In Canada, uranium ores first came to our attention in the early 1930s when the Eldorado Gold Mining Company began its operations at Port Radium, Northwest Territories to recover radium. The Port Hope Ontario refinery 5,000 km away was built soon after to produce radium. Exploration for uranium went into high gear in 1942 to meet a demand for military purposes. The strategic nature of such material resulted in a total ban on prospecting and mining of all radioactive materials across Canada. In 1943, the Federal Government assumed control of the Eldorado Company and created a new crown corporation known as the Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited which later became Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. Uranium and exploration was restricted to the joint efforts of Eldorado and the Geological Survey of Canada.
Postwar, uranium exploration sped up when the ban on private prospecting ended in 1947. A uranium deposit was discovered in the early 1950’s and the first discovery in Ontario at Elliot Lake was in1953. The northern Saskatchewan uranium was discovered in the 1950’s and Eldorado Nuclear began mining in Beaverlodge in 1953. By 1956, thousands of radioactive occurrences had been discovered some proved to be viable deposits and by 1959 some 23 mines with 19 treatment plants were in operation in five districts. Of these 19, about eleven in the Elliot Lake area, including the largest plants, would come under the operation by Rio Algom Ltd. and Denison Mines Ltd. Three other plants were located near Bancroft Ontario, three in northern Saskatchewan and two in the Northwest Territories. The first phase of uranium production peaked in 1959 for more than any other mineral export from Canada that year. The level of uranium exploration slowed greatly in the 1960’s and in a few years the number of mines declined to four. Locally, uranium production in the Bancroft area and at Beaverlodge, Saskatchewan ceased in 1982 and the last of the labour-intensive lower grade Elliot Lake mines closed in 1996.
Uranium, chemical symbol U, is a very heavy metal which has been used as an abundant source of concentrated energy for over sixty years now, it occurs naturally in most rocks in concentrations of 2-4 parts per million. Discovered in 1789 by Martin Klaproth, a German scientist in the mineral known as pitchblende and was named after the planet Uranus. Uranium is best known for its role in nuclear fuel and its use to power reactors to generate electricity. Is this stuff detrimental to our health? Natural and depleted uranium have the same chemical effect on the body, the health effects are due to chemical effects and not to radiation. The kidneys are its main target in the body and damage has been seen in humans/animals after inhaling or ingesting uranium compounds.
Pierre and Marie Curie originally discovered the medicinal value of pitchblende in 1904, the pure metal radium (Ra) best known to the world for it’s glow-in-the-dark properties. The term radioactivity was actually coined by Marie Curie, who with her husband Pierre extracted uranium ore and found the left-over ore showed more activity than the pure uranium. They concluded that the ore contained other radioactive elements leading to the discovery of the elements polonium and radium. The commercial value of uranium increased dramatically because of its possible life saving properties in medical treatments.
In the 1930’s the crown corporation Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. began refining radium for cancer treatments and uranium that would prove helpful in the Manhattan Project to develop the world’s first atomic bombs. At this time the only place in North America where this material could be refined was in Canada at the state-of-the art Port Hope Ontario refinery. This facility was located on Port Hope’s harbour, the original site was a small building owned by a small seed company purchased by the LaBine brothers. According to the LaBine family history, Gilbert and his brother Charles LaBine left school and their home in Pembroke, Ontario in 1905 and headed for the silver camps of Northern Ontario in the midst the new silver rush and obtained their first job at the Cobalt silver mines along the right-of-way of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario railroad. Lack of success in striking it rich caused them to move on. With hard work they soon acquired a modest stake near the city of Timmins. Needing more education, Gilbert enrolled in classes at the Mining Institute in Haileybury specifically to learn all he could about mineralogy and geology where he first learned about pitchblende. Pitchblende is the ore that contains radium and more importantly, uranium. In the 1920’s they opened the Eldorado Mine in Manitoba and formed the Eldorado Gold Mines Company. Very little, poor grade gold was ever found here but it did provide finances to move on to other exploratory works.
In 1930, a few miles south of the Arctic Circle on Great Bear Lake he discovered the precious mineral pitchblende, a gleaming ore that until now was never known to exist anywhere else in Canada. Radium, newly discovered by Marie Curry in France was the precious metal in pitchblende. Using an abundant supply of local silver allowed the finances for the new Eldorado Mine to mine both cobalt and pitchblende. The LaBine brothers were not satisfied with the only refinery in Canada at Ottawa and were determined to both mine and refine their ore and chose Port Hope were they built their radium refinery, the largest in the world and it was here they produced their first gram of radium before 1941. During the four years it took Eldorado to produce its first ounce of radium, they discovered the radium bi-product uranium, at first an unwanted waste but they stored huge quantities. By the 1940’s there was a glut of radium in the marketplace and the LaBines were forced to shut down their mines. Meanwhile, two warring nations had begun a lethal race – to develop the ultimate weapon – the atomic bomb and the LaBines held the key ingredient in their ‘trash’.
The Canadian government in 1942 requested LaBine to reopen his mine and refinery to produce radium and its by-product uranium. For two years after re-starting their operations the LaBine mines and refinery were the only source of uranium in the western world. By 1944 the stakes were too high for a private company to be involved in and the Government of Canada took control of Eldorado. The Manhattan Project coordinated its efforts with the Montreal Laboratory and with the Chalk River Nuclear Lab in Ontario, the site for one of the world’s first heavy water nuclear reactors. By 1942 the military objectives were winding down as impractical and needing more resources than was available at that time. The Americans first A bomb was dropped on Hiroshima August 6, 1945 and on Nagasaki on August 9. This seems like an appropriate place to end this part of the story as in 1988, the Canadian Government sold Eldorado to a private sector company Cameco, the Canadian Mining & Energy Corporation.