September 2006: A Short History of Radiation in Ontario

Uranium refinery boosted economy, not workers’ health
September 1, 2006

Veterans of the Second World War were given a better chance to succeed than were the veterans of World War I. They received cash gratuities and job training in an economy that was galloping along delivering new fridges, stoves, washing machines, cars, and houses to a population which had been deprived of such goodies for a full five years. Babies also boomed.

Among these many booming enterprises came the nuclear industry. Canada had cooperated with the United States to produce the atomic bomb, linking European brains and know-how with Canadian uranium. The Europeans settled for getting credit for helping to win the war, but the Canadians made a profit. After all, Canada at the time had the only stock of available uranium, without which there could have been no Manhattan Project. The only uranium refinery available to the our ally, the U.S., was a small operation in an old seed warehouse in Port Hope, Ontario, owned by the prospector who first discovered radium in Canada’s Northwest Territories, through a company he headed called Eldorado.

Established in the early 1930s to refine radium for medical purposes, Eldorado operated in a residential area in downtown Port Hope, at the mouth of the once-beautiful Ganaraska River on the shore of Lake Ontario. Uranium, considered a useless by-product of radium production at that time, was dumped into Lake Ontario not that far from the Port Hope water intake, when storage in the plant was full. Whatever could be retrieved was, of course, very carefully recycled when uranium became valuable in the early 1940s. (The effects of the refinery on the town of Port Hope have been well documented despite efforts to minimize them, or explain them away.)

With the development of the atomic bomb, there was hope for even more profit from the production of this great stuff. Prospectors fanned out across the North, and the Port Hope refinery, which had been inactive in the early 1940s as the value of radium dropped, recovered under government ownership as a Crown corporation, starting in January, 1944.

The Canadian government’s plans for this new industry included the development, production, and sale of Canada’s very own nuclear reactor, and the fuel to run it. It was hoped that Canada would be transformed from a few under-populated acres of snow and ice to a nation which could offer a supply of electrical power to all comers--at a price. Canada would be counted among the world powerbrokers. Some people were about to become very wealthy. The Port Hope refinery would remain where it was, and would continue to refine uranium, only faster.

If there were any politicians of scientific bent hanging around Ottawa at that time, they may have had some concerns about the dangerous radiation, which was known even then to be harmful to those who worked with radioactive materials. But apparently no one had time for these concerns, even if they had heard of the deaths from cancer of Madame Curie and the child she carried while she worked to isolate radium, or of the deaths of Madame and Pierre Curie’s fellow workers, of the burns sustained by those who carried vials of radium in their pockets, or the deaths from radium burns of cancer patients who were treated with radium in efforts to eliminate cancerous tumors.

As a result, former radium mines that were known to be full of radon gas were reopened. No one who knew about the gas had the time or the interest to ensure that such mines were well ventilated. In addition to endangering the health and the lives of miners, the mining company--still known as Eldorado--hired residents of the Northwest Territories, who had no knowledge of radiation and its effects, to carry sacks of radioactive ore on their backs. At least one village has since become known as the village of widows, but these people have been unable to prove any connection between the radiation the victims received and their later illness and death. They can’t even prove they received any radiation. No compensation, of course, was ever paid.

There was no union in the Port Hope plant for more than 20 years after the government took over. In a small town such as Port Hope, few questions were asked about the operations of the community’s largest employer. It was known, however, that farm animals which strayed through the poorly maintained fences surrounding Eldorado’s dumps often sickened and died, but anyone who asked questions about the contents of those dumps was simply informed that all Eldorado’s operations were top secret because of the need for strict national security. Any other goings-on at Eldorado, some quite spicy, were protected from public scrutiny on similar grounds. Entrance to the plant, guarded around the clock by RCMP personnel, was forbidden to the public.

The people of Port Hope were said to be proud of their town’s status as the home of an industry which had contributed first to the treatment of cancer and then to the war effort. Highway signs described Port Hope as THE TOWN THAT RADIATES FRIENDLINESS.

Jobs were important, too. No one seemed to notice the discharges from chimneys on the roof of the plant that drifted into the residential area across the street from Eldorado. Some of those discharges came directly from the radium laboratory where the last stages in the refining of radium had taken place for many years. This carefree attitude of the Canadian government may have been taken as proof of the harmlessness of Eldorado’s operations.

At that time, no Canadian university offered a degree course in nuclear engineering. Eldorado’s professional workers were chemists and chemical engineers. They knew the technicalities of refining ore, but had no training in the difficult art of handling radioactive material, and certainly received no such training on the job. Some management personnel had spent the war years working in munitions plants; they understood the government’s need for low-budget operations, and the need for secrecy. Our government conserved the more expensive resources, but apparently that did not include human resources.

Radium emits alpha radiation, which can be stopped by a piece of paper, and so is almost impossible to measure. Since alpha could so easily be stopped, it was easy to convince even the workers who managed the plant that alpha waves were harmless. It is true that external exposure can be harmless, but if inhaled or swallowed, alpha adheres to internal organs and continues to radiate surrounding tissues. Ingested or inhaled, alpha is at least as dangerous as gamma rays.

Non-professional workers were hired from the local population. They had no knowledge of the dangers of radiation, and of course received no information or training. This company was safe in claiming its workplace was perfectly safe, but years later, in the 1960s and 1970s, all of John Street--the street upon which Eldorado was situated--was bought by the Crown company, amid rumours of an unusually high rate of cancer among residents of that street. John Street became a parking lot, then was used to build an extension to the plant. Eldorado, renamed Cameco, a publicly traded company, now extends as far as Port Hope’s water purification plant.

With no union at the plant and a shortage of jobs in Port Hope, the government felt no pressure to institute safety measures for either the public or the workers. The ventilation system broke down regularly, and the plant would rapidly fill with dust from the machines that ground the radioactive ore, to the extent that workers could not see across the floor. When the ventilation system was working, that dust was released directly into the environment.

No effort was made to mitigate the effects of the radon gas, which was known to exceed by hundreds of times the maximum acceptable levels of radon in the plant air. Workers in areas of greater exposure to radiation were required to wear dosimeters to measure their exposure, but even in the 1980s these devices were accurate to plus or minus 50% for gamma, and did not measure alpha radiation at all. A level of black humour prevailed among plant workers in the 1950s, as rumours of the effects of radiation began to be heard: “Radioactive ore is safe enough to eat, but no one here is hungry.” Or “Port Hope is the healthiest town in the country because radiation kills off all the nasty bugs.”

Since radiation decays through many radioactive elements over thousands of years before becoming stable lead, Eldorado’s dumps were full of radioactive ore which was made available to the community for landfill. Port Hope was built on a series of ravines, so there was need for lots of landfill, and public relations improved as a result of its ready availability.

A major scandal erupted in the late 1970s, however, when it was found that radioactive ore, used as landfill when a new elementary school was built, had been causing serious contamination of the school’s air for about 15 years. No study was ever done to ascertain the effects of this contamination on the health of the students or the teachers.

By the early 1950s, our government had concluded that the production of radium was no longer profitable. A decision was made to convert the Port Hope plant to the refining of uranium only. The dismantling of the radium circuit began in early August, 1954, in the two weeks following the Civic Holiday, when the plant usually closed for vacations. Again, although it was known that a great deal of alpha radiation would be released, only very minimal precautions were taken. After all, the plant had been operating virtually unregulated for more than t20 years by then, so there was no reason to start worrying about regulations at that late date. The consequent release of radioactive dust must have been impressive, but remains forever undocumented.

In 1956, when one of the workers involved in this dismantling process died of a very unusual cancer, the government claimed that the process had not begun until November, 1954, and that a urinalysis done that month for the deceased worker showed little or no exposure to radiation. A report from Chalk River confirmed that the November urinalysis showed little exposure, but a note in the worker’s file reported that a urinalysis had been done three months earlier, in August, 1954, but the results of that test were missing from the Chalk River file. Three months after exposure, one half-life of the radioactive material would have passed and most of the remaining radiation would have gone to the bone or been expelled from the body. When government officials attempted to establish the November date for the dismantling of the radium circuit as correct, they figured they were home free. Again.

One of the few precautions taken by the company to protect workers was to require that workers in plant areas of greater exposure to gamma radiation wear dosimeters in order to measure such exposure. In the 1980s, these dosimeters were said to be accurate to plus or minus 50%. The company probably required workers to wear them only to demonstrate that some care was taken for their health. Exposures registered by the dosimeters were then calculated to hundredths of one rem, and enthusiastically produced to prove there was no significant exposure.

This was another purely cosmetic exercise, since it has been well documented that Eldorado worked to 25-rem-per-year as the maximum permissible exposure for each worker, while other jurisdictions such as the U.K. and the U.S. were working to a strict one-rem-per-year limit. That meant that a gamma exposure of more than four rem in six weeks in the Eldorado plant was regarded officially as harmless. A worker who developed cancer after such an exposure officially had a perfectly spontaneous case of cancer, completely unconnected to working in the Eldorado plant. The government of Canada--which, after all, makes the laws--simply absolved itself of any responsibility for such deaths.

Workers and their families are forbidden by Ontario law to sue an employer for injury, illness, or death caused in the workplace. They are required by law to take their cases only to the Workers’ Compensation Board, now known as the Workers’ Safety and Insurance Board. Many workers must have suffered from ill-health as a consequence of radiation received, but died of other causes before they contracted a disease which could to linked to exposure to radiation.

Even if a previously healthy worker died, shall we say, of a very unusual virulent cancer, few Port Hope families would have been in a position to take on the bureaucracy of the Workers’ Compensation Board, and for years there was no union in the Eldorado plant to assist them. Until 1981, the Compensation Board denied the families of workers the right to see the worker’s file, on the ground that such files were confidential; hearings were, and are, held in secret: neither public nor the media are permitted access to the hearings. Workers’ advisors were, and are, available only after years of waiting, and some are better than others. Any legal assistance hired by the worker or his or her family would have to be paid for by the person who hired them, even if they won the case.

The Compensation Board maintained--and still maintains--a stable of experts, consultants, and specialists who can be relied upon to team up with a Crown corporation, or any other company, to produce evidence designed to deny a claim, even as unknown and untried chemicals are used more often and more extensively in the workplace. Such individuals are permitted to give all their evidence in written form, and are not required to show up at a hearing for cross-examination. If the worker or his family wishes to submit evidence challenging such experts, it must be done in writing, and will delay a decision for years.

At least one prominent academic having no conflict of interest, a nuclear scientist who appeared at a hearing to give evidence in favour of a worker, saw his submissions dismissed on the ground that he was not a physician, while evidence given by an employee of the Crown corporation, who had very little claim to any independent knowledge or opinion, medical or otherwise, was accepted with alacrity, although that evidence was tainted by clear conflict of interest and lack of any expert credentials. After all, the nuclear industry was seen as a cash cow for Canadian politicians. The Appeals Tribunal, once independent of a Board which is clearly strongly influenced by industry in Ontario, is no longer independent.

A worker’s file, perhaps once assembled rather carelessly, will be more carefully edited today to eliminate any information which may tend to incriminate the employer at whose workplace the accident took place, since the file is now available to the worker and his or her family.

It would hardly be worthwhile for a worker’s family to go to much trouble in an attempt to win their claim, since the allowances granted by the Compensation Board are nowhere near the amount that would be supplied to the family by a healthy worker. It is easier for the family of an injured worker to go on welfare, to be supported by municipal taxes, rather than by the employer who caused the disability or death.

Eldorado, now operating as Cameco, is still operating in the same location in Port Hope, producing several types of uranium fuel for nuclear reactors. It also processes depleted uranium, a very dense, tough metal used to armour military vehicles, and manufactures nose cones for bullets, bombs, missiles, etc. Weapons so armed are particularly good for penetrating deep into areas such as underground bomb shelters, killing everyone who has sought protection there. It is well known that such nose cones have produced, and continue to produce, many tonnes of nuclear waste that will remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years.

The Ontario government will be increasing the production of uranium fuel and nuclear wastes as it plans to construct more nuclear reactors to accommodate the growing demand for energy in the province. There is no reason to believe that this expanded industry will not continue to lie about its activities and their effects.

As with other human activities in the past, those who fail to learn from the history of uranium use and radiation in Ontario are doomed to repeat it.

(Joanne Young, a retired teacher, lived in Port Hope between 1952 and 1964.)