Lost Society of the Atom

(From the Globe and Mail, Nov. 7, 1987.)

They are all there. Most of them are men. Most died in the kill zone of middle-age between the late forties and early sixties. Over in one corner is Dr. David Keys. He is unusual in respect to the others buried there. The dates on his gravestone indicate that he lived well into his eighties.

I remember Dr. Keys best of all. He ran the plant site and the village in the first years. In a 1947 Maclean's magazine article, writer Pierre Berton called the then patrician physicist “the mayor of atom village”, the village being nearby Deep River, Ont.

Old feelings surface as I gaze at the tombstones of my elders, on turf that once served as the shoreline of an older, glacial Ottawa River. On this particular morning the solitude is broken only by the sounds of the wind in the aspens.

It is a field like no other, holding the creators of the country's greatest postwar enterprise. They were the scientific pioneers who accomplished the impossible with uranium and heavy water. They were the men who put the power of the atom into our hands. The technology they created, only lately controversial, established Canada as a leader in nuclear energy.

This Canadian headstart was fortuitous really, the legacy of an Anglo-French nuclear team's wartime exile to Montreal to collaborate with the massive American Manhattan project aimed at building the atomic bomb. By war's end, these remarkable scientists had constructed the first nuclear reactor outside the United States at Chalk River just downstream from here. Along the way they taught nuclear know-how to a cadre of young Canadians. Many of these men, the scientists and engineers who ran the reactors, along with the tradesmen, guards, and cleanup people who kept the great fission machines humming, are lying here before me.

Nuclear physics was the pre-eminent science of the forties and fifties, taking researchers over dangerous terrain, advancing well ahead of the nascent science of molecular biology, which was just beginning to quantify radiation's fatal effects on life. Shoe stores still had machines that bathed a customer's feet in the harsh light of X-rays. Hazardous watches with glow-in-the-dark radioactive hands were common, and American soldiers wearing sunglasses for protection were being exposed to bombs mushrooming over the Nevada dessert. The attitude was not so much cavalier as na´ve. After all, the structure of DNA and its sensitivity to radiation only became known in the mid-fifties.

One gravestone is special to me, that of my father. During his long slow slip from life a decade ago he never once blamed his disease, abdominal cancer, on the welding-lead burning work he did at the reactor site, despite the absence of such sickness in our family. Like most of the nuclear men, he trusted to the safety regimes set up by the builders of the new technology. It was, after all, the splendid enterprise directed by Canada's most brilliant minds designed to give humankind power so cheap it would practically be free.

But so many of them are lying there, with cancer figuring prominently in the actuarial listings of their deaths.

They were all alive when I left for university 25 years ago, but now they lie in rows as neat and carefully tabulated as the great uranium lattices they built. That era of promised energy abundance seems distant now. Few of the people lying in this cemetery would recognize the town today. Its decline into relative obscurity is almost compete, a victim of time and rising public doubts about nuclear power.

Reading the names, the feeling surfaces that the flower of the community lies buried here. Certainly, there are survivors still living down in the valley of the townsite. George Laurence, designer of a nuclear “pile” a good year before Enrico Fermi's first successful chain reaction at Chicago in 1942, is perhaps the most prominent. But the people lying here represent what was once a repository of nuclear know-how like none other. They operated the best nuclear reactor system in the world. Foreign visitors trooped through the quiescent radiation detectors ringing the plant site with a regularity that made famous statesmen seem almost commonplace at Chalk River.

And yet, the detectors were not everywhere. My reason for being here is to grieve for my father in the revelatory light of a story recently told to me that points to the explanation for his death. Knowing the reason somehow makes it easier, particularly in the nuclear age when death is often slow and insidious.

Cancer, after all, is like that. The tumor that ultimately leads to death can have its origins decades before in the soundless scissoring of a gene by nuclear radiation or a chemical carcinogen.

No one yet understands the complex events that slowly amplify these molecular flaws. But the line of causality between radiation exposure and death can sometimes be more Cartesian. The story told to me of my father's work at Chalk River involved the routine changing of lead traps under the sinks in the “hot” chemistry laboratories. To disconnect these heavy metal U-joints, he had to get into the tight spaces under the sink. It was a job for a shortish man like him, and he did it for some years. The danger for him, a simple, unanticipated blind spot, was that the trap with its charge of deadly radioactive poisons was pressed up against him during the detachment. Up against his abdomen.

There is no anger rush for reparation, but there is a grey sickness, a feeling of loss, and a sense of how ill-founded were the technological certainties of the time. They simply did not know. There are, I know, other stories kept alive in the stoic suspicions of widows, particularly where the plutonium project of the early fifties is concerned, that chart similar lines between reactor risks and the graveyard.

But for all this my vision holds. Like these men, this lost society of the atom, I remain committed to the spirit that inspired the nuclear enterprise. That spirit, which pervaded the village life, was grounded in the impulses of science. Deep River was a community in which scientific paradigms shifted as easily as the steps in the daily routine, touching on concepts of matter, or energy, and the controlled conversion of one into the other. In a way, this quest at the limits of physics and chemistry created the protean character of the town. If there was failure, it was in the desire to tame nuclear fission too early, before first understanding how fatal to life were the poisons created in the atomic furnace.

What I would like, standing here in the morning sunlight of the Ottawa Valley, is some simple acknowledgment of the assembled company's achievement, and more important, of the risks they faced in the routine of their working lives. I want the sound of a horn above the wind to witness their place, a last post that touches them with grace and moves us to remember them. They fell, after all, somewhere out there on the frontiers of our understanding, undeclared casualties of the bright new age.

Wayne Campbell is a freelance writer living in Ottawa