When the word “Halifax” is mentioned in Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer, it’s brief, almost in passing. But the utterance of the name in relation to the site of Canada’s largest disaster instantly conjures up images of destruction on an epic scale.
On Dec. 6, 1917, a French munitions ship and a Norwegian steamship carrying relief supplies collided in Halifax harbour, resulting in one of the largest human-made explosions. It killed nearly 2,000 people, blinded another 9,000, and left more than 25,000 homeless, all years before the detonation of the first atomic bombs in 1945.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” would go on to study the Halifax explosion to predict the effects of the atomic bomb.
It’s one of Canada’s many recognized ties with the making of the world’s first nuclear weapon — including the supply of uranium, the discovery of nuclear fission and the Trinity test.
Here’s a look at several ways Canada factored into the development of the atomic bomb.
Significant source of uranium
In the movie, Oppenheimer is seen collecting marbles in a glass jar. Every marble signifies the United States’ plutonium and uranium resources. Once the containers are filled to the brim, Oppenheimer gives the go-ahead for the first test of the atomic bomb.
Most of the uranium for the bomb’s critical mass came from somewhere near Port Radium in the Northwest Territories.
According to Ron Verzuh, a B.C.-based historian and writer, the U.S. had “a lot of control of all the uranium that was coming out of Canada.”
In May 1930, Canadian prospector Gilbert Labine discovered radium and uranium deposits at Port Radium in Canada’s Northwest Territories while exploring a nearby island on Great Bear Lake, according to The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.
Labine immediately staked his claim and established the Eldorado Mining Company to extract and refine the rich radium deposits. But for much of the 1930s, uranium was simply a byproduct of the refining process, and the company had little use for it.
When radium prices dropped due to foreign competition, operations at the mine slowed and by June 1940 it had closed.
But the slowdown was only temporary.
The discovery of nuclear fission in December 1938 led to a worldwide rush for uranium. In 1942, the Eldorado mine was reopened to supply the U.S. government with the uranium needed for the atomic bomb.
Verzuh says it’s difficult to pinpoint the amount of Canadian uranium used in the bomb, but he says it was significant.
“There were other sources, including some sources in Africa as well, but the uranium coming out of the Eldorado mine was of top quality for the purposes they wanted it for,” he said.
From 1942 until 1945, workers mined hundreds of tons of uranium ore and shipped it across the country to Port Hope, Ont., where it was refined and later delivered to Los Alamos to be used in Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb, according to The Atomic Heritage Foundation, a U.S. group devoted to researching the Manhattan Project, the program that developed the world’s first nuclear weapons.
Manhattan Project’s Quebec beginnings
At 1943’s Quebec Conference, part of a series of strategic meetings by Allied leaders during the Second World War, Britain and the United States merged their nuclear weapons research into a single effort. Britain had been leading in nuclear research in the late 1930s, but fell behind due to dwindling resources as a result of the war.
The joint effort agreed to in Quebec would later assume the code name of the U.S. effort: the Manhattan Project.
Another Quebec connection in Oppenheimer features a group of people rushing into Oppenheimer’s office after they read a newspaper story that says atoms can be split, not just theoretically, but also practically.
This process, called nuclear fission, only became a reality in late 1938 when German chemist Otto Hahn discovered it with physicist Lise Meitner, said Taylor Noakes, a Montreal-based historian.
Hahn had previously worked with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Rutherford at McGill University in 1905 and 1906.
B.C. ‘crucial’ to get to the atomic bomb
Heavy water contains a larger than normal amount of the heavy hydrogen isotope deuterium, rather than the common hydrogen isotope found in ordinary water, and can be used as a neutron moderator in a nuclear reactor.
As a result, Verzuh says the U.S. began stockpiling heavy water to supply the Manhattan Project, and the Cominco smelting operation in Trail, B.C., was upgraded to produce heavy water on an industrial scale.
“The heavy water would go into the production of the bomb,” said Verzuh, who is the author of a paper titled “How a small B.C. city helped create the world’s first weapon of mass destruction.” At the time, he said, that was considered the best way to create nuclear fission.
He says that though the heavy water was never used in the nuclear tests or in the weapons used to bomb Japan, it was a “primary ingredient” in the bomb’s development.
Test bomb named after Canadian
Throughout the movie, scientists gather in New Mexico to piece together the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, on July 16, 1945.
What isn’t as well know is that this first bomb detonated was informally known as the Christy Gadget, named after Canadian physicist Robert Christy.
Christy is generally credited with the insight that a solid mass of plutonium could be explosively compressed, a simplification of earlier concepts of the bomb that required hollow shells.
Altogether, 13 Canadians worked at Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos Laboratory, including Christy, who was born in Vancouver and attended the University of British Columbia.
As It Happens5:54Movie fans flocked to Regina to see Oppenheimer in 70mm. Then the projector stopped working
Essentially, Canadians made three major contributions in support of the Manhattan Project: the establishment of nuclear research facilities in Canada, the delivery of critical raw materials to U.S. facilities and the direct involvement of several Canadians in the project.
Historians have said these wartime efforts helped Canada achieve long-term gains in nuclear energy and placed the country among global leaders in nuclear research following the war.