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John Clearwater


"Oh Lucky Canada"
(Radioactive Polar Bears: the proposed testing of British nuclear weapons in Canada.)

by John Clearwater and David O'Brien

An area of Canada's pristine sub-arctic territory that is famous today as the Polar Bear Capital of the World came close to being obliterated by British nuclear bombs during the early years of the Cold War.

Great Britain eyed the ecologically sensitive lands as a proving ground for its first operational nuclear bomb, the Blue Danube, a 25-kiloton weapon slightly larger than those used against Japan at the end of the Second World War, according to a declassified Canadian military document. The Canadian government was a willing partner in the top-secret plan, which envisioned the detonation of 12 first- and second-generation atomic weapons near Churchill, Manitoba, between 1953 and 1959.

The remote area, about 1600 km north of the provincial capital of Winnipeg, is now an international tourist destination because of the hundreds of polar bears that gather there each autumn. The area is also a popular with whale watchers and scientists interested in arctic and sub-arctic botany, geology and ecology.

If the experiments had occurred, the fallout would have altered the landscape of northern Manitoba and the Canadian arctic, drifted southeast toward Toronto, Montreal and New York and reached as far as Europe's Nordic countries. The 12 bomb sites would still be radioactive today and people would be banned from the area, now a national park.

The plan also considered making the site available for U.S. nuclear testing, although it isn't known if the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was interested. Ironically, northern Canada's disagreeable climate, which made the land near Churchill seem expendable at the time, was also its savior. The British appeared to have considered the site too cold and uncomfortable for their research scientists and they ultimately opted for balmy Australia as the place to conduct their bomb tests.

The 20-page top secret document, entitled The Technical Feasibility of Establishing an Atomic- Weapons Proving Ground in the Churchill Area, was declassified by Canada in cooperation with Britain, but remained un-noticed for several years. The plan was to test up to 12 atomic bombs at or above the surface near Churchill. Ground Zero was to be a site near the mouth of the Broad River, located 100 km southeast of Churchill on the shore of Hudson Bay, now part of Wapusk National Park.

The experiments would have included tests of the weapon physics, blast effects, and the functioning and ballistics of operational weapons, beginning in the summer of 1953. British soldiers and scientists would have invaded the area for the initial tests. At least 150 scientific and experimental officers, 50 scientific assistants, 50 technicians, and 100 industrial specialists would have been required for the experiments. The British noted that all labour and construction would be provided by Canada.

Canada was a significant military power at that time. It finished the Second World War with the world's fourth largest navy and its well-equipped ground and air forces made the country a valuable, if unappreciated, military ally. In the 1950s, Churchill was an unimportant port town of about 600 people, but a sprawling military base of some 6,000 Canadian and U.S. soldiers was stationed at nearby Fort Churchill.

The nuclear-testing plan is just the latest skeleton in Canada's Cold War closet. In 1998 the country was shocked to discover the extent of U.S. nuclear deployments in Canada between 1963 and 1984: facts unknown to the general public. The revelation that Canada was prepared to sacrifice part of its territory to nuclear testing has evoked little reaction in the country -- after all, it never happened -- but some of the people who would have been most directly affected are not amused.

Mike Spence, Churchill's mayor, was appalled when he learned that his prosperous town of 1,100 nearly had a different history as a result of Cold War politics. "They were going to do what?" Spence, a Cree Indian born in Churchill, asked incredulously. "Is that how little they thought of us?" Spence found it all a little hard to accept, but the idea of allowing testing of nuclear weapons is hardly that strange in the context of the early 1950s.

In 1949, when the plan appears to have been conceived, the Cold War was in full swing and Canadians were being conditioned to hate and fear the communist menace. With good reason, the world feared another world war, one that would be much more terrible than the previous two. In 1949 alone, the world watched nervously as the Soviets blockaded Berlin, tightened their grip on Eastern Europe and tested their first nuclear bomb. The People's Republic of China was born and war clouds gathered over Korea.

The plan was authored by C.P. McNamara of Canada's Defence Research Board and William George (later Lord) Penney, an official in Britain's Ministry of Supply. Penney, after participating in the Manhattan Project, became the head of the U.K. Atomic Weapons Establishment. He was knighted for his leadership in the development of a British nuclear weapon, and was sometimes called the Oppenheimer of Britain. McNamara remained in the shadows for the rest of his career.

There is no way of knowing if the Canadian government would have given the final go-ahead to implement the plan, but it can reasonably be assumed that such approval would have been a mere formality. Penney and McNamara would have had top-level support for the investigation and planning stages at least. And, remember, their report was prepared at a time when the West feared falling behind the Soviet Union, a possibility that defined western defence thinking at the time.

In 1950 nuclear testing was not the tainted practice it is today. Indeed, residents of Las Vegas used to watch the Nevada tests from deck chairs beside their swimming pools. Earth tremours and mushroom clouds rising from the desert floor made for some pretty good entertainment in those innocent days.  This is not to say there wouldn't have been military opposition to the plan in Canada. When the British had proposed that the United States station atomic bombs in Canada for the use of British Bomber Command, the Canadian chiefs of staff had said no to the idea. Canada would not serve as a half-way house for nuclear weapons.

Only Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent could have granted approval for the tests. No evidence has been uncovered to show that the elaborate proposal, which included detailed plans for roads, barracks and other infrastructure, ever went to the ministerial level.

In any event, British attention eventually turned firmly in the direction of Australia, not least because of the open spaces, lack of population, distance from Soviet spies, and warm sunny skies and beaches.

In Australia, there is evidence that Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies did not even consult his cabinet before saying yes to the British request for testing rights. Judge James McClelland, who presided over the 1984-1985 Australian Royal Commission of Inquiry into the effects of the tests, stated that Menzies "just said yes." The inquiry discovered that the test site remained heavily contaminated with radioactive materials, and that even 40 years later aboriginal peoples in the area faced a significant health hazard as a result.

Meanwhile, the people planning the Churchill tests knew they were playing with fire, but they were completely oblivious to the long-term consequences.

Based on previous U.S. tests, the scientists concluded that the area within 500 metres of ground zero would be "lethal for a day or two but a rapid decay of radioactivity will occur." Still, at least one to two weeks would be required before specially-suited scientists could enter the area even for short durations. Each test would require a new ground zero, as none could be used a second time, and none could be closer than five km to each other in successive years.

The planners had by this time already concluded that it would not be appropriate to test at or below the water inside Canada. This method was reserved for islands in the Pacific. The science team noted that such tests would "precipitate on the ground or sea large quantities of highly contaminated water."

The report emphasized the need for secrecy, but noted it would be hard to conceal once a nuclear bomb had been detonated. (It is now known that several Soviet spies operated in the area, so the secret would only have been kept from the public instead of from the Kremlin.)
Conveniently, Penney and McNamara described all the land near Churchill as "valueless." "The area is waste land suitable only for hunting and trapping." It is "uninhabited except for the occasional hunter or trapper." The authors also noted that because the prevailing winds came from the north, "no contamination of this inhabited area should result nor will any source of drinking water be affected."

McNamara and Penney concluded that aside from the severely contaminated area at ground zero near Churchill, there would be a band of contamination down-wind, gradually fanning out but decreasing in intensity. They stated there would be "little risk of any serious contaminated fallout" beyond 50 km. However, being cautious for the time, the team decided that no humans be allowed within 160 km downwind, in a 20 degree arc to either side of the wind direction. "The slight fallout of contamination south and southeast of the Broad River," Penney and McNamara continued, "will not affect the white whale fishing off the mouth of the Churchill River."

The scientists did acknowledge that some contamination would occur up to 160 km downwind. It was noted that winds from either the north-west or south-west "will not contaminate any area of any importance." Significantly, the area around Broad River is a badly drained region full of small lakes and swamps, sitting on permafrost. Being dry and badly drained, the radiation would have sat undisturbed for years.

The sub-Arctic terrain near Churchill is especially susceptible to ecological disaster, and nuclear testing would have had long-term negative consequences for the region. The problem in the far north is that the relatively dry climate and the ice trap the radioactivity for far longer than in wet climates. Radiation would have contaminated the moss, lichen, mushrooms and other vegetation in the North and then quickly entered the mammal food chain. Also, the ecosystem of the far north is very shallow; depending on only a few life forms.

When a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl failed in 1986, the radiation appeared within two days in the far north and in the reindeer in Finland. Thousands were slaughtered and buried. Finland still has an extensive and ongoing program of monitoring both people and reindeer, as the radiation stays in the moss and lichens eaten by the reindeer.

The best examples of what is required for a cleanup in the far north comes from the crash of a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber in Greenland. The Thule crash on 21 January 1968 resulted in the loss and destruction by fire of four Mk28 thermonuclear weapons. The fire scattered radioactive material on the ice-cap. As a result, the U.S. military dug up over 6700 cubic metres of ice and snow in the vicinity of the crash, put it in containers, and shipped it to the United States for burial as low-level radioactive waste. There is no evidence in the record that the British planned to dig  up the test sites around the towers and cart away the radioactive rock and soil.

The Blue Danube was the first operational British nuclear weapon, entering service in November 1953. It left service in 1962, replaced by smaller, but more powerful, weapons. In all, probably as few as 22 actual Blue Danube Mark 1 bombs were produced for the RAF bomber force by the time production ended in 1958.

The Blue Danube, a 1.52m diameter sphere, was essentially a lab-built, limited production fission bomb initially using plutonium. It weighed over 4.6 tonnes, and measured some 7.3m in length and 1.57m in diameter. The weapon is variously reported to have a nuclear yield of 20 kt, 8-25 kt, and up to 40 kt, but was often referred to as a 25 kt weapon ‚¨the equivalent of 25,000 tonnes of TNT.

The question of exactly what would have happened at Churchill had the British tests occurred cannot be exactly known. But if the tests conducted Down Under are an indication, then a detailed picture emerges. Most of the Churchill tests were to have been conducted from the top of a tower, according to the document, while others would have involved air drops from a Vickers' Valiant bomber to assess their science, destructive power and effectiveness.

Many of the Blue Danubes in Australia were tested on top of a 31 metre high tower, below the height required to minimize fallout. Of the first 12 British tests, six were tower tests; four were airdrops from Valiant bombers; one was a surface blast; and the first was just below the surface of a lagoon. Britain's first nuclear test device, Hurricane, was detonated in a lagoon 2.7 metres underwater. It yielded 25 kt and threw up a tremendous amount of water which returned as fallout.

Even though the first 10 tests were of the Blue Danube bomb shape, differences in the physics package lead to wildly different yields. The smallest was a 1.5 kt blast on the surface, and the most powerful was a 150 kt. Airdrops of more powerful physics packages saw yields of between 75 to 200 kt at altitudes of roughly 2300 metres. Mushroom clouds from these tests ranged in height from five to 14.5 kilometres.

Preparations for the second test were rushed, and the 10 kt blast created three times the expected fallout, or "black mist," which covered aboriginal areas. Britain's fifth test was the dirtiest. A 98 kt blast on a standard tower, it resulted in massive fallout across northern Australia. The amount of radiation produced, and the fallout, was concealed from the Australian government for thirty years.

Since half of the tests were to be on 31 metre towers or on the surface, craters would have been formed and significant amounts of soil would have become fallout. For a 25 kt bomb, the minimum altitude required to avoid the fireball touching the ground, and to keep local fallout negligible, is about 210 metres.

In most of the Blue Danube tests the fireball touched the ground, vaporizing the soil and rock, and left a crater. In rock, the crater would be about 90m across, and about 22m deep. This would produce about 46 500 cubic metres of rock thrown into the air as fallout. In soil this would produce about 100,000 cubic metres of soil thrown into the air. It would all be radioactive, and travel perhaps thousands of kilometres.

In conclusion, Northern Canadians may have been spared from the worst effects of Cold War mania, but they did not escape completely. The fallout from all of the nuclear tests since 1945 has touched every corner of the planet. Some researchers believe every person born before the atmospheric test ban has been exposed to fallout.

Placed in the proper perspective of the first Cold War, and the relative naivete about nuclear matters, the proposal to test nuclear warheads at Churchill does not seem odd at all.

Northerners, the Inuit, Innu, Europeans, and wildlife, would have been the first to suffer, but by no means the only ones. The radiation poisoning of the far north would of course have spread south. However, given the veritable orgy of testing ongoing by the mid-1950s, nobody would have noticed the difference at the time, and the full picture has yet to emerge.


John Clearwater is a nuclear weapons specialist in Ottawa, and the author of Canadian Nuclear Weapons, and U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Canada.

David O'Brien is a writer for the Winnipeg Free Press. dave.o'