project called “Tube Alloys,” which would be the predecessor to America’s Manhattan Project. With growing concerns over the program’s geographical vulnerability due to German Luftwaffe attack, along with dwindling resources, the British looked to relocate from the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

Canada, however, was not Britain’s first pick, instead favouring the United States as the project’s safest option. But when Americans showed hesitation to co-operate, born of paranoia over the British team’s many refugees, McGill University’s 3470 Simpson Street became their next choice. It was now up to the Minister of Munitions and Supply, Clarence Decatur “C.D.” Howe, to give the green light.

“At first, Howe was wary,” the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s website wrote. “Nonetheless, Howe believed that atomic energy had a profound impact on society and the economy after the war.”

With the simple words “Okay, let’s go,” Howe gave the go head.

The mushrooms clouds resulting from the atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki.
Wikimedia

Canada not only provided the project with many of its scientists, findings and facilities, it also supplied and processed the project’s uranium.

Arriving from England in December 1942, the scientists soon moved their laboratory to the newer, larger facilities found at the University of Montreal. There, the small group grew to over 300 scientists, technicians and engineers, with about half of them being Canadian.

While they initially made great strides toward the development of a core reactor for uranium and heavy water, the Montreal Laboratory was stagnated by poor administration and a lack of co-operation from American scientists and officials.

Britain and the United States soon met in Quebec City in what became known as the Quebec Conference of 1943. The meeting turned into a merger when both countries agreed to consolidate their efforts by working together under the title of the Manhattan Project. But even upon the Montreal Laboratory’s dissolution, Canada still served as a vital player in the atomic bomb’s progress.

“[Mackenzie] King affirmed in his diary that the Quebec Agreement ‘made Canada also a party to the development,’” Thurlow wrote.

Canada not only provided the project with many of its scientists, findings and facilities, it also supplied and processed the project’s uranium, sitting upon hundreds of tons of uranium ore found in the Eldorado Mine of Port Radium, N.W.T.

“In addition to helping advance the world-changing research efforts of the Manhattan Project,” one team of researchers noted, “[it] placed Canada among the global leaders in nuclear research following the war.”

“These wartime efforts helped establish a legacy of nuclear research in Canada that has persisted to the present day.”


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