A Non-Explosive Issue
W5 established that Canadian uranium was helping to fuel the American war machine. It also established that when it comes to scandal, Canadians tend to prefer tuna
Had the story been ready on time, it would have kicked off W5’s 19th season opener on CTV. It was-or at least it had the ingredients of-a very good piece of journalism, one of those coveted stories that makes news as it breaks news. The only reason it did not open W5’s new season last Sept. 22 was, quite simply, that it wasn’t ready on time. But it was ready a week later -ready for air and ready to make waves. At 10 p.m. on Sunday night, Sept. 29, 1985, as it has for so many years, the familiar WS logo flashed on TV screens across Canada, and the equally familiar theme music rolled in. Seconds later, the music ended, and the full-faced logo came to a stand-still, its white characters now overlaid with a red W5. An authoritative male voice announced, “W5. Episode 615.” The three stories of the night were introduced in 3D-second blocks, separated by flashes of the WS logo. Jim Reed came on screen to introduce the hosts. The theme music resumed and shots from previous shows sped past. They were accompanied, by clips of the four hosts, Reed, Bill Cunningham, Helen Hutchinson, and Dennis McIntosh. As the theme music ended, Bill Cunningham appeared, script in hand, and began the story of how Canadian uranium was being used by the U.S. military-in nuclear bombs.
“If our opposition to nuclear weapons is not to be hypocritical, we must be meticulous in ensuring that none of the Canadian uranium winds up in the U.S. military stream,” Cunningham said. “We have a treaty with the United States to ensure that it doesn’t. But if you follow the trail of our uranium south of the border, it’s hard to escape the conclusion of one U.S. critic that there may be a little piece of Canada in every nuclear bomb!”
It was easy to see why Canada’s longest running newsmagazine wanted to slot the item at the top of its season opener. It was a story of international significance. It was a story about hypocrisy in the Canadian government. It was a story about nuclear war. W5 hoped it would generate the kind of public and political outrage that had followed the rancid tuna scandal, broken by the fifth estate (W5’s CBC competitor) only 12 days earlier. Canada was selling uranium to the United States and part of that uranium was winding up in nuclear weapons, violating treaties stretching back 20 years. (W5 used a 1965 clip of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to articulate our policy on uranium trade: No country shall buy uranium from Canada unless it agrees to use it for peaceful purposes.)
This should have been a major story. But it wasn’t. Part of the reason was that W5 got some of it wrong. Canadian uranium was helping the U.S. build bombs, but no treaties were being violated. This largely irrelevant reporting error allowed the government, or more precisely External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, to side-step the issue. The daily media returned to its preoccupation with bad tuna and all the follow-ups that it generated.
WS was technically wrong about the treaty, but it was essentially correct. If no treaty was being violated, a long-held public assumption was-the general Canadian belief, reinforced by political leaders, that we are not involved in the nuclear arms race. Treaties aside, WS showed its audience of almost 1.2 million Canadians that we are involved. But despite Canadians’ purported concern with nuclear war and the arms race, public indifference was resounding.
Close on the heels of Cunningham’s introduction, viewers witnessed antinuclear protestors gathered in the dark near Kingston, Onto Down by the riverside they sang quietly, while a truck carrying spent radioactive fuel crossed the Thousand Islands International Bridge. Antinuclear activists had known about the story for several years. (They say External Affairs makes no secret of it, if the right questions are asked. After all, the government doesn’t think it’s doing anything wrong.) One of those activists, a reporter named Paul McKay, found out about the story through his involvement with the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG). He walked into W5’s office one day last summer and offered to sell his personal research. W5 bought the material for an undisclosed price.
On Aug. 2, when McKay’s 76-page folder was W5 property, Gillian Cosgrove became the story’s producer, and Mike Moralis was assigned as the researcher. (He often gets the quick, tough stories.) The wo have worked together as an investigative team since Moralis joined CTV almost two years ago. Bill Cunningham would do the interviews and host the segment. He’s been with W5 since 1980. He began as the executive producer and, after three years, became managing editor and reporter/ host. Cunningham’s credentials as a television newsman match or surpass anybody’s in Canada. He has distinguished himself on all three Canadian networks (C’BC, CTV and Global) for well over 20 years.
Once W5 had established there was indeed a story to be done, Cosgrove and Moralis got started. They were excited about its possibilities; so were their coworkers. W5 believed it had an opportunity to reveal government hypocrisy, to tell Canadians that all was not right with the world. John Darroch, the show’s associate producer, said later he would have liked the story to have helped put the issue on the upcoming (and now current) Canada-U.S. free trade agenda. Cosgrove wanted to address, however remotely, people’s fear of nuclear war. And, if nothing else, she wanted to get the story on the record.
Moralis quickly discovered that McKay’s research traced the path of plutonium into warheads. But after a series of phone calls to nuclear institutions and organizations, the information he got contradicted McKay’s. However, he did discover the trail of Canadian uranium to the U.S. and that was an easier trail to follow. It became the focus of W5’s story.
Uranium is mined and milled in Key Lake, Sask. Nearly 12 million pounds are Jrought out of the ground ever’] year. The ore is mechanically and chemically milled to produce yellowcake, powdered natural uranium. From Saskatchewan, it is rucked in bins or large containers to Nouthern Ontario, to Crown-owned El Dorado Resources Ltd., the nuclear refinery at Port Hope. There, it is converted for use in nuclear reactors. Part of the uranium stays in Canada for domestic use. Uranium oxide is used in CANDU reactors. The rest, converted into uranium hexafluoride gas, has to be enriched before it can be used by foreign customers in their reactors. Canada has no enrichment plants, so it is exported to whatever country the customer chooses. Most of it goes to the U.S. Before being shipped across the border, the gas is cooled into a liquid, then poured into cylinders. The liquid, under its own pressure, turns into a solid as it is transported in the trucks.
Days after leaving Port Hope, the trucks pulled into Paducah, Ky. the location of one of the three U.S. enrichment plants. In his report, Cunningham said the W5 crew “followed the shipment.” They did not, in fact, physically follow the trucks. Arrangements were made to visit each site, but not in the sequence they appeared on air. Nevertheless, the four-man crew made it to Paducah, where footage of the enrichment process was shot. Cunningham explained how Canadian uranium is “blended with uranium from other sources as it’s fed into a continuous stream of miles of tubes and pipes. The end product is U-235, a radioactive material that’s capable of sustaining an explosive chain reaction. To get one part of U-235 you discard 140 parts of U-238, a non-explosive material known as depleted uranium.” The uranium is heated, then filtered several times over. The enriched uranium hexafluoride is then converted into small ceramic pellets of uranium dioxide. The pellets are inserted into tubes to form fuel rods for use in light water reactors to generate electricity. Over time the fuel will burn up and the rods will be replaced. The fuel rods are still highly radioactive; they will remain so for hundreds of thousands of years.
The enriched uranium is sent to the purchasing country. The metallic tailings of depleted uranium are stockpiled.
These tailings make up the material in question-the Canadian material that ends up in American warheads. It’s extremely dense. It’s two-and-a-half times heavier than steel, one cubic foot shields radiation is effectively as 12 cubic feet of concrete.
Unlike enriched uranium, depleted uranium is not a fissionable material; it cannot sustain a chain reaction. It can be safely used as tail weights in airplanes. But it’s more popular use is as a casing for the hydrogen bomb.
Depleted uranium is converted into fissile plutonium (Pu-239) during the second phase of the blast. It boosts the bang by 50 per cent. Depleted uranium can also slowly be converted into Pu-239 in a nuclear reactor.
Depleted uranium from various sources is combined during the enrichment process and stored in cylinders at another site Fernald, Ohio. “It’s here that they’ve located a key facility for the building of America’s nuclear weapons,” Cunningham said. “And it’s here, too, that Canada’s so-called peaceful uranium is diverted into America’s nuclear weapons program.” thousands of barrels of depleted uranium were shown stacked in the yard. Cun1ingham told his audience that 4,000 tonnes would arrive this year-“What percentage is Canadian is anybody’s guess.”
Indeed the uranium in those barrels was not just Canadian. This fact provided the political “out” that Joe Clark took to get his government off the hook.
From Fernald, the material-now in metal fuel cores-goes down to Savannah River, Ga., where it is used in military reactors to breed weapons-grade plutonium. Another stream of depleted uranium goes to Oak Ridge, Tenn., to be made into metal bomb components. Then all the parts head on to Amarillo, Tex., for final assembly into warheads. That’s where W5′:,’ trail ended.
The trail was one part of the story. The other part was the treaties, which were a little more difficult to follow. The treaty outlining civil uses of Canadian uranium in the U.S. was first signed in 1955. It has been updated eight times since, and now runs to 49 pages. Clauses and sub-clauses have been endlessly amended. This treaty, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), are meant to prevent countries without nuclear weapons from developing them. An agency called the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) makes sure the treaty isn’t being violated.
India exploded its first nuclear bomb on May 18, 1974 in the Rajastan desert. Canada was embarrassingly implicated. We had sold a nuclear reactor to India in 1972; India used it to extract plutonium to build its bomb. The Indian government had agreed to use the reactor for peaceful purposes only, but the agreement was very vague. Canada announced new safeguard policies that same year with IAEA inspectors overlooking the process. India refused to comply and all nuclear co-operation ceased. Now Canada sells uranium only to countries who agree to abide by the NPT, or bilateral agreements limiting use to peaceful purposes. Such an agreement exists between Canada and the U.S. But reading it, and understanding it (as well as following up on some of the extremely vague clauses) is tricky. That’s where W5 ran into trouble.
Time was running short. With five days to go before show time, Cunningham had interviewed all but one of the people the story needed-Joe Clark. With four days to go, he was finally cornered at a UN conference in Washington. The film crew may have been managing well, but back in Toronto, people were ready to drive their fists into cement walls.
What did the treaty say? John Darroch demanded to know. Were the Americans violating the treaty or not? The story was built around that assumption. Cunningham would tell a million-plus Canadians that “Our agreement with the United States is clear. No Canadian uranium, not a single molecule, is to be used for military purposes.” But was that really true? No one was really sure. Under pressure from Darroch, Moralis made a decision: The treaty means whatever you want it to mean: That wasn’t good enough. So W5 decided to go with the intention of the documents, that no uranium shall be used for non-peaceful purposes. Moralis was still bothered by the wording of the treaty. But a nuclear policy expert for the U.S. Library of Congress, Warren Donnelly, confirmed that the intention was reflected in the words. “That was encouraging to me,” explained Moralis. “If I was wrong, it was a debatable right or wrong. It was a matter of interpretation, of convenience as to how it was interpreted.”
Not exactly. W5 reported that depleted uranium falls through the cracks of the treaties, thus implying the government was negligent, that an important process was overlooked when that international document was being negotiated. But the treaty does cover depleted uranium. The most recent amendment (1980) says that designated nuclear technology and material will not be used for any military purposes. Depleted uranium is a designated source material and is therefore covered.
That was one technical error. The other was more serious. W5 overlooked a clause that justified the U.S.’s use of Canadian uranium. External Affairs knew it was there but federal NDP Leader Ed Broadbent didn’t. Cunningham briefed and interviewed the NDP leader on camera on Sept. 24, five days before the story went to air. He told Cunningham, and eventually all of Canada, that, “We should be insisting that all our uranium that goes to the United States be segregated from any uranium that they use for military purposes. That’s what the treaty says and we on the Canadian side, our government, should be enforcing that.”
The next day, Sept 25, in the House of Commons, Broadbent raised the issue. He asked the Prime Minister if it was Canadian policy to export uranium to the U.S. to be used for peaceful purposes. Mulroney answered, “This policy has been unchanged. It goes back to a decision by Mr. Pearson in about 1965, and that is the general thrust of what successive governments have followed.” Then Broadbent asked, “Will the Prime Minister assure the House that he will have people in his office look into this immediately to find out if the evidence, which I understand to be quite conclusive, is conclusive?” Mulroney said Joe Clark, who was in Washington on Sept. 25, would address the issue in the House the next day. The next day, as promised by the Prime Minister, Clark reiterated for the House what he had already told W5: “Over the last 20 years there has been no evidence of any breach of the language or obligations of that treaty.” The issue did not arise in the House again until Sept. 30, the day after W5 aired its story. Ian Waddell, NDP energy critic, was incensed: “He (Clark) said that he saw the program in question last night. Did he not see the pictures of the barrels of depleted uranium? Did he not hear the American official say that Canadian uranium was being mixed in and was in fact used for nuclear bombs? Did he not hear Americans say that there was a piece of Canadian uranium in every American nuclear bomb?”
Clark again insisted that everything was in order. “I have heard the allegation that the Canadian treaty assurances are not being respected. That allegation is false.”
Then he seized on that irritating treaty detail that had caused W5 so much grief. “I have learned that there is, in the treaty, a requirement for administrative arrangements to be put into place that deal with the residue as well as the original uranium those administrative arrangements are in fact in place.”
Those arrangements have to do with something called fungibility. Clark compared the process to putting a dollar in the bank. The dollar you get back isn’t the same dollar, but it’s still a dollar. Dave Sinden, manager of the Office of Safeguards and Physical Security Operations (which makes sure the safeguards that are in place are not being violated), compared it to putting sugar in coffee. Once the sugar has been stirred in, there’s no way you can get it back. But it’s there. The same principle applies to depleted uranium. There is Canadian material in there but it’s mixed with depleted uranium from a number of other countries; it can’t be extracted. What the Canadian and American governments agreed to do was set aside a little less than ten per cent of all the depleted uranium, call it Canadian, and never touch it. The 1980 treaty does have provisions in it for such an arrangement.
The arrangement, however, is stated in very general terms. The pertinent clause says, “The appropriate governmental authorities of both parties shall establish administrative arrangements to implement this Agreement.” It’s not difficult to see how W5 failed to spot this clause.
Cunningham said on air, “W5 was told that the principle of fungibility does not apply to depleted uranium.” External Affairs thinks it does. The United States thinks it does. And apparently so do some newspapers. The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail reported the confrontation between the opposition and Joe Clark, both before and after W5’s story aired. But once Clark denied-or defused-the story, the papers dropped it.
Gillian Cosgrove was disappointed in the story’s lack of impact, especially in comparison to the fifth estate’s tuna scandal that had broken about two weeks earlier and was still making front page news. But then tuna is tangible, she conceded, everyone eats it, everyone has it in their kitchen. Peter Rehak, the executive producer ofW5, had a different theory. He said Clark hit on the crux of the matter in the House when he was being questioned by Pauline Jewett, the NDP external affairs critic, about W5’s story. He answered her queries by asking, “Why are you opposed to 7,000 jobs in Saskatchewan?”
The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Resources estimates that the value of Canadian uranium export contracts in 1984 was $900 million. Because the industry is so vital to the Canadian economy, it would clearly never make it on to the Canada-U.S. free trade agenda, as associate producer Darroch had hoped. When he was asked a few weeks after the show aired what effect the story would have, he closed his thumb and index finger around a big, fat zero.
Clark neatly sidestepped a potentially damaging story. But that September, the uranium issue could only have added to the Tories’ already lengthy list of problems: the tuna scandal, a pair of bank failures, and the resignations of Fisheries and Oceans Minister John Fraser and Communications Minister Marcel Masse. It was a month Brian Mulroney will not easily forget, with or without the uranium story. The Tories were saved by a clause in the treaty. W5 may have been technically wrong, but it was essentially correct. Loopholes were written into the treaty so the government could justify trade; Canada is still directly involved in the American nuclear arsenal build-up, regardless of what the treaty says. So the question remains, why did the public not rise up angry at the revelation? Why didn’t we care?
It’s not that we don’t care about nuclear war. A study done in 1984 in Metro Toronto indicated that young people between 12 and 18 were as worried about nuclear war as they were about unemployment. And in a 1985 poll conducted by Decima Research Ltd. for Maclean’s, a significant 1-6 per cent of the respondents said the fear of war, particularly nuclear war, was their greatest fear. It was “the most frequently cited specifIc concern,” Maclean’s reported. Interestingly, however, the non-impact of W5’s story may have been explained in the Maclean’s article that accompanied the poll. It concluded with: “No matter how they describe it, the underlying concern of poll respondents was that, somehow, they could lose control of their lives.”
If Canadians already feel helpless and afraid, and not without reason, why would they want to escalate those feelings by dwelling on the very real possibility that Canada is playing a role in the very thing they fear most? How much easier it is to turn away. Tuna, as Cosgrove said, was different. Tuna was something people could do something about. They could stop buying Star-Kist and the other publicized brands that were involved. They could punish the “bad guys.” They were not helpless. Tuna is “real” and so is food poisoning. Nuclear war is just an idea, and for most of us, an unthinkable idea. It can’t be touched.
The media had a chance to focus on our contribution to a potential nuclear war using the W5 story as a catalyst. But the media did not pursue the issue. When it does pursue issues such as rancid tuna, impaired driving, and even cigarette smoking, the public perception does begin to change.
Fred Fletcher, a media analyst at York University, confirms that the print media can often keep a story alive by running follow-ups. Then, as these stories feed back to television and radio, the cycle will continue. Then-and only then-people begin to pay attention. That was what happened with the tuna story.
That’s what didn’t happen with the uranium story. It did surface on the radio news on Sept. 26, three days before W5’s broadcast, a result of the Broadbent briefing. The newspapers carried it as well. The Toronto Star’s headline read, “Our uranium used in A-arms, Broadbent says.” But all Broadbent managed to do was give Clark his chance to deny the entire story before CTV even got its show to air. Clark continued to deny the story (and help keep it alive) for a few days afterward, but only one television station even carried Clark’s denial. CHCHTV in Hamilton reported the story the day after W5′, Sept. 29 revelations. The Toronto Star and The Gazette in Montreal ran a CP version the next day. And that was it.
While standing in front of Fat Man, a replica of one of the world’s first atomic bombs, Bill Cunningham ended the story by saying, “These days, the Reagan administration is committed to a further build-up of nuclear weapons, and it’s reasonable to assume that there’ll be a little piece of Canada in all those too. If nothing is done to inhibit this process, it makes a hollow mockery of Canada’s position as a fierce opponent of nuclear weapons.”
Off-camera, months later, Cunningham still believes the story was important. But the issue, he said, was just too complicated for people to deal with. “Do we care? We say we care, and our foreign policy politically says we care.”
by Jan Matthews
Jan Matthews was the Managing Editor for the Spring 1986 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.