From the end of the Second World War until the signing of the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the United States and the United Kingdom conducted numerous above-ground nuclear weapons trials in the U.S., Australia and the South Pacific to develop and test nuclear weapons, and to train soldiers in dealing with the effects of these weapons. In order to provide training opportunities for Canadian military personnel in nuclear warfare and decontamination and to develop expertise therein, the Canadian military sought to take part in these trials. During the same period, Canadian military personnel were also deployed to assist with emergency decontamination efforts at the Chalk River nuclear plant following two major nuclear reactor accidents in 1952 and 1958. Canadian military participation at Chalk River drew on expertise in nuclear decontamination gained through participation in the nuclear weapons trials, and was viewed, in part, as a training opportunity for personnel to further augment this expertise.
Until recently, the nature and the extent of Canadian participation in these nuclear events was not fully appreciated. In August 2006, former Minister of National Defence Gordon O'Connor commissioned a report to determine the extent of Canadian participation in these tests. A historian, Dr. John Clearwater, was contracted to investigate the situation and in January 2007 he published his findings in a report entitled Atomic Veterans: A Report to the Minister of National Defence Regarding Canada's Participation in Allied Forces' Nuclear Weapons Trials and Decontamination Work.
Dr. Clearwater's report identified approximately 700 former Canadian military personnel who participated in up to 29 US and UK nuclear weapons trials between 1946 and 1963. These trials sought to simulate the battlefield conditions expected in a nuclear war. The report also identified approximately 200 former Canadian military personnel who participated in the clean-up and decontamination activities in Chalk River, where duties included the mopping and scrubbing of contaminated buildings.
Canadian military veterans and civilian science and technology workers from the Department of National Defence who participated in nuclear weapons tests and the Chalk River decontamination efforts performed their duty under exceptional circumstances. In recognition of their exceptional service to the nation, these Canadians will be eligible to apply for an ex-gratia payment of $24,000.00. The duties involved specialized training and/or unique operational deployments unlike any other carried out by the CF/DND. Until now these veterans have received no recognition of their exceptional service to Canada under these circumstances.
All those who serve their country, past or present, deserve the respect, admiration and care of a grateful nation. Providing an appropriate form of recognition beyond pension was a challenging matter that required engagement on many levels both within and across government departments and agencies.