Following Pathways of Canada’s Nuclear Legacies

Chalk River Laboratories, February 1954. Located about 200 km north of Ottawa, Ontario, Chalk River Laboratories were originally part of an effort to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons and were later used to develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy (CANDU reactor). Taken from Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission:

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NiCHE New Scholars met for a third time on May 4, 2018 to discuss the environmental legacy of Canada’s nuclear history. Robynne Mellor, Caitlynn Beckett, James Rhatigan, Jonathan Luedee, and Steven Langlois attended this virtual meeting.

This discussion was initiated by reading Laura Sefton MacDowell’s chapter “Nuclear Power,” in Powering Up Canada. We agreed that MacDowell’s chapter provides a thorough context for nuclear development in Canada and situates Canada within a history of nuclear power internationally. MacDowell presents Canada as a somewhat unique story within this history, as the Canadian nuclear industry moved from production for military uses, to a promise of peaceful use through nuclear power and medical technologies. Today, the future of the Canadian nuclear industry is uncertain, as costs for maintenance increase and the complexities of waste management become ever more apparent and controversial.

While MacDowell’s chapter provides an enlightening narrative of Canadian nuclear production, Robynne began by questioning what might be added or retracted by using a national focus on Canadian nuclear history. As MacDowell states, Canadian nuclear history, despite being more recently advertised as ‘peaceful’, is intimately connected to American military efforts, and the international sales of uranium, plutonium and nuclear technology used for nefarious purposes. However, her chapter does not follow these pathways in depth. In this sense, we questioned: where are the legacies of the Canadian nuclear industry studied? Transboundary nuclear legacies (atmospheric, transportation of waste, sales of nuclear products etc.), complicate how we study the history of such legacies and make it difficult to pin down the effects of the Canadian nuclear industry outside of Canada.

This discussion raised the question of when and how the Canadian government should be responsible for the legacies of its nuclear program. The United States program, which is largely privately funded is not necessarily doing much better at ‘cleaning-up’ than the Canadian, government-funded program is. Both approaches are similar: putting all the waste in one place and figuring out how to keep it there in perpetuity. As James mentioned, this essentially limits responsibility (and focus) of nuclear waste to the few sits where it is being collected and managed, and largely overlooks the ‘peripheries’ of nuclear development or the possibility of transboundary responsibilities for nuclear legacies.

We debated how the management of nuclear waste could compare or differ from other wastes and concluded that the unique materialities and geographies of nuclear must be taken into account. As Steven mentioned, nuclear is somewhat unique in that it is used for energy, weapons, medical technology – it matters how and where it is being used. However, it is moving through the same networks no matter what the end product is. Energy, military and medical use feed off each other and are hard to parse. And as MacDowell states, “The nuclear industry produces deadly waste products as every stage, from mining to decommissioning” (p. 345).

In response to our discussion on the somewhat patchy historical research on Canada’s nuclear industry, Robynne raised the question: What do you think is the state of this ‘sub-field’? What are the problems of it being spread out in different nuclear stories rather than as a focused “nuclear” subfield of history/geography. It seems that sometimes we are asking the same questions without finding each other’s work. In addition, there is a lot of research on nuclear production within other fields such as policy, but it is difficult for historians to insert themselves in such groups. Jonathan responded that Jacob Hamblin’s NSF funded project has begun to address some of these questions. This project encourages people to publish on questions surrounding nuclearity and nuclear histories. Robynne also mentioned the work of Kate Brown in Russia. A major question going forward would be to address common experiences across these geographies.

In connection to waste, we ended with a discussion on the inability of the Canadian nuclear industry and regulators (which are sometimes considered one and the same) to address the temporalities of nuclear waste. In light of the dispossession and poisoning of Indigenous lands and people, and the inadequate safety measures taken for uranium miners, it is questionable whether any community could every really consent to nuclear production or waste. Such a consent would imply consent for future generations for that waste and the other legacies of nuclear production. In summary, Jonathan and James stated that in analyzing the production of nuclear energy it is important to think in terms of networks and pathways – and the multi temporalities and materialities of waste – there are many different kinds of waste within “nuclear waste,” implying multiple, networked material and cultural pathways of exposure.






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Caitlynn Beckett

PhD Student at Memorial University of Newfoundland
I am currently a PhD student in Geography at Memorial University in St. John’s Newfoundland, where I also completed my MA in 2017. I am a settler scholar from Treaty 4 Territory and grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan. My research interests include processes of mine remediation, environmental justice, impact assessment and community engagement in resource extraction across Northern Canada.

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