Montreal in the age of the atom

Espionage, military research, and the birth of nuclear energy – it all took place in McGill’s backyard, writes Henry Gass

On the night of November 5, 1944, Peter Milner stepped off a train from Boston into the middle of a fierce Montreal snowstorm. Milner was a 25-year-old electrical engineer who had recently arrived in North America from Glasgow. He had been recruited by the British government for the exclusive purpose of building a nuclear reactor, something that had yet to be attempted. Watching his breath crystallize in front of him and wondering why he must have thought this country would be better than wartime England, Milner headed for the newly-constructed medical school at the Université de Montréal (UdeM).

“After [I graduated] I was visited by a couple of people. One of them…was [John] Cockcroft, director of radar [technology development]. They were looking for students,” recalls Milner.

Milner spent three years bouncing around southern England working with Cockcroft, until Cockcroft was appointed to succeed French physicist Hans von Halban as head of the Montreal Laboratory.

“I was asked whether I wanted to go abroad [with Cockcroft],” remembers Milner. “We thought he was going back and forth talking about radar, but he was going back and forth talking about nuclear energy, a bomb.”

Milner had a month’s notice to decide whether he would go to Canada or not. For what was supposed to be a six-month tour, Milner had to sign confidentiality agreements and – if she wanted to accompany him to Canada – marry his girlfriend. They soon found themselves on the Queen Elizabeth, steaming across the submarine-ridden Atlantic toward America.

“This was the first time I learned about atomic energy,” says Milner. “I was sworn to secrecy.”

Milner is still in Montreal to this day, a professor emeritus of McGill’s Psychology department.

With the Allies inching their way towards Berlin, Britain’s “Tube Alloys” nuclear research project was, like most of the country, finding itself starved for both space and resources. With America rapidly developing its own nuclear weapons under the Manhattan Project, Britain decided to ship the entire lab to Montreal, within arm’s reach of not only Canadian uranium deposits, but also American research and the “heavy water” needed to essentially turn a nuclear bomb into a nuclear reactor.

Heavy water is a colloquialism for a naturally-occurring water molecule with one extra neutron, also known as deuterium oxide. Heavy water was an effective “moderator” for nuclear reactors in the 1940s, slowing down the chain reaction of fissioning uranium molecules to help generate energy.

“Building an atomic bomb is ten per cent science, and the rest is industrial capacity. They couldn’t have done it in England,” says McGill Physics professor David Hanna.

Heavy water would slow down the millions of ricocheting neutrons and gradually eke out energy from the explosion of a 15-kiloton bomb. Armed with this natural dilutant, the researchers at UdeM went to work with one extra neutron standing between them and the destruction of the Island of Montreal.

“You want the reactor to cook along, make heat. A reactor is a controlled explosion,” says Hanna.

Milner was not a physicist. Much of his work as an electrical engineer involved calculating what would happen to the reactor itself during a nuclear chain reaction. Without ever seeing a single milligram of uranium, he would calculate things like the elasticity and tensile strength of the structural parts of the reactor. The more glamorous aspects of the Montreal laboratory, he says, were left in the hands of the nucleus of European physicists in Montreal who had escaped Nazi Europe, and started Tube Alloys at the University of Cambridge, in England.

“They had some heavy water they’d carried all the way from Norway. They were the nucleus, they were pushing for…non-American development of nuclear energy,” says Milner.

When these European researchers first arrived in Montreal, it was to McGill University that they turned for space. Since McGill professor Ernest Rutherford split the atom in 1917, McGill seems to have had its name permanently branded to the emerging discipline of nuclear physics.

“McGill, in a sense, became an important and sensitive centre of military research” during the Second World War, says McGill History professor Carman Miller. “They had a reputation from World War One.”

Indeed, while McGill may have developed a reputation for weapons research in its development of biological weapons decades earlier in the First World War, there is little evidence substantiating this popular connection.

It appears that 3470 Simpson is the last remaining edifice of some kind of handshake that must have taken place between the National Research Council of Canada, the British government, and McGill’s principal at the time, Frank Cyril James.

In 1943, when the Montreal lab was first established at the Simpson House, the London-born James was only four years into a 23-year appointment as school Principal.

It appears that in November 1943, with the Tube Alloys clamouring for accommodation in North America, James put his most patriotic foot forward and offered University space to a war-related British-Canadian research project he probably knew very little about. The Allied war effort needed space, and McGill happened to have some.

“It would have been hard for him not to be at the centre of it. He was a trusted person in Ottawa, in London,” says Miller. “In war time it may have just been sufficient that the British said they needed it.”

Whatever the mansion may have looked like, it was replaced in 1976 with an eleven-story apartment building, in preparation for the Olympic Games. Nowadays, Simpson endures as a small pocket of the old “Golden Square Mile” of decadent anglophone society in downtown Montreal. Surrounded as it is now by high-end apartments, gated houses, luxury cars, and the Trafalgar School for Girls, an old mansion hardly seems like the practical location to build one of the world’s first nuclear reactors. After three months in the cramped and ill-suited house, the scientists moved to the UdeM space.

“If the Simpson location was that temporary, it may have been more planning there than experimenting,” concludes Miller.

The laboratory was already firmly established and almost a hundred-people strong when Milner arrived from England a year later. Thoroughly compartmentalized and racing to stay competitive with American labs like the Metallurgical (Met) Lab at the University of Chicago, and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, Milner now found himself in the thick of the latest innovation in energy production.

“I could see…uranium rods around UdeM. That part of it really wasn’t my business. My was contact just incidental…if I happened to be passing by one of the labs,” says Milner.

“They made the whole of that wing radioactive in one way or another. Everything got quite hot.”

When the Allies discussed “cooperation” on the nuclear front, they meant it in the most reluctant sense of the word. The Montreal lab relied heavily on American research to guide its experimentation, but as both nuclear research and espionage activity developed in both countries, access to information became increasingly tight.

“As the bomb became more real, the Americans became cagier in who got access to the information,” explains Alex Wellerstein, a Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “America very much wanted control.”

Part of the tightening of the information flow across the border had to do with the diverging goals of the Montreal lab and its American partners. While the United States was now focusing on bomb design, the Montreal lab was researching the production of bomb materials. As 1944 turned to 1945, and the end of war loomed larger and larger, the British started to think ahead to a potential post-war monopoly on the production of nuclear energy.

“A lot of things happened as Americans saw the bomb as real; secrecy goes way up, security goes way up, people start worrying a lot about the post-war situation,” says Wellerstein.

While European economic motives may have factored into the lack of collaboration between Allied nuclear research labs, European political motives may have been a more severe problem. General Leslie Groves, Director of the American Nuclear program, certainly seemed to think so.

“Groves was notoriously paranoid about all things security related,” says Wellerstein. “He didn’t trust labs he didn’t have control over.”

Groves’ suspicions centred around the fact that many academics in the forties had socialist sympathies. Combined with the Soviet Union’s alliance with the U.S. and Britain and the juxtaposition of communism to German fascism, there were very few physicists working on nuclear research who thought sharing information with the Soviets was a bad idea.

“It was pretty common for academic physicists to be pretty left-leaning – far more left-leaning than security people would like,” says Wellerstein. “Many scientists in the early atomic effort had dubious backgrounds.”

Regardless of the anticipated security risks, most men like Cockcroft and Groves begrudgingly turned a blind eye to the popular political sentiments among their staff, hoping that most scientists wouldn’t actually go to the lengths of international espionage. For the most part, they didn’t.

An English nuclear physicist named Alan Nunn May had started working at the Montreal laboratory in 1943. Two years later, he was caught leaking details of the lab’s work to the Soviet Union and in 1946 was sentenced to ten years of hard labour after being found guilty of breaking the Official Secrets Act. May quickly became the treasonous figurehead of what became known as the “Montreal spy ring.”

Desmond Morton, a professor emeritus in History at McGill, sympathizes with the infamous scientist.

“Growing up in the thirties…you’re going to be far right…or you’re going to be a communist. If you have an ounce of human sympathy, you’re going to be [a communist],” says Morton.

In what he personally described as a “contribution…to the safety of mankind,” May spent most of his two years in Montreal – Januray 1943 to September 1945 – supplying the Soviet Union with information on Allied nuclear research. Besides smuggling out microscopic samples of uranium through his Soviet contact in Ottawa – a cipher clerk at the Russian embassy named Igor Gouzenko – May also procured documents relating to American research gleaned from his visits to the Met Lab in Chicago.

“A lot of Cambridge intellectuals in the thirties would have been open members of the Communist Party, it was very much the fashion,” says Andrew Brown, another Research Fellow in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “[But others] never indulged in espionage.”

Brown has written extensively on May, to the point where he ends up walking me through May’s subconscious, pointing out various character traits that seem to have given May the predisposition to be a spy.

“Even though he was arrested, tried, and went to prison, he tried to throw people off the scent of what he’d done,” says Brown. “Even his [deathbed] confession wasn’t completely accurate. He never owned up to passing on all the Montreal documents before he died.”

But how important could May have been, really, in the grand scheme of things? Klaus Fuchs, for example, was a German physicist who was standing a few feet away from Oppenheimer when America’s “organic necessity” was realized, and the atomic bomb was detonated for the very first time. At that point, Fuchs had been providing the Soviet Union with valuable information regarding the American nuclear program, and would continue to do so until he was finally discovered and tried in 1950. Thus began the Cold War. And May was just a junior physicist in a foreign research project the Americans had long since decided could not contribute to the immediate war effort, after all.

“The most difficult thing to make in an atomic weapon is to make the fissile material. Once you have enriched uranium, it’s pretty easy to make a bomb,” says Brown.

“[Montreal] was building and operating a nuclear reactor. It was unglamorous but tremendously important [in making this fissile material]. … These were the sort of problems that May helped the Soviets get around.”

The Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb three years after May was sentenced, in 1949. He was caught when Gouzenko defected from the Soviet Union, turning himself in to the RCMP with dozens of papers on Montreal lab research implicating May literally stuffed down his shirt – a highly-televized affair that catalyzed the Red Scare in Canada. Brown contended that, had he been caught earlier, the Soviet nuclear program would have been set back by two or three more years.

For Milner, security was not something he could recollect with any conviction. Beyond an identification card with his picture and thumbprint on it, he couldn’t remember much heavy security around the UdeM facility.

“There was a great deal of spying going on at that time. … There were locks of a fairly serious nature,” says Milner. “I don’t think it was very stringent. They certainly didn’t manage to catch me taking photographs.”

I ask him whether he had ever met May, his compatriot who could have been leaking Milner’s research to the Soviet Union right as they stood there chatting in a UdeM hallway.

“Oh, the spy. I don’t think so. I might have,” says Milner.

At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, the American B-29 bomber the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb codenamed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, at 11:02 a.m., a second bomb codenamed “Fat Man,” after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was dropped on Nagasaki.

“I was very surprised, very shocked. I thought it was a terrible way of introducing this…sort of power,” says Milner.

The Montreal laboratory played little to no role in the design, production, and execution of the bomb attacks in the Second World War. Nevertheless, Milner “didn’t feel good,” and a few years after finishing up at the Montreal lab in 1946, he spent a few years at the new nuclear research site in Chalk River – the site of the first nuclear reactor ever to be built outside of America – before finally arriving at McGill. Milner also helped develop McGill’s cyclotron, a particle accelerator machine used in nuclear physics experiments, at McGill in the late forties before departing from the field of electrical engineering and atomic physics and pursuing a PhD in psychology.

“This was an American deal entirely. … We couldn’t have made bombs…the way we were going about it, from a [nuclear] power reactor,” says Milner.

Despite McGill’s perceived affinity with this particular kind of research, history has effectively absolved both the University and the Montreal laboratory of any lingering guilt regarding the atomic bomb and its infamous debut. While the Montreal laboratory did make significant discoveries regarding the production of atomic bomb material, the lab was left behind as the Americans began producing their own material. The broader philosophical debate regarding its use, however, only seems to become more complicate with time.

“It does help to take time,” says Morton, although the professor admitted a few minutes later that “history drags you through things, and leaves you not as certain about things.”

Milner, for his part, 66 years after being offered a top-secret job at a new nuclear research laboratory in Canada, still seems torn about the violent birth of the atomic age.

“It may have been right. At the time I certainly didn’t think so.”