Day 6

Did a Canadian diver find a lost nuclear bomb off the coast of Haida Gwaii?

A Canadian diver recently found a strange, bagel-shaped object off the coast of Haida Gwaii. It might be a Mark IV bomb that went missing after an American B-36 bomber crashed in the area during the Cold War — and as it turns out, this kind of thing happens more often than you'd think.
A Mark IV "Fat Man" bomb went missing after a plane crash over northwest B.C. in 1950. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Canadian Navy is on its way to Pitt Island, off the coast of British Columbia, to investigate claims that a Canadian diver has discovered a long-lost nuclear weapon.

The assignment, like the discovery, is unusual. But as underwater munitions researcher Terrence Long tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, it's actually more common than you'd think.

"This is just the top of the iceberg," says Long, who serves as the chairman of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions, a Canadian and Dutch-based NGO.

He says there's a major global problem with underwater munitions, and Canada is home to thousands of sites.

"Off our east coast, there's chemical, conventional and nuclear weapons. The Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and West Coast are full of munitions as well."

Long's research focuses mostly on North America but he points out there are sunken but active bombs in famous international sites like the Great Barrier Reef and the Baltic Sea, where arsenic has spread from one site to the other.

Why there are so many buried bombs in Canada

"What people don't realize is that munitions have been dumped into our waters as a means of disposal from the First World War right up to the 1970s," says Long. 

There are indications that a cache of nuclear weapons was dumped somewhere between Newfoundland and Virginia in the 1950s.

Long says a ship called the USS Calhoun County left Virginia en route to Argentia, Newfoundland and dumped its haul somewhere in between.

Sailors on the USS Calhoun County dumped thousands of tons of radioactive waste into the Atlantic Ocean. (Wikipedia)

"At the time it was acceptable to dump these weapons into the ocean and there are still no real treaties or protocols to address it," he says.

Long points out that the The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has a caveat in their convention that says any munitions dumped before 1985 don't count.

The dangers of sunken bombs

Despite the fact that no laws were broken,  there are serious dangers to keeping thousands of old, hidden bombs in our waters.

Long says the threats range from health to economics to the possibility that these highly combustible bombs could explode at any time.

"You can get cancer from these munitions by eating the fish that feed on the toxins," says Long, who has also directed two award-winning documentaries on the dumping of chemical and nuclear weapons in our oceans.

The chemicals that exist in some of these weapons seep out and contaminate the water. Long says they even have the ability to change the chemistry of the water, making it warmer. If the dump sites are close enough, entire areas of lakes or oceans can be contaminated with toxins.

Terrance Long on-board Oceania, a Polish research vessel surveying chemical weapons in the Baltic Sea. (Terrence Long)

Theft also poses a potential threat.

"There's a danger that someone could recover and reuse them as terror weapons," says Long.

If the unidentified object near Haida Gwaii turns out to be the lost nuke from 1950, Long says that site would certainly need to be guarded.

A Canadian diver recently found a strange object off the coast of Haida Gwaii. Turns out, it might be a long lost nuke. Terrence Long, Chairman of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions, explains why this happens more often than you'd think.


Bombs washing ashore

According to Long, active shells wash ashore as often as once a week in Canada, sometimes with fatal results.

"Most of the old shells recovered from the ocean are still intact, especially the ones on the east coast of Canada," he says. "There have been people killed because they picked up these munitions."

There are also stories of near-misses. Long was contacted by a family this summer who drove from Nova Scotia to Ontario with a bomb in their car. He says they had no idea it was dangerous.

He also read about a woman in the U.K. who found an object on the beach and used it to play fetch with her dog, before realizing it was a grenade

Bomb found by a young boy at Conrad's Beach just north of Halifax. (Greg Johnson via Terrence Long)

The costs of cleaning up

"It's possible to clean the bomb sites up, and what's happening globally is people are looking at the economics and developing technology," says Long. But that's not necessarily happening in Canada. 

Despite that, Long sees an opportunity for Canada's federal government to take the lead.

"The government isn't looking at this problem. It's out of sight and out of mind — but this is very similar to land mines," he says, referring to the Ottawa Treaty to prohibit land mines that went into effect in 1999.

"We need to constructively engage so we can talk about the problems to develop solutions," says Long.

"This is destroying the ocean and these chemical releases will meet each other eventually, and that's the problem. It's a silent killer that no seems to be aware of."