The Peaceful Atom Goes To War

The official story is that Canada’s nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes only. We sell our uranium as fuel for nuclear reactors, and we sell our reactors to generate electricity for use by civil society.

But the history of Canada’s nuclear program reveals strong connections with the American military and the militaristic ambitions of other countries – connections which remain strong even to this day.

Under the Quebec Agreement of 1942, signed by US President Roosevelt, UK Prime Minister Churchill, and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, the three countries agreed to work together to build the world’s first atomic bombs.

Under the Agreement, they promised not to use the bomb against each other, nor against a third party without unanimous consent. Thus Mackenzie King had to agree to drop the atomic bombs on Japanese cities.

On the day of the Hiroshima bombing, the Prime Minister issued a prepared statement in which he said, "It is a distinct pleasure for me to announce that Canadian scientists have played an intimate part, and have been associated in an effective way with this great scientific development."

Canada supplied the uranium initially required to get the bomb program going, and greatly expanded uranium production to meet the demands of the military to build tens of thousands of nuclear weapons later.

By 1959, uranium was Canada’s fourth most important export, after wheat, lumber, and pulp. It was all sold under military contracts and used to make nuclear weapons.

In 1965 the contracts ended, and the government of Canada announced that henceforth no uranium would be sold for weapons purposes, but only for peaceful uses –as fuel for civilian nuclear reactors.

But the military uses of Canadian uranium never really ceased. To be used as fuel overseas, uranium has to be enriched. For every 10 kilos of uranium that enters the enrichment facility, only 1 kilo gets sent to the customer for use as reactor fuel. The other 9 kilos stay behind as “depleted uranium”, which has no civilian use but a host of military uses.

Everyone has heard of the radioactive ammunition made from depleted uranium that is used by American and NATO forces, beginning with the First Gulf War, and continuing in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Many believe these weapons violate existing international law because, like personnel land mines, they pose serious risks to civilian populations long after hostilities have ceased. Yet Canada does nothing to prevent its depleted uranium from being used to manufacture these weapons.

In addition, depleted uranium is used by nuclear weapons countries as the raw material from which plutonium is made. Plutonium is the primary nuclear explosive in virtually all of the strategic nuclear warheads in the world. It is an artificial element, made from depleted uranium. When depleted uranium is bombarded with neutrons inside a nuclear reactor, plutonium is created.

A third use of depleted uranium is even more direct: many of the metallic components of thermonuclear weapons (H-bombs) are made from depleted uranium, thereby more than doubling the explosive power of the bomb, and contributing over 90 percent of the radioactive fallout from the bomb.

Canada does nothing to prevent its depleted uranium from being used in these ways. In fact Canadian depleted uranium is not separated from that from any other country, and the military helps itself to this radioactive waste material for its military needs. There are no safeguards or international inspections for depleted uranium.

Canada’s reactor business also has military connections. The first reactors in Canada were built at the Chalk River nuclear establishment, sited on the Ottawa River just across from Pontiac County, Quebec. The decision to build Chalk River was taken in Washington DC in 1944; it was part of the atomic bomb project.

At the Chalk River Visitor’s Centre, a bronze plaque reads (in part):

"THE ZEEP REACTOR 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…. "

Canada sold plutonium to the US military from its Chalk River reactors for decades to help pay the cost of its nuclear research.

Canada also built a pilot plutonium separation plant and supplied plutonium for the UK military until 1953, when Britain exploded its first atomic bombn.

The French atomic bomb program got its start through plutonium research carried out at a secret laboratory at the University of Montreal during the war.

Thus Canada played a small but important role in creating three of the world’s five nuclear superpowers.

Canada gave a copy of the Chalk River NRX reactor to India. India used that reactor to produce the plutonium for its first atomic bomb, exploded in 1974.

France assisted Israel build the Dimona reactor, which supplied them with plutonium for bombs. It is said that Dimona resembles the NRX reactor that French scientists helped design while still in Montreal.

In fact, every nuclear reactor produces plutonium. Since plutonium has a 24,000 year half-life, any future regime can build atomic bombs from the plutonium left in the nuclear wastes from reactors that were shut down centuries earlier.

By selling reactors around the world, we are creating repositories of plutonium. We are literally sowing the seeds of our own destruction.

The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility urges people not to be taken in by the myth of the peaceful atom. The atom is indivisible in this sense: the military and peaceful uses cannot be separated.

Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., President,
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR),
winner of the 2006 Nuclear-Free Future Award in the Education Category

Regroupement pour la surveillance du nucléaire,
c.p. 236 Station Snowdon Montreal H3X 3T4
Website: tél/fax: (514) 489 5118