04 October 2012

Nuclear Train and Operation Hurricane

Yesterday, 3 October 2012, was the 60th anniversary of Operation Hurricane, which was the first British test of an atomic bomb. Today, 4 October, is the 55th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. We're also less than two weeks away from the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It is, in other words, a good time to remember how lucky we are to be here.

It's also a good time for Canadians to be thankful that we never came to an agreement to host a British atomic test. Australians are still dealing with that nightmare.

Was a testing site in Canada ever seriously in the cards, you ask? Well, yes and no.

It was informally floated by John Cockcroft to C.J. Mackenzie and Omond Solandt prior to Operation Hurricane. William Penney was happy enough with the Australian arrangements so he never pursued the Canadian option. If anything, Penney was likely to acquiesce to the Admiralty's desire to have the test hosted by the United States. Mackenzie made some enquiries to help facilitate the American option; Vannevar Bush was amenable, but he was about the only American who was.

Instead of hosting the test a handful of Canadians participated in the final design stages of the weapon and then went to the Montebello Islands to observe and measure the test. This included Solandt, whose final duties in the Second World War had been working with Jacob Bronowski to measure and chart the lethality radii of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Solandt continued to supply Canadian scientists to the British Atomic Weapons Research Establishment for the duration of the British atomic tests in Australia. He poached so many British scientists for the Defence Research Board that seconding a few radiothermal experts was a way to balance the manpower situation in Britain.

As the British geared up for their first thermonuclear test in 1957, Solandt floated the idea of hosting the test in Canada. Again the idea went nowhere (residents of Northern Manitoba can be grateful). Instead Canada continued to provide textiles (British code for nuclear materiel) and transportation of those textiles via Royal Canadian Air Force planes. It took six years before Canada agreed to a joint key arrangement with the United States; those were six painful years for the Department of National Defence and External Affairs.

The press release announcing Solandt's retirement from the Defence Research Board and his assumption of a new position as Vice President of Research for Canadian National praised him as Canada's nuclear expert. One editorialist went completely off the rails in combining the pieces of the story; he convinced himself that Solandt was going to design a nuclear-powered train.

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