Wildly Nuclear: Elliot Lake and Canada’s Nuclear Legacy

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Elliot Lake over the past sixty years has had two unofficial titles. The first is “Jewel in the Wilderness,” and the second is “the Uranium Capital of the World.” In the 1950s, the U.S. push for uranium production prompted exploitation of local uranium deposits. Very quickly a town sprang up where before there was none. For over 40 years, Elliot Lake was a significant producer of uranium. All through the period of exploitation, and especially after, Elliot Lake promoted itself as a beautiful destination for nature-lovers and outdoor adventurers. Today, the town continues to reconcile its two legacies as a paradoxically thoroughly modern wilderness, trying to become a destination for ecotourism while clinging to its nuclear role. But can a place be both nuclear and natural? Can it be thoroughly polluted with radiation and naturally beautiful at the same time? And if so—if Canadians can accept it as such—what does Elliot Lake say about the Canada’s acceptance or denial of its nuclear history?

A few of the many lakes surrounding the town of Elliot Lake. Photo by author.

Today, upon first glance, one might not know that Elliot Lake was the leading producer of Canadian uranium in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a small town, roughly 20 miles north of Lake Huron, reached by driving north off of the main highway between Sudbury and Sault St. Marie and up a sharp, winding road. Trees crowd around the road, until they clear around the town’s namesake, which is Elliot Lake itself. When viewing the lake, it is easy to see how the town received its first unofficial title. It is a large sapphire-coloured lake surrounded by rock outcroppings and trees, and the mining infrastructure—mills, headframes, tailings ponds, dams—are mostly gone.

Just a few decades ago, however, this landscape supported a lucrative uranium industry. By 1959, the mines produced 74% of Canada’s total refined uranium, or yellowcake. Due to this process, millions of tons of waste accumulated because during the process of milling 99.8% of the ore became waste. This waste was left to pollute the surrounding environment unregulated for decades. It raised the water’s acidity and released harmful radioactivity.

This pollution affected not only the people who inhabited the newfound town of Elliot Lake, but also those who had inhabited the land for over five hundred years: the Serpent River First Nation, or Anishinaabe. Although pamphlets from the 1950s and 1960s liked to portray it as such, the land was not an empty place that intrepid pioneers settled and tamed; it was traditional hunting, trapping, and fishing ground. Elliot Lake was not “in the wildnerness;” it was in a place with significant, long-term human use. As Lianne Leddy shows in her work, the uranium industry and concomitant sulphuric acid plant affected the lives of the Serpent River First Nation. Industry brought short-term employment gains and long-term environmental consequences.

The Canadian government did not address the problems of pollution from the mines until the late 1970s, after the mines had gone through a few boom and bust cycles, and the population of the town had contracted and rebounded. In September 1978, the Atomic Energy Control Board—the body that oversaw nuclear matters in Canada— organized an Advisory Panel on Tailings, which acknowledged the tailings problem in the country and recommended both the remediation and review of the problem.

But the response to these recommendations was slow and the government was hardly involved. Instead, Rio Algom and Denison mines, which operated mines in Elliot Lake until the 1990s, took over the problem of decommissioning the mines and reclaiming the land when their last sites shut down. This response contrasted with that of Canada’s closest neighbour, the United States, which federally organized and carried out the Uranium Mine Tailings Radiation Control Act from 1978 onward. The reason that the companies took responsibility for the tailings is unclear, though one employee told me that they decided to “do the right thing.” During the entire period of operation of the uranium mines there was no substantial public outcry or national attention to the problems of radiation pollution.

Then came the question of what to do with the town. Since the 1970s, there had been some revival efforts. Officials attempted to make Elliot Lake into a college town, and then tried to make it a centre for research on the effects of uranium mining on humans—a woefully understudied topic in Canada. Ultimately, none of these efforts were very successful, and by the 1990s, Elliot Lake needed a new plan.

One option was tourism, a path that was quite successful for the one-time uranium mining town of Moab, Utah. Also claiming the title of “Uranium Capital of the World” in the 1950s, Moab is now advertised as a destination for mountain bikers, campers, rafters, and paddle boarders. I have spoken to many people who travelled to Moab for such purposes with no idea of the town’s radioactive legacy. In fact, Moab has seemingly erased its uranium-fuelled past. The U.S. association with its radioactive heritage, it seems, is not a positive one. Instead, it is something to be expunged and ignored if a town wants to reinvent itself as a place for nature explorers. There, nature and nuclear are too paradoxical.

Elliot Lake Monument
Statue of a miner looking at the names of those who died while on the job. Photo by author.

Elliot Lake does not ignore its nuclear history. The history of mining has been embraced, albeit in a sanitized manner, but not erased. Monuments to the miners stand on the picturesque banks of Elliot Lake in the center of the town. The statues show men wearing headlamps holding the hand of a little girl or staring sadly at the names of those who lost their lives in the mines; they are romantic images of the bygone era. There is also a small museum about the mines and the town has published a few books on the miners and their memories. The Anishinaabe narrative has also, at times, been incorporated into the tourist draw, with Elliot Lake promoters trying to attract people by appropriating Serpent River oral histories and repackaging them as ghost stories and legends. (These instances led to even more questions about how the land can be wild, nuclear, and have a long history of human use at the same time.)

But there are other non-formal and less idealistic monuments to the town’s past, too. Signs dot the landscape warning about the possibility of radioactive material. No camping, hunting, or fishing is allowed, and they warn to walk the ground at one’s own risk. For someone who likes to fish, this sign might mean a minor inconvenience and the need to redraw her Saturday morning plans. For the Serpent River First Nation, this warning means losing land that it has used for sustenance for centuries. When I asked Denison about the effects for the Anishinaabe when I visited the town, I was assured this was not a problem.

Sign warning of low level radiation. Photo by author.
Sign warning of low level radiation. Photo by author.

Furthermore, Elliot Lake is trying to preserve its nuclear legacy in a sense. It is currently one of the sites in the running to become a repository of nuclear waste through Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization. This move is also not novel. Both Nevada and New Mexico have attempted to capitalize on their nuclear histories to attract more money through waste storage at Yucca Mountain and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, respectively. But neither of these places have refashioned themselves as a wildlife destination and retirement community. Perhaps, then, the closest comparison to the unique pairing of nuclear and natural is Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia. (Kakadu also has a large Aborigine population, and though there are many important comparisons among the Serpent River First Nation, Australian Aborigines, and countless other indigenous populations of which I am acutely aware, it is not something that I can address adequately here). It is a nature reserve and traditional home of indigenous groups that surrounds a highly productive uranium mine, though it is important to note that the reserve preceded the mine.

So what do Australia and Canada have in common that allows them to view nuclear and natural as not necessarily incompatible? Why do Canadians not recoil from the radioactive effects of the mines when the Americans view it as something to be ashamed of? The difference lies in the Canada’s seemingly peaceful nuclear history. Canada, perhaps, has always viewed itself as a non-nuclear country. The government has never had nuclear weapons, it has never dropped a bomb, it did not go “eyeball-to-eyeball” threatening the destruction of the planet. In Canada, no nuclear plants have melted down, and no nuclear tests have sickened countless people.

Perhaps Canada is in denial about the danger of its uranium because it has seemed to play such an innocuous historical role—though of course this perception is false as, to name one instance, Canada contributed uranium to Fat Man and Little Boy.   Moreover, Canada’s uranium pollutes air, water, and soil in the same way that American uranium does. Yet the Canadian government did not coalesce to clean up uranium. Private companies did.

Rio Algom and Denison relocated tailings, buried them, or submerged them in water. The companies declared Elliot Lake a remarkable success story, and a great place for swimming, fishing, or a leisurely retirement. The mining companies gave the residential properties to private companies to sell to retirees, and so the housing prices are the least expensive in the province. The local government hopes that retirees will sell their homes in southern Ontario, move up north, and have enough money to fly to Florida during the bitterly cold winters. All mine and mill buildings have been taken down. On the once heavily polluted Quirke Lake, there is a private beach for members of a certain retirement community, but aside from that, the large lake is quiet. I was told fish populations are rebounding, and the water is safe for swimming should I want to. Walking trails wind in and out of the forests which become especially beautiful in the early fall drawing people to come see the trees’ vibrant colours. Yet though the pollution is invisible it is there.

The once highly polluted Quirke Lake is now a seniors’ beach. Photo by author.

Elliot Lake is still clinging to its dual image as a place both wild and nuclear at the same time. Canadians must decide how the acceptance of these two ideas as compatible keeps us from confronting our nuclear history and ignoring the federal government’s role in polluting and then abandoning Elliot Lake.

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Robynne Mellor

PhD Candidate at Georgetown University
I received my PhD from Georgetown University and am currently working as a historical consultant at Sunmount Consulting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I study the intersection of environmental history and the Cold War, with a focus on uranium mining in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union.


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