Personal Reminiscences
Leslie Cook


        Figure 1 reminds us that the McGill physics building was the original home of modern nuclear physics and of radiochemistry.   It was Rutherford's world leadership reputation that brought Otto Hahn to McGill in 1905.   This slide shows Rutherford, Eve, Hahn, Boyle, and other associates on the front steps.

        Hahn, in his autobiography, speaks glowingly of Rutherford as a man and as a scientist - clearly a man to emulate in his own career.   Hahn and Rutherford were both eventually awarded Nobel prizes in chemistry - the first alumni of any Canadian university to be so honored.   But when they both left in the next two years, radiochemistry left McGill with them, not to come back again for 45 years until Leo Yaffe (with us today) brought it back again from Chalk River.    The Chemistry and Physics Departments had always got along very well at McGill, according to Winkler, by having nothing to do with each other.   Leo was to be a bridge between them - which both saw as a potential disaster.   The bridge was put in place only by the determined insistence of Steacie, who had come to understand its importance as a result of his association with the Chalk River project.   And it has been an enormous success.

        Meanwhile Hahn developed his own school of radiochemistry in Berlin and for eight years continued to develop his painstaking and perceptive elucidation of the natural radioactive chains, and of the chemical techniques for minute trace materials.

Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Berlin 1937/38

        But Hahn's personal world was soon to be bruised by World War II.    In 1912 the Kaiser came to open the first of his new research institutes in which Hahn was to work (Fig. 2) with its ominous military helmet tower (Fig. 3).   Within two years Hahn was cheerfully off to war games with his guitar and machine gun (Fig. 4).   But things soon turned serious and ugly.   Hahn found himself in the front line trenches at Ypres introducing poison gas warfare to the world (Fig. 5).

        By 1933 Hahn was lecturing at Cornell and Toronto when such disturbing news reached him that he rushed home.   He was devastated to find that the sword of Naziism was already cutting the scientific community into bitter factions; that his long time physics partner, Lisa Meitner, had been dismissed from the university; that Fritz Haber, director of the adjacent institute, had been replaced by a Nazi incumbent; that he had a rival in his own institute who was openly talking of his expectation of soon taking over from Hahn as director; that several of his own physicists and chemists were active Nazi party members, complete with a Gauleiter and brown uniforms, reporting on anything and everything.

Fig. 1 On the steps of McGill University in 1905. Showing Rutherford (front right), Eve (second row, third from right), Hahn (second row, second from right) and Boyle (back row, right).

Fig. 2 Kaiser Wilhelm visiting the institute that bore his name in 1912.

Fig. 3 The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, 1912.

Fig. 4 Otto Hahn off to war games in 1914 with guitar.

Fig. 5 Otto Hahn in the trenches of Ypres, First World War.


        It was a frightening situation which got rapidly worse as he defied the Nazi machinery.   Fear of retribution on his associates, his family and himself began to dominate his mind as he and Meitner struggled to continue their research.   In his autobiography Hahn writes that "he was under extreme stress", "nervous to the point of exhaustion", and "subject to sudden and embarrassing weeping spells in conversation".   No wonder that he and Meitner began to slip in their judgement of critical technical clues.

        In retrospect Hahn was to write of their work at this time, "all our ideas turned out to be wrong", "our reasoning was admittedly faulty", and "how could we have remained in the dark so long".   The political and personal pressures had taken their toll on performance, as they always do.

        I wish there was time today to tell the full story in all its fascinating technical and personal detail - but I can only touch on a few high spots.

        Contrary to what seems to be science history dogma, Hahn and Strassmann never mentioned fission, nor ever claimed to have discovered it.   What they actually did was confirm a unique and new discovery made by Irene Curie and Pavel Savic in Paris, that the irradiation of uranium with neutrons yielded a radioactive substance that chemically resembled lanthanum more than any other known element.   Hahn and Strassmann, at first scathing and unbelieving, quickly confirmed this by discovering that its radioactive mother resembled barium more than any other known element.   Even so, Hahn was very dubious that these substances were actually lanthanum and barium as any reader can discover by reading his published paper.

        Hahn had kept all these strange results secret from his colleagues in the institute, trusting them only by mail to Meitner who was in refuge in Sweden.   Thus it was Meitner, after sharing them with her nephew Frisch, who guessed that the results had to be interpreted as fission.   They quickly sought the recoil pulses, found them, and announced their discovery to the world - much to the anger of Hahn's colleague physicists in the institute who felt they had been unjustly cut out of sharing in this great discovery.

        Even so, this interpretation was not original with Meitner and Frisch.    In 1933 Fermi reported finding five radioactive substances on irradiating uranium with neutrons, and with the support of some primitive chemistry suggested they might be transuranics - which of course was what he expected them to be.   Very quickly a German woman chemist published a detailed critique of this and suggested fission instead as a conceivable alternative explanation.   For anyone with the equipment (which Ida Noddack did not have), it would have taken half an hour's work to check this idea out.   But Hahn and Meitner rejected it out of hand as "sheer fantasy", coming from someone not even in the nuclear field, and totally ignorant of nuclear physics.   Moreover a proper appreciation of Noddack's technical comments was swamped by bitterness over some "reprehensible behaviour" made use of in a quite unpleasant manner clearly connected with Nazi pressures. ("The Griffin", Arnold Kramish, Houghton Mifflin publishers - 1986, p.236 - Walter Noddack, Ida Tacke).   Whatever this was, it left a deep legacy of bitterness in Hahn.   When her suggestion turned out four and a half years later to be correct it was a bitter pill that Hahn never would swallow by admitting that her suggestion had played any role in their final thinking.   A careful reading of the Hahn-Meitner correspondence however leaves little room for doubt that it did.

        Hahn himself, later on, publicly and persistently belittled Curie and Savic's contribution, and dismissed Noddack's totally on the superficial grounds that she did not do anything about it experimentally.   These were both most un-Rutherford-like actions.   It is a bitter object lesson in the interaction of politics and science.

        Some of us were greatly privileged, a month ago in Washington, to hear Pavel Savic tell his story for the first time ever before an English speaking audience.   He is the only living survivor of the seven people whose experiments and thinking led directly to the discovery.

        I cannot help observing also that the three women scientists - Curie, Noddack and Meitner - were the contributors of all of the intuitive, original and correct ideas that repeatedly guided the experiments back onto the right track.   Only they apparently were able to think big enough to encompass the situation, and this despite the fact that they were anything but friends.

        Fig. 6 shows this unhappy institute family going through the motions of their annual Christmas party in 1936.


Fig. 6 A not too cheerful Christmas party at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, 1936.
Showing from the right Fritz Strassmann, Les Cook and Erbacker (the Institute's Nazi gauleiter).

The Nuclear Project in Canada, 1944-46

        And now we return to Montreal six years and World War II later.    The British were about to cancel the Montreal project, when Chadwick, at the last moment, thought up the idea of NRX and sold it to a reluctant General Groves, who because he controlled all uranium and heavy water supplies - even in Canada - and all information flow, held the trump hand.   If anyone must be spoken of as the Father of Chalk River, that honour belongs to Chadwick.

        Actually NRX was the pilot of a second generation of plutonium production reactors, and DuPont engineers came to Chalk River to learn all they could before designing the Savannah River reactors, now 30 years old and much in the news.   As we all know, NRX was a tremendous success, and its key conceptual designers, Newell and Ginns, deserved the highest recognition from the Canadian engineering profession - which they never got as far as I know.

        As part of this NRX deal Chadwick had insisted on some agreement about the touchy subject of plutonium processing.   Groves finally agreed to provide a few kilograms of weakly irradiated uranium - nothing more.   But Bertrand Goldschmidt had worked with Seaborg and knew what to do.   Soon, as a result of our work in the Université de Montréal wing, Bertrand Goldschmidt recommended two processes.   The one was ideally suited to large-scale continuous processing, and the other uniquely suited only to small-scale intermittent batch processing.    Steacie, now part-time associate director of the project, opted decisively for the small-scale batch process, reflecting the stirrings of ambiguity and indecision in domestic post war nuclear politics.    The British immediately asked to send over a separate group of their own to develop the large-scale process for their own use at Windscale, and Bob Spence came out with that group and did it.

        Meanwhile the notorious Trigly process was installed at Chalk River, over my objections to what would happen when the storage tank got filled with the messy waste.   Steacie said that would be someone else's problem - not his.   And indeed that is exactly what happened as some of you well know.

        Anyway the Trigly plant supplied plutonium for NRX fuel for years.   When the U.S. agreed to supply enriched fuel, the plant was shut down and the technology forgotten.   However I see that France is now recovering and re-using plutonium from its nuclear power plants.   Perhaps the time is not that far off when Canada will follow this lead and use its CANDU plutonium.

        The plutonium nitrate from the Trigly plant had to be converted into metal fuel elements for use in NRX.   Since we had no metallurgy branch we had to take it under our wing in chemistry.   The success of the effort was entirely due to the good fortune of finding just the right young engineer newly minted at the University of Toronto to do it.   John Runnalls is with us here today as President of the CNA.   He discovered that molten aluminum would directly reduce at least two plutonium compounds, and thus enable him to make the plutonium-aluminum alloy in one step.   He then designed a building, and all the necessary equipment to execute this very dangerous operation.   The operation was run successfully for many years, supplying NRX with the essential enrichment to enable fuel testing for future reactors to be done.   All this before he moved on to several new careers in Ottawa and the University of Toronto.

        NRX was not only ideal for plutonium production, but also for a variety of other radioactive materials for research such as carbon-14, iodine, phosphorus, sulphur, tritium, etc.    Bill Stevens, also with us today, wanted to use carbon-14 in his own work and soon found he could make it with very high specific activity, and with minimal effort due, of course, to the high flux of NRX.   Soon we had the idea of getting into the supply business and augmenting the AECL budget by selling radioactive materials all over the world - for no one could compete with us.   But we had to work fast because the U.S. would clearly not let Canada have the world champion flux for many years.   The money was soon budgeted and Bill designed a new building and equipped it for the job in double-quick time.   I let W.B. Lewis know we were about to start advertising and shipment.    Within days C.J. McKenzie arrived in my office alone and asked to see the lab.   All unsuspecting we gave him the grand tour.   I wondered at his silent demeanor on the road back until he suddenly turned to me and said, "You can't do this".   Dumbfounded, I asked why? "Because the U.S. are not exporting and until they do, we can't." It was a bitter lesson in politics.    And the ban continued until it was broken by Henry Seligman's "fait accompli" at Harwell.    A professor from Paris wrote to him asking for a few thousand counts of phosphorus or sulphur - I forget which now.   Henry wrapped them up in a small match box and dropped them in the mail.    Shortly, he received a phone call from some nameless bureaucrat in London telling him he couldn't do things like that.   Henry told him that he, Henry, did not work for him but for Sir John Cockcroft, and to direct complaints to him.   He slammed down the phone, he told me, for good measure.   Nothing more was heard of it - except that the first isotopes catalogue from the U.S. soon appeared.   But the golden opportunity for us in Canada was gone.   The high flux MTR at Idaho was now in operation.

        Few people today remember that the AECL Board actually committed itself to the construction of two Douglas Point size reactors for Ontario Hydro in 1954 - for 1957 operation. This "was evidently because they realized that Rickover's Shippingport reactor was close to operation and both the first BWR and the first PWR of Douglas Point size were close to commitment.   I wish Bill Bennett could have been here today because this occurred during his Presidency and he could have told us more about it.   I always assumed that the Board realized that the marketing horse race was already beginning and they felt they had to be a part of it then and there.   When W.B. Lewis surprised me with this I was stunned.   My question was whether the government was deadly serious in this.   He assured me that it was and asked for help in how we could plan to meet a PERT diagram that he produced.

        To make a long story short, within weeks we had inaugurated a long overdue physical metallurgy effort, reorganized our chemical forces, and were off and running.   After a few months I began to wonder why I was not being pestered for progress reports.   Lewis was completely silent.   Now really worried, I cornered Bill Bennett to ask whether these two reactors would be built or not.   "I am afraid not" he said "someone forgot to tell C.D. Howe".

        The result was predictable.   Douglas Point came on line 13 years later instead of three or four.   By this time both Dresden I and Yankee Rowe had over six years of operating experience and two dozen full size follow-on units were under construction.   As the Board undoubtedly feared, ten crucial years had just been lost at the very beginning of the race.    With due apology to Shakespeare, there are tides in the affairs of men which must be taken at the flood if they are to lead on to fortune.

        During this period, when NRX was at its peak as a world-leading technology, Admiral Rickover installed equipment in NRX to test fuel elements for his submarine engines.   When the accident in December 1952 put NRX out of commission, Rickover was quick to offer help.   This arrived shortly as a group of naval ratings under the command of a young officer, one Lieut. Jimmy Carter!   I have often wondered if his allergy to nuclear power stemmed from his experience in the basement of NRX.

        Speaking of Presidents, no doubt you have all noted that President Bush has appointed a new science advisor, Allan Bromley of Westmeath in the Ottawa Valley, Queen's University and, of course, AECL at Chalk River.   Whatever AECL's status may be here in Ottawa, it now has a representative right at the top in Washington.

        I want to say now a few words about the impact that the Chalk River project has had both on Canada and on the world, and I can think of no better way to do this than to remind you briefly of the outstanding contributions that have been made in the careers of Chalk River chemistry alumni.

        No less than six Chalk River chemistry alumni have taken their places in Canadian universities.   John Runnalls, in addition to his post at the University of Toronto, is known round the world as Mr. Uranium of Canada and also has served on the Board of Ontario Hydro.   Leo Yaffe, as I mentioned before, founded his own school of radiochemistry at McGill.   He successfully bridged the chemistry and physics departments and his reward was chairmanship of the chemistry department and vice principal of the university - a worthy successor to Rutherford and Hahn even if 45 years late!

        Lou Siminovitch, whom many of you know as a world renowned biochemist, began his career at Chalk River before going to the Pasteur Institute in Paris.   He later became professor at Toronto, Department Chairman, and is now Director of Research at the new research institute at Mt. Sinai Hospital.   Bob Betts left his position at Chalk River as chemistry research head to become head of the department of chemistry at the University of Manitoba.   Bob Jervis went to the University of Toronto to bring the techniques of radiochemical analysis to forensic chemistry, founded his own radiochemistry school there, and became Dean of Research.   Maurice Lister also became professor of chemistry at Toronto.   The late Henry Heal became professor of chemistry successively in the West Indies, at the University of British Columbia, and finally at Queen's University Belfast.   John Spinks returned to the University of Saskatchewan and founded his own radiochemical school there.   And of course Harry Thode, supported from Chalk River, built his own radiochemistry school around his own reactor at McMaster.

        The late Mac Lounsbury designed, built and operated successfully the very first mass spectrometer outside of the United States that could analyze the isotopic composition of transuranic elements, an accomplishment that gained an accolade from Chadwick himself.   Bernard Harvey published from Chalk River the very first scientific paper on the chemistry of plutonium and then moved on to a continuing career in the chemistry of other transuranic elements at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley - elements which we could not make at Chalk River because, at that time, we did not have the necessary accelerators and had no prospects or plans to build any.

        Then we have a long list of Bidg. 107 chemistry alumni from Chalk River who have made their mark in the U.K.   Bob Spence and Lewis Roberts both succeeded Cockcroft as directors of Harwell.   Frank Morgan became Vice Director of the Aldermaston weapons establishment.    Nick Miller joined the staff at Edinburgh University.   And Henry Seligman of course became director of isotope manufacture and distribution at Wantage.

        And then there is a long list of people who have played key roles at Chalk River itself.   Eric Ferryman had rapidly built up a physical metallurgy effort from zero to meet the demands of the aborted attempt to build two reactors for 1957.   The effort played an important role later anyway; Bill Campbell, also with us today, headed our chemical engineering group for many years and eventually directed the chemistry division.   Bob Robertson who supervised the water chemistry in Rickover's test units in NRX went on to become a water chemistry expert for reactors.   Alex Eastwood headed chemistry research for many years; John Davies became internationally known for his work on solid state channeling.   I could go on and on.

        All the above are worthy successors in Canada to Rutherford and Hahn, a whole generation later.   And not a bad record for good old Building 107.

        Bob Bothwell has given us a penetrating history in "Nucleus - The History of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited" the evolution of the Chalk River project at the policy, strategy and political level.   But no one has yet written the history of accomplishment of the scientists at the working level.   This, after all, was where all the real action and real accomplishments took place.   I hope someone will be motivated to do this soon - before it is too late.






Main Page and Table of Contents

Back: How it All Began in Canada: The Role of the French Scientists - Bertrand Goldscmidt

Next: Fission and Physics in Canada - Geoff Hanna


[Canadian Nuclear Society home page]