The News That Matters about the Nuclear Industry

The Nuclear History of Port Hope – Book “Blind Faith”

Blind Faith: The Nuclear History of Port Hope, Ontario  by Dennis Riches  @DennisRiches Port Hope and Public Charity for a Corporate Citizen

Since the 1940s, nuclear weapons tests, power plant failures and uranium mining have left radioactive contamination at hundreds of sites around the world. Whether the contamination is from weapons tests, accidents, or just reckless routine operations, the story of the affected people unfolds in much the same way, as if it were a formulaic plot for a generic television soap opera. Communities that have been chemically contaminated follow much the same script, but radiation adds some distinctive elements to the situation.

Radiation is invisible, and it has always been imbued with a diverse range of magical powers in science fiction. Ironically, in a very real sense, radiation does make people invisible (the phenomenon is fully explained by Robert Jacobs in “Radiation Makes People Invisible”) [1]. Once groups of people have become victims of a radiological contamination, they are, in addition to being poisoned (or being traumatized by the possibility that they have been poisoned), marginalized and forgotten. Their traditions and communities are fragmented, and they are shamed into concealing their trauma. When contamination occurs, there is a strong impulse even among many victims to not admit that they have been harmed, for they know the fate that awaits them if they do.

The victims are helped in this denial by those who inflicted the damage on them because nuclear technology, both for weapons and electricity production, has always been treated as two sides of a single national security problem that requires secrecy and the occasional sacrifice. Its workings must be hidden from enemies, terrorists and citizens themselves. Thus governments have never been interested in helping their citizens investigate nuclear accidents and environmental damage left in the wake of nuclear development.

As secretive programs of nation states, nuclear complexes operate free of any governing body that could provide checks and balances. In this sense, they are a more intractable problem than the corporate villains that are occasionally held in check by government supervision. The American tobacco industry was eventually forced into retreat by government, and it had to pay enormous damages to state governments for health care costs, but the nuclear weapons and energy complexes still operate free of any higher power that could restrain or abolish them.

Thus it is that hibakusha (the Japanese word for radiation victims) become invisible. When a new group of people become victims, such as in Fukushima in 2011, they feel that they have experienced a unique new kind of horror. For them, for their generation, it is new, but for those who know the historical record, it is a familiar replay of an old story. The people of Fukushima should know by now that they are bit players who have been handed down a tattered script from the past.

A case in point is “Blind Faith,” the superb 1981 book by journalist Penny Sanger, about the small irradiated Canadian town of Port Hope on the shores of Lake Ontario. (See the timeline at the end of this article) [2] In the 1970s it faced (and more often failed to face) the toxic legacy of processing first radium, then uranium for nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.

In a saner world this book would not be out of print and forgotten. It would be a classic text known by everyone who has ever had to share his town with a dangerous corporate citizen. Then there would be no surprises when a nuclear reactor explodes or a cancer cluster appears somewhere new. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the victims themselves fall over each other in a rush to excuse their abuser, beg for a continuation of jobs and tax revenue, and threaten the minority who try to break the conspiracy of silence.

On the back cover of the 1981 paperback edition of “Blind Faith” there was an endorsement by the late great Canadian writer Farley Mowat, who passed away in the spring of 2014:

Penny Sanger has written a fascinating and fearsome account of the emotional turmoil that engulfs a small town when it discovers that its major industry is a threat to the health of its citizens. This is a classic account of how economic power enables industry to ride roughshod over those who must depend on it for their daily bread.

Although I wrote above that “Blind Faith” illustrates universal truths about what happens to communities contaminated with radiation, there are always unique aspects of the situation that come into play. In this case, we see the extreme complacency and obliviousness of Canadian society to the role that the country played in the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

The uranium refinery in Port Hope was a key element in the Manhattan Project. It was the main facility for refining uranium ores from the Congo and northern Canada. However, as a subordinate nation in the American-led war, Canada just had to go along in complete secrecy. As was the case even in the US, there was never any debate in public or in elected legislatures. Canada was just taking orders and didn’t have to feel responsible. Canadians are still largely ignorant about their complicity in making the bombs that fell on Japan, as they are about being one of the sources of the uranium that was in the reactors of Fukushima Daiichi.

Another factor in our sense of irresponsibility is the comfortable delusion that all bad things are done by the evil empire south of the border. We’re the good guys, with universal health care and multiculturalism……..

The Port Hope refinery began operations in the 1930s to produce radium from uranium ore. The ore came from the recently discovered rich deposits in the Port Radium mine on the shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories (previous post on this topic here). This mine would later become one of the primary sources of uranium for the first atomic weapons, but in the 1930s radium was the only product that had value for its use in making luminescent paint and medical applications.

By the 1930s it was well understood that radium and uranium mines were extremely dangerous. The high lung cancer rates of miners in Czechoslovakia had been noted for a long time, but there were others who failed to acknowledge any connection. Marie Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, and she never acknowledged that her numerous health problems had been related to the vials of radium that she carried around in her pocket or perhaps to the unshielded x-ray machines she worked with. [3] Today her diaries and papers still have to be stored in a lead box.

Because there was no consensus on the dangers of radium by the early pioneers (DNA wasn’t even understood until the 1950s), there were few safety controls in place when radium became an industrial product. Radium paint workers got sick and died for mysterious reasons, as did workers in processing plants like the Eldorado Mining and Refining facility in Port Hope. Almost nothing was done to protect workers or properly dispose of the waste product. The wastes were isolated in a dump, but when that became problem, the dirt was sold as fill to unsuspecting (or unscrupulous) buyers and used at construction sites all over town.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that a few citizens of Port Hope started to notice radioactive wastes turning up in various locations. This new awareness was the beginning of bitter social divides that would be familiar to anyone who has followed what has happened in Fukushima prefecture since 2011. The enormous implications of the necessary cleanup forced political and economic powers to downplay or ignore the dangers, and ostracize anyone who dared to threaten real estate values and tarnish the image of the community. The mayor even boasted of what a great role the town had played in the Cold War by refining uranium so that America could beat back the Soviet threat, as if the contamination had been worth it.

There was a minimal recognition of the need to do something about the worst hot spots, to placate critics and relocate residents in the worst danger. Everyone agreed, for example, that something had to be done to clean up a contaminated school, but for the most part the problem was denied in favor of keeping the town’s biggest tax payer and employer satisfied. At the same time, the federal government was not motivated to do anything that would set back the expansion of the nation’s nuclear energy program. The Darlington and Pickering nuclear plants were built nearby in this era on the shores of Lake Ontario.

By this time, Eldorado was no longer selling uranium for American nuclear weapons, but it had become a major player in the uranium fuel market. It would provide the fuel for the large fleet of CANDU reactors that Ontario was building, and by the 1980s Eldorado was privatized, turned into Cameco, and was then selling about 80% of its output to the US where the uranium was enriched for use in light water reactors.

Thus a full acknowledgment of the extent of the problem—the cost of cleanup and the health impacts—would have jeopardized the refinery’s role as a major supplier in a growing nuclear energy industry. Eldorado might have seemed like a wealthy giant to outsiders, but the uranium business was perilous and changing rapidly. Just as the public was becoming aware of the extent of the pollution, Eldorado was stuck in long-term contracts that were a bargain for its customers but disastrous in a time of soaring costs.

The situation presented especially difficult obstacles for opponents because Eldorado was a crown (publicly owned) corporation. One obstacle was secrecy. Since 1942, the operations of Eldorado have been state secrets, and much remains locked up in archives that are yet to be opened to historians. [4]

The other problem was in the fact that the government had no interest in investigating its own corporation, and because Eldorado was a federal crown corporation, the province of Ontario had no authority to investigate it for environmental crimes. Thus complaints from citizens ran into this dead end.

Similar situations in the United States, such as at the Rocky Flats plutonium pit factory, involved the Department of Energy hiring large defense contractors like Rockwell to manage the plant. This meant there was a possibility the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigations could act if enough public pressure were applied and evidence of crimes became apparent. As much as the American nuclear weapons complex was a monstrous crime against nature, there is at least something redeeming in the fact that the American system of government consisted of various institutions that could sometimes keep the others in check. In the dying days of operations at Rocky Flats in 1989, the EPA and the FBI raided the facility which was then operated by Rockwell under contract for the Department of Energy. The US government essentially raided and prosecuted itself. [5]

Unfortunately, no such checks and balances existed in Canada’s nuclear industry. The federal government and its crown corporation had a monolithic grip on the historical records and on decisions about environmental safety and health related to radiation. There was no outside force that had legal authority to prosecute them and force them to divulge information.

There are some further details in “Blind Faith” that stand out in my memory. Some are unique to the Port Hope story, while others are typical of stories of other irradiated and poisoned communities.

At one point, a doctor in a nearby town grew alarmed at the number cancer cases that appeared in his patients from Port Hope. He tried to bring the issue to the attention of health authorities, but was slandered and opposed by city officials to a degree that he found alarming. He had foolishly thought that his efforts to speak up for public health would be appreciated.

Instead, city officials made a pathetic attempt to sue him for defaming Port Hope, and when that immediately failed, they complained to the provincial medical association. They had thought that this would succeed in getting him stripped of his license to practice, but they were quickly rebuffed by the medical association that found no fault in a doctor expressing his opinion about a serious public health concern. Such was the sophistication of the strategies of the town fathers as they floundered for ways to preserve the tax base.

Eldorado and the federal government, and even the Workmen’s Compensation Board were equally combative in the lawsuits that former workers eventually managed to bring to court. Lung cancer was the only health issue that was admitted for consideration in the lawsuits, and once it became a legal battle, all ethical considerations went by the wayside. It became a matter of winning at all costs, of admitting to absolutely no wrongdoing no matter how absurd the defendants had to appear. The government lawyers played hardball, abandoning any thought that the government corporation owed anything to the citizens who had lost their health working on a project so essential for national security. The government side was not too ashamed to engage in extreme forms of legalistic hair-splitting.

For example, the victims were forced to prove their exposure, but everyone involved knew that the only party that had the information were the defendants, and Eldorado did its best to conceal it. One victim was denied compensation because the records showed his cumulative exposure was 10.8 working level months. Expert witnesses were brought in to say that the threshold of danger to health was 12 working level months.

Another segment of the book that stands out is that in which Penny Sanger was able to discover that at one time, before the contamination was known by townspeople, the Canadian military had used Port Hope as a training ground for operating in the aftermath of nuclear warfare. The military knew what the citizens of the town didn’t know at the time: there were sizzling hot spots of various sizes all over town, so it made for an ideal training ground for soldiers who would have to map radiation levels and move through contaminated terrain after a nuclear attack. After the training exercise, they might have bothered to tell the locals about what they were living with, but the contamination remained a secret until residents started to figure it out for themselves.

As the years of legal struggles and activism dragged on, there were signs that the government was tacitly admitting to the scale of the problem, even if it refused to accept legal responsibility for health damages. The management of Eldorado was routed, and it would eventually be privatized and turned into Cameco. The refinery became the object of pork barrel politics when the federal Liberals came back to power in 1980. They announced that the more dangerous uranium trioxide operation would be relocated to Blind River, a town in the north that had voted Liberal. Eldorado wanted the refinery kept in place close to markets. (I wonder if anyone saw the ironic symbolism of progress in the names; going from hope to blind—a fiction writer couldn’t have come up with anything better).

One stand-out account is that of a widow whose husband, a long-time Eldorado worker, had died of lung cancer at age 50. He had worked at Eldorado for over twenty years, during the era when workplace monitoring and standards were non-existent. Her husband was no longer there to say whether he too was “philosophical” about it and “couldn’t be bitter about it” like his wife and his daughter claimed. The widow said that in spite of her husband’s shortened life, they were grateful for the good jobs and university education that the children were able to get. Thanks to Eldorado, they had come up in the world.

Penny Sanger passed no judgment on this thinking, but I find it to be a rather disturbinging example of working man’s Stockholm Syndrome. The victim has internalized the values of the captor, and lost self-esteem and critical thinking skills in the process. The bereaved family shrugs that they “can’t be bitter about it.” They’ve internalized the value that children have to go to university to live worthwhile lives, and it’s alright if parents have to kill themselves to accomplish this goal.

It seemed to never occur to any of the Port Hope boosters that there were dozens of similar towns in rural Ontario that had found ways to survive without hosting toxic industries. I know a family of Polish immigrants who landed in Port Hope in the 1960s, and they managed to get by without working for Cameco. The children had the sense to leave town after high school when they saw their friends going straight to grim lives working with the yellowcake down at the plant. One of them managed somehow to get a couple of university degrees after he left town.

This lack of imagination among the terminally hopeful applies more widely. Not only do company towns fail to imagine less toxic ways to live, but large nations also fail to imagine new paradigms for energy and economic systems.

Port Hope’s troubles with its radioactive legacy didn’t end with the privatization of the refinery and other varied forms of resolution that came about in the 1980s. A cleanup was done in the 1980s, but twenty years later hot spots were still turning up, and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission finally admitted the extent of the problem and committed taxpayer funds to a billion-dollar decontamination project which is presently underway—an amount that is, ironically, about the same as the budget for the new Chernobyl sarcophagus under construction now. [6][7]

There is further irony in the fact that while the Fukushima and Chernobyl exclusion zones have become the famous global icons of radiation-affected communities, the Port Hope disaster has no place in Canada’s national consciousness. [8] There is little public awareness of the history, and the present billion-dollar decontamination project has received scant media attention and no public alarm over the high cost.

Opposition parties in Ontario have focused in recent years on stoking citizen outrage over cancelled plans to build gas-powered electric generating stations. That loss was comparatively little, amounting to “only” a few hundred million dollars. The same can be said of the province’s plan to spend $20 billion or more to refurbish nuclear power plants to operate them beyond their originally planned expiry dates. This issue receives little attention, as none of the major political parties wish to use it to stoke debate with rivals. Nuclear energy has vanished from political discourse.

Meanwhile, Cameco has continued to practice its philosophy of good corporate citizenship by funneling all its uranium sales through Switzerland in order to avoid Canadian taxes. The company is in an ongoing legal battle with Canada Revenue Agency, while it has warned stockholders it may owe as much as $850 million in back taxes[9]. Note that this amount falls a bit short of the cost of the decontamination project in Port Hope, but it would provide a big chunk of it.


“Blind Faith” is available on a website dedicated to the history of Port Hope. Since it is out of print and over thirty years old, I asked the author if she would allow its free distribution as a pdf file. She gave her permission, but of course the common sense rules apply. If you want to sell the book, ask the author for permission. If you redistribute it free, in whole or in part, do so with proper citation.Read it in a web browser: download (permitted by author):
Penny Sanger, Blind Faith” (pdf) (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1981), 135 pages.

October 9, 2017 - Posted by | Canada, environment, Reference, resources - print

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