Editor’s note: This is the third in a series on environmental histories of Radiation in Canada edited by Joshua McGuffie and M. Blake Butler.
When anglophone Canadians reached for their copy of Maclean’s after a long week at work on 15 January 1952, a Friday, they encountered a catchy and provocative article about the country’s nuclear industry. In “The Atom Bomb that Saves Lives,” Eric Hutton introduced his readers to a metaphorical, and manifestly Canadian, bomb: cobalt-60. Mined in the north and irradiated in the core of the National Research Experimental Reactor (NRX) at Chalk River on the south bank of the Ottawa, cobalt-60 promised a new and wondrous weapon in the fight against cancer. Indeed, the new “beneficent Canadian atom bomb,” in Hutton’s words, had begun withering cancerous tumours at hospitals in Saskatoon and London, Ontario in autumn of the previous year.
In this reflection, I use archival footage from the National Film Board and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to think about how official narratives that reveled in Canadian atomic beneficence hid early environmental challenges faced at Chalk River.
How did the Canadian atom radiate goodness in 1940s and ‘50s? A 1947 reel from the National Film Board’s Eye Witness series offers some very early hints. The opening credits explained that “Canada’s Atomic Energy Plant… Produces Isotopes for Peacetime Research.” The footage then walked viewers through laboratories and showed scientists working on radionuclides at their respective benches. In one scene, a chemist worked on radioactive phosphorous for use as a tracer in agricultural studies. As the camera zoomed in on the radioisotope, the announcer declared triumphantly that Canadian radioisotopes would “open new horizons of knowledge to hospitals and laboratories.” The confident announcer drew a bold line between the reactor and the hospital – between one sleek, post-war centre for innovation and another.
The reel, however, did not only evoke atomic optimism. In fact, it often referred to radiation’s dangers. The footage described how workers at Chalk River dealt with hazardous radioactive waste. “When the geiger counter shows an instrument to be contaminated, it must be thrown into the hot disposal barrel…sometimes even buildings must be torn down and discarded.” But whither the barrels and busted up buildings? The reel ends with footage of workers carrying contaminated waste products to a roughly eight-metre-deep pit dug in the ground. As workers in gloves and coveralls pass the waste down into the pit, the narrator explains, “disposal of radioactive waste is a serious problem… before we can go far in the atomic age we must find a way to rid ourselves of its deadly waste.” The reactors and laboratories do not appear benign in this assessment. Deadly waste evokes fear and concern. Burial in the earth is shown to be only a temporary fix.
Time and the growing national sense of atomic goodness purged these fears quickly, at least in official accounts. Scarcely a year after the Eye Witness reel, the National Film Board produced Inside the Atom. This short visit back to Chalk River made the link between the reactor and hospital even more overt than the 1947 piece. The new film showed footage of couriers literally carrying medical radioisotopes into a hospital pathology lab. Next the camera turned to a doctor administering liquid radioisotopes to an elderly cancer patient in a hospital operating room. After a pause, viewers saw the patient shaking a female doctor’s hand and a child, presumably the patient’s grandson, gave a beaming smile. Like the patient’s defeated cancer, any sense of atomic danger had left the building. Viewers could not help but feel optimistic. “Although the first fruits of the atomic age are going to biology and medicine, atomic scientists are seeking the answers to other problems that lie ahead.” The footage ends with images of the scientists at Chalk River who will answer these problems, stewards of Canada’s beneficent atom.
Cobalt-60 felt like an answer to the problems that lay ahead when it came on the scene as a cancer treatment in 1951. Certainly the cobalt bomb contrasted Canada with its wartime atomic allies. At this point the US has begun testing atomic bombs in Nevada and was actively pursuing thermonuclear devices that it would test in the occupied Marshall Islands. The UK had not tested a bomb yet, but murmurs of Churchill’s forthcoming 1952 announcement to the Westminster parliament that there would be British tests in Australia surely were making the rounds. Meanwhile, the very first cancer patient treated with cobalt-60, in a process called teletherapy, received treatment at Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario, in October 1951. Just a month later, a second teletherapy unit armed with Chalk River cobalt came into use at the University Hospital in Saskatoon. Associated with life-saving cancer treatments, these cobalt-60 bombs stood in stark distinction to the murderous devices dreamt up at Los Alamos and the UK’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell.
Eric Hutton, in Maclean’s article, made this distinction overt. Riffing on a fear that the US planned to design a cobalt-boosted thermonuclear super bomb, he contrasted the US/UK trajectory with the Canadian way. “The steps from mass murder to what medical scientists predict will soon become mass therapy are fairly simple.” Easy to make in the reactor core, cobalt-60’s medical use pointed to an alternate nuclear path, one not hell-bent on global genocide. To be Canadian, in Hutton’s telling of the story, was to be virtuous in comparison to other nations on the global atomic front.
But that atomic front looked different at home than it did abroad. While the national narrative about a beneficent medical atomic program took off, questions about industrial and environmental safety increasingly plagued Chalk River. Just 10 months after readers learned about cobalt-60 in the pages of Maclean’s the NRX experienced a partial meltdown. The emergency took place because of operator error during a test, a tragic foreshadowing of the disaster at Chernobyl. Jimmy Carter has trended in the news this year since stories about the 70th anniversary of the accident have highlighted his heroic work as a young US naval officer sent to help with the clean-up effort. After the meltdown, leaked coolant bearing roughly 370 terabequerels (Tbq) of radiation was piped about 1600 meters from the river and allowed to seep into a sandy depression in the forest. To contextualize this, the American reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island is reported to have released less than one Tbq of radioactive iodine-131 but still captivated that nation’s imagination with apocalyptic visions. Cleanup workers also buried key components of the damaged reactor in the forest. It took two years to get the NRX up and running again. The meltdown remained out of the public eye and AECL organized no known health study of those exposed during the accident or cleanup.
What was the official, governmental response to the accident in the long run? Again we can turn to archival footage to paint a picture, in this case an episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Here and There documentary series from the late 1950s. The show, filmed at Chalk River, never revealed the meltdown. Instead it tapped into tropes about exploration and the conquest of nature. The show portrayed Chalk River’s atomic work as yet another step in the nation’s responsible exploitation of nature. As viewers watched footage of the site shot from a boat afloat on the Ottawa, the narrator explained, “today a fresh band of explorers has come to the Ottawa River, explorers in the new world of atomic energy.” The vastness of the forest and the great river dwarfed the reactor complex, making it seem a natural addition to the landscape.
Here and There went on to show families in Deep River, AECL’s company town, playing on the beach and sailing on the Ottawa. Viewers watched children riding bikes through idyllic neighbourhoods full of tall trees. The learned that Anglicans and Congregationalists shared one village church for their two denominations. “At Deep River, Canada’s brain-trust village, the old values have not been forgotten.” All this served as evidence of the goodness of country’s atomic project. The episode went on to highlight the role of cobalt-60 teletherapy, showing viewers a sleek, ultra-modern unit. “The great Canadian medical achievement was the building of the cobalt beam therapy unit,” the narrator explained. Rooted in Canadian nature, founded in Canadian values, the atom that saved lives seemed to have an inscrutably beneficent provenance.
I hope this piece has shown that the nation’s atomic origin story was not so pollyannaish from the start. As early as 1947, two years after the first reactor went online, images of environmental degradation became part of the site’s story. The Eye Witness footage plainly showed workers throwing radioactive waste into an unprotected pit. The danger and longevity of that waste seemed incontrovertible in the wake of the atomic bombings. But very quickly a new, more righteous story developed. This story revolved around cancer and medical radioisotopes. It heralded the practicality of the Canadian atom in hospitals across the country. It also placed Canada on the moral high ground internationally. Ottawa could look down its atomic nose at Westminster and Washington, D.C. But even as tumours shrank, the radioactive waste buried amid the great northern forest festered. Every year more, and more dangerous, waste joined it. The remediation of dangerous waste at the site remains contentious today.
Yet, the idea of the beneficent Canadian atom lingers, even after medical radioisotope production at Chalk River ended in 2018. In the face of the climate crisis both federal and provincial governments plan to fund nuclear power generation in the future. Significant numbers of Canadians support more nuclear plants. The hope is that nuclear power can cure climate change just like cobalt-60 cured cancer. Cobalt-60 worked, but its success came at a cost. In our current round of possible nuclear expansion, let’s hope that no fanciful story, dead set on a uniquely good Canadian atom, takes charge of the tough choices that need to be made for the health of public and for the health of the land.