Dec '10/Jan '11

From radium to uranium

The changing face of Eldorado

By Correy Baldwin

Radioactive face creamAn advertisement for Tho-Radia, a radioactive face cream

Would you consider using toothpaste laced with radium? Apparently it makes your teeth whiter. Or so it was thought in the 1920s, when radium was seen to hold vast medicinal and rejuvenating powers.

Twenty years after the French physicist Marie Curie discovered radium in 1898, radium-based medicines and other products were taking the world by storm. Radium was seen as a miracle cure for cancer, although over-the-counter drugs were widely available as well, the most popular being, unfortunately, radium-enriched suppositories. Radium also found its way into drinking water, bath water, cosmetics, perfume and chocolate. It could even boost sexual virility — to be taken (again) as a suppository or by use of the disturbingly named Scrotal Radiendocrinator, a sort of radioactive athletic strap.

This may sound ludicrous to us now but at the time, the harmful effects of radiation were not known. Quite the opposite — the commercial potential of radium was immense, and its economic value likewise. By the 1930s it was worth $75,000 per gram, more than gold or diamonds.

At the time, Belgium had a monopoly on this lucrative market: extracting radium from its rich uranium deposits in the Belgian Congo. But this changed in 1930 when a Canadian prospector discovered pitchblende — a uranium-bearing ore — on Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories.

The rise and fall of Canadian radium

Quebecois brothers Gilbert and Charlie LaBine had taken what capital remained from their failed Eldorado gold mine in Manitoba and turned to prospecting the Canadian North. The venture paid off when Gilbert’s pitchblende discovery turned out to be one of the richest known uranium deposits in the world.

Together, the LaBine brothers set about opening the Port Radium Mine on Echo Bay. They also built the Eldorado radium refinery, converting an abandoned seed mill on the harbour in Port Hope, Ontario — a location that provided them access to the railway and plenty of water, which was necessary for the refining process. When Eldorado opened for production in 1933, it was the only radium refinery in North America.

The refining process was intensive. Pitchblende only contains extremely small quantities of radium, and many tonnes of the ore were required to produce even a gram of radium. In its first year, Eldorado shipped 74 tonnes of ore across the country, from which a little more than three grams of radium were produced. But at $75,000 per gram, it was worth it.

Or was it? It was not long before people came to realize the horrible effects of radiation exposure. For the people who used radium-enriched products, for Eldorado’s miners and refinery workers, and for the Dene men hired to carry cloth sacks of radioactive ore from the mine to the shipping sites — for anyone who was exposed to the radium — it was not worth it. As people fell ill, the market for radium-enriched products collapsed and the price of radium plummeted. In 1940, Eldorado was forced to close its Port Radium Mine.

The Manhattan project comes calling

But this would not be the end of Eldorado. The onset of the Second World War had thrown commercial markets into disarray, contributing to Eldorado’s woes, but it would also provide the company with a new life.

The war had fuelled the nuclear arms race — a race that began when German scientists discovered that splitting uranium atoms released massive amounts of energy. When the American government sought a reliable supply of uranium for their own nuclear weapons program, they turned to Canada, and to Eldorado.

Eldorado was set to answer this call; until then, uranium was simply a waste product of radium refining, and the Eldorado refinery was surrounded by mounds of yellow uranium tailings.

But this was not the golden age of the free market. When Eldorado was contracted to supply the United States with uranium, the Canadian government took control of Eldorado, and of the contract — and did it all in secret. Likewise, all prospecting, mining and processing of uranium came under government control.

The Port Radium Mine was re-opened and the Port Hope refinery went back into production, all under a veil of secrecy. Even the employees were kept in the dark about what they were working on, and where the uranium would end up. When the nuclear bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, effectively ending the war, the Eldorado workers were oblivious to the part they had played.

Although the Second World War was now over, the Cold War was just beginning, and the demand for uranium was higher than ever. Eldorado — by now an official Crown corporation — continued to supply uranium to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Eldorado prospered throughout this period and was finally decommissioned in 1984.

Although the company was a success, it left behind a questionable legacy. The Scrotal Radiendocrinator has long faded from memory, but it is less easy to ignore the key role that Canadian uranium played in the Second World War, as well as the controversy over the fate of Eldorado’s radioactive waste, which continues to haunt Port Hope residents today.

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