Mining for a Bomb
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Mining for a Bomb
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Mining for a Bomb
Canada supplies uranium for the development of the U.S. atomic bomb, while native-Canadian miners work in clouds of radioactive dusk
One of Canadas biggest contributions to the war effort remained shrouded in secrecy in early 1940s. And the secret would devastate the northern Canadian natives who were hired to mine a deadly metal called uranium.
Uranium for atomic bomb experiments was secretly mined from the Eldorado Mine at Great Bear Lake, N.W.T. during the Second World War. Picture here, the Eldorado mine around 1930. (National Archives of Canada, C-023983)
Uranium for atomic bomb experiments was secretly mined from the Eldorado Mine at Great Bear Lake, N.W.T. during the Second World War. Picture here, the Eldorado mine around 1930. (National Archives of Canada, C-023983)

In 1942, a group of scientists led by physicist Enrico Fermi used a pile of uranium and graphite in an abandoned squash court at the University of Chicago to demonstrate the first controlled nuclear chain reaction.

The experiment launched the Manhattan Project, the race to build an atomic bomb during the Second World War. Fundamental to the American military's work was a ready supply of uranium, a deadly radioactive element crucial to the construction of nuclear weapons. The Americans contacted their Canadian allies to fulfill the needs.

Years earlier, Gerald Labine had found uranium on the remote shores of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. Hed closed the mine at the outbreak of war but in 1942 received a phone call from C.D. Howe, the Minister of Munitions and Supply and the mastermind behind Canadas economic war transformation.

"I want you to reopen," Howe told Labine. "Get together the most trustworthy people you can find. The Canadian Government will give you whatever money is required... And for God's sake don't even tell your wife what you're doing."

The ore was mined by the Dene, a semi-nomadic people who followed the migratory caribou herds. The miners were paid three dollars a day to haul forty-five kilogram sacks of ore out to barges on the Mackenzie River for the long trip to the United States. The Dene called the grey stone the "money rock."

By the end of 1943, the mine was operating at full capacity, producing the 60 tonnes of uranium oxide requested by the Americans. Paul Baton worked for three months in clouds of the radioactive dust.

"I was coated like flour in radium dust as it leaked from the heavy bags on my back. It gets into your clothes, hair, mouth and hands. During the long barge trips across the lake and down the Bear and Mackenzie we would sleep and sit on the sacks."

In Ottawa, mining officials were warned that exposure to radium dust was harmful. (Radium is a radioactive metal found in uranium.) The information was kept secret.

Local children also played with the ore and waste from the mine was dumped into Great Bear Lake. Dene women used the discarded sacks as shelters.

"Our canvas tents were all worn out and could not keep the rain out very well. Because the men worked as labourers for the mine, they kept ripped ore bags and brought these back for us to use. I made three tents from these bags. "

After the war, the Dene town on the shores of Great Bear Lake would become known as the village of widows, because so many of the men die of cancer.

At Los Alamos, New Mexico, the uranium was used to develop the first atomic bomb in a feverish race that brought together dozens of scientists. Howe offered Albertas wide-open spaces as a test site for the new weapon but the Americans preferred the New Mexico desert.

The atomic bomb was successfully tested on July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Then on August 6, the American bomber Enola Gay, flew over Japan and dropped the atomic bomb code-named Fat Man on Hiroshima, a city of 343,000. Sixty per cent of the city was razed by the blast, and 100,000 people died immediately, with tens of thousands dying of radiation poisoning within several months.

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