By Asad Ismi and Kristin Schwartz
While the U.S. appears to be on the verge of attacking Iran just for having a nuclear reactor, Washington and its allies continue to be the biggest nuclear proliferators in the world. Chief among these nuclear allies is Canada, which provides up to 40% of the world’s uranium, the largest amount. Eighty percent of Canadian uranium is exported, with 76% going to the U.S.
Canada has long been the main source of uranium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, globally the largest and deadliest at 10,000 warheads and bombs. Washington has a first-strike nuclear policy and is actively preparing for nuclear war. It is also the only country that has actually used nuclear weapons–not once, but twice, on Japan in 1945.
We recently spoke to Professor Jim Harding about Canada’s contribution to U.S. nuclear aggression. A nuclear war could, of course, wipe out all human life. Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. He is author of the recent book, Canada’s Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Q: Tell us about Canada’s role in the creation of the Western nuclear system.
Harding: We were involved at the very front end of the Manhattan Project that created the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The uranium that was used in the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was refined at the uranium conversion plant at Port Hope, Ontario, and the two sources were probably some from the Belgian Congo and some from the Port Radium mine that was reopened.
But the early work with the CANDU reactor in Montreal at McGill University, and then at Chalk River, also played a role with the production of plutonium for the bomb that was used in Nagasaki, because they were trying two different ways to create nuclear weapons.
The CANDU design that is now in 18 reactors in Ontario was actually created because of its capacity to produce weapons-grade plutonium. So that was shipped out of Chalk River into the U.S., I believe, into the 1960s. And the U.K.’s weapons program was also based on research at McGill and the prototype reactor that ended up as the CANDU. So Canada is right smack at the beginning of both the U.S. and U.K.’s nuclear weapons programs, and the history of nuclear weapons begins with these. We can’t seem to get it through our consciousness that we are not just used by the Anglo-American imperial system; we were willing compatriots in the creation of nuclear weapons.
Q: How did Canada help build the U.S. nuclear arsenal?
Harding: The arms race is already in place by 1946, a year after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs are dropped. The U.S. has the Strategic Air Command system in place, with the strategy of carrying atomic weapons towards Russia as a supposed deterrent, but of course Russia doesn’t have the atomic bomb at this point. And when the USSR actually develops the atomic bomb by 1949, the U.S. moves to the H-bomb and the whole thing escalates.
Canada is at the centre of that, because we are one of the main sources of uranium, both at Elliot Lake and Uranium City, for the U.S. arms race escalation from about 1953 on. So every speck of uranium that was mined out of northern Ontario and northern Saskatchewan went into nuclear weapons, mostly the U.S. ones, although a few contracts also went to Britain. That went on till 1966, and in some cases those contracts carried to the end of the 1960s. So, for that whole period, the 1950s and the 1960s, Canada is a major uranium fuel source for the escalation of the nuclear arms race.
Q: How is Canada violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?
Harding: Canada signed this treaty in 1970 and claimed that it would not be using uranium for weapons production. We now know that uranium out of Saskatchewan has been diverted through the depleted uranium (DU) system and has been fuelling the weapons stream. The public, I think, is largely unaware that we are still complicit directly in the weapons stream. It’s a tricky thing to track, but it goes something like this: After refining the uranium at Port Hope, we send it to the enriching system in the U.S. This system integrates both the military and the industrial uses of nuclear power. The U.S. Department of Energy and the Pentagon both take uranium from this system.
The uranium that is to be used in electrical generating nuclear reactors is concentrated to about 5%. This is uranium-235. About nine-tenths of the mass of what’s left after enrichment is called depleted uranium. This is then available to the Pentagon to use for weapons. And it’s not really depleted. That’s a misnomer. It’s still uranium. It’s primarily uranium-238, which can be put into Pentagon reactors to create plutonium. All the Pentagon needs to do is bombard the depleted uranium with neutrons and it can create a plutonium stream for weapons. Also, the depleted uranium is the packing on the H-Bomb. What makes the H-Bomb the mega-bomb is the amount of packing of the depleted uranium around the plutonium trigger.
Then the various weapons-producing companies such as Aerojet and ATK take this uranium and make the conventional depleted uranium weapons that are now contaminating probably the last four war zones in the Middle East and Southern Europe. Uranium out of Canada that’s got into the depleted uranium stream has already been dropped on Iraq during the U.S. invasion. So the weapons connection got obscured when the Non-Proliferation Treaty came, because technically the uranium is shipped to the U.S. for their reactors, but in fact the depleted uranium that’s left is then in the control of those countries. So it fundamentally abrogates the intentions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but not technically.
Q: What are the implications of Canada’s continuing support for U.S. nuclear militarism?
Harding: It’s frightening stuff to think about. We’re really talking madness here in terms of the capacity. How few of these mega-bombs it would take to create a catastrophe that makes climate change look insignificant! The U.S. had 37,000 nuclear weapons during the 1980s, armed and ready to go. And we’re talking about using a very small number of those and having disastrous global implications.
When you dig below the surface, the complicity issue is always there. It was there in Vietnam, in terms of companies in Canada exporting armaments and even chemicals that were used in the napalm bombing. And in Canada we’re still doing that around depleted uranium. It just tends to be hidden behind the public statements of us being a non-nuclear power and having made the decision to focus on exporting medical isotopes and not nuclear weapons. This is an effective PR and propaganda system, but it just doesn’t happen to be true.
Q: What are the effects of depleted uranium on humans when it is used in conventional weapons, aside from immediate death and injury?
Harding: The number of cancers and death by cancer are significantly greater (than if the depleted uranium were not present), as are permanent sterility, birth deformations, and death from birth deformation. Depleted uranium affects the whole embryonic development, as well as increasing the risks of thyroid leukemia and other childhood cancers. They are seeing increases in a number of cancers in Basra and in other areas where they know there were high levels of depleted uranium weaponry used.
Q: Does Canada’s involvement in nuclear weapons production go beyond providing uranium to the U.S.?
Harding: There’s a story under this, not just about the diversion of uranium into DU weapons, but possible complicity recently in the actual production of the weapons metal. The uranium that’s going into the U.S. for enriching becomes part of the depleted uranium stockpile, and that’s accessible for weapons, but the Inter-Church Uranium Committee had an invoice leaked to it showing that uranium that went from the Key Lake mine in Saskatchewan to the U.S. then went back to the Port Hope uranium conversion plant which is run by the Canadian mining company Cameco (which also runs the Key Lake mine). From Port Hope, this uranium then went to Aerojet for depleted uranium uses. So as late as the early 1990s, there is some evidence that not only are we sending the uranium that ends up in the depleted uranium stockpile but we’ve also actually been involved in some processing of the depleted uranium in Canada. At that point, Cameco was licensed to refine uranium, but not licensed to work with depleted or enriched uranium.
Right now, Cameco has a license to do some slightly enriched production at Port Hope, and that is a contentious issue, but back then, when depleted uranium was coming to Port Hope, they had no license to work with DU, which did go to Aerojet, which is a munitions company.
Q: Does Canada supply any other nuclear power with uranium?
Harding: We’re also the major source of uranium for the French nuclear system, and that’s their 58 reactors, but likely their weapons program as well, because they don’t have another major source.
Q: Which Canadian companies are involved in uranium extraction?
Harding: Cameco is the big company in Saskatoon. It was started by an NDP government as a public enterprise and is now the largest uranium mining company on the planet. It’s a private company. It came out of the Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation, the Crown corporation that developed the mines. This was privatized in 1988 under Mulroney when Grant Devine was the Conservative Premier of Saskatchewan. Denison is another Canadian company in uranium exploration. There are a hundred [junior] companies that are prospecting; they’ll sell to a bigger company if they find anything.
Q: What is the role of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and NAFTA in Canada’s uranium exports?
Harding: In the U.S., under the FTA, the depleted uranium is actually defined as being of domestic origin. So once the FTA and NAFTA came into effect, the U.S. shut down its uranium industry because it had security of supply from Canada.
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, October 2008.
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. Kristin Schwartz is a journalist and radio producer in Toronto. This interview was recorded for Asad and Kristin’s radio documentary Path of Destruction: Canadian Mining Companies Around the World. The documentary is dedicated to indigenous peoples everywhere and has been aired on 32 radio stations in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia reaching about 31 million people.