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Highway of the Atom: Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Mar 29th, 2019

The book commences with an explanation by the author about the meaning of its title, Highway of the Atom. The author bases his work on a certain period in history about uranium mining and the impact it had on the local natives in Canada.

The mining at Port Radium at Great Bear Lake affected the inhabitants of that area and the environment. To grasp the gist of the mining tragedy, the author goes through phases of the reconstruction background where all this happens.

In the beginning of his research on this piece of work, he attempts to get archived records about the mineral exploration by the Eldorado Mining and Refining Company. However, he gets other sources of information on which to base his research. This Company was in charge of the uranium mining at Port Radium at the Great Bear Lake region from 1930 to 1960.

The author tells the story how the foundation of the North was laid. He also reveals various views of many writers that seek to grasp what it is all about. From the various field notes on the different parts of the North where he travelled, the reader gets the different aspects of the region and its people.

The author comes up with a constructive argument about different perceptions about the North, and the reader plunges into this debate. Once the background and foundation is laid in the reader’s mind, the author describes the process of exploration of minerals before and after 1930.

His information on this period of time comes from different sources about the discovery of the uranium at Port Radium. He explains the Dene’s involvement in the discovery of the mineral and the mining.

He gives an account of his interactions with the Dene community and their responses. This entire exercise does not yield to the answers he expected to receive, but gets a deeper insight into what really happened during the mining period and afterwards.


The author tries to argue the ethical stand of the Dene community who were victims of the uranium mining at Port Uranium. They took responsibility for the Atomic bomb explosion and apologized to the Japan bomb victims. How could they take responsibility for something they did not knowingly do?

The Dene community sent a group of elders to Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan to apologize for their involvement in the mining of the uranium used to make the atomic bomb that killed almost 80,000 people in 1945. This is an ethical move because the Dene has been suffering cancers and related diseases that have been linked to their unprotected handling of nuclear active material.

The uranium and radium leaked as it was carried to the boats, they used the bags to construct their houses and slowly these materials got into their bodies and surrounding environment. The author takes the reader through a journey to understand who these people are, where they come from and what made them do such an admirable thing.

As we embark on this journey, one asks how the writer became an authority on nuclear material issues. In 2005, he researched on nuclear activities at a plant in New Mexico which formed a prequel to the Highway to the atom. The book examines the mining process and the impacts on the lives of all the involved at Great Bear Lake. The author explains what the highway to the atom denotes in this book.

The first definition is the highway or colonial path used for the purposes of trade. The Great Bear Lake was a path way of northern frontiers where goods and people passed through.

The second definition of the high way would be how the uranium was carried from the mines to the boats and affected people in form of cancers and other diseases. It is a history that persists in the present in form of ruins and memories (Wyck 21).

Author’s goal

The author’s goal is to explain the Dene mining tragedy in Northern Canada. He starts by explaining his sources of information that makes him come to certain conclusions. He is able to communicate this by explaining how the mining started, the involvement of Dene and the repercussions of this uranium mining.

The pace of the story is a little slow at first, but it is consistent and finally makes sense as one reads on. After making the title of the film ‘Village of widows’ and visiting by ten Dene members, the author decided to find out more about these people and the tragedy brought about by the uranium mining around 1930.

It is said that “Something happens here and there because it really happened over there and then’’ (31). The mining company that discovered the uranium at Great Bear Lake hired Dene to move the uranium from the mine to the boats in order to transport it to various places and different companies. for example the Manhattan project.

The nuclear material mined at the port radium found its way to Manhattan and was a part of the uranium used for manufacturing the World War II atomic bombs. The uranium contaminated the environment around it and the people who were in direct contact with it. The mineral leaked in transit contaminating the travelling vessels.

After the closing of the mines, they felt the effects uranium poisoning around the Great Bear Lake region. Radon gas found in the uranium causes lung cancers, that is way the miners who were working in the mines during that period developed related diseases.

The miners and their families are still exposed to radiation through the contaminated environment. Many men who were working in the mines died from cancers related ailments due to the radiation exposure. The Dene people did not know that the uranium could harm their health and had no idea of its use until the end of World War II.


The arguments presented by the author are good, the reader gets to ponder over and wonder with him as he seeks answers. They are well-supported with content of well researched and thought out material.

When explaining the authenticity of various sources of information about the discovery of the uranium, the writer presents various sources from local newspapers to accounts by the explorers. There are different versions of the story how Gilbert LaBine discovered the uranium ore deposits at the Great Bear Lake.

The author takes the reader through several occurrences leading up to the discovery of the uranium ore. He creates vivid pictures in the reader’s mind about the places he is writing about with help of the pictures and detailed descriptions.

The author uses the field notes of the places he has been to in his research to bring out various perceptions by people and places. When I have read this book, I have learnt a few things about Canada’s history since 1945. It was actively involved in World War II. The Mining Company sold uranium mined at Port radium to the Manhattan project to make the atomic bomb that ended World War II.

Canada acquired the Eldorado mining and refining company and was responsible for the safety of the mine workers.

This shows the injustice towards the Dene and other native tribes in northern Canada. The crown owned operation did not even bother to clean up their radioactive waste which is still lying in the ground of the lake area affecting both animals and plants. The former mine workers are dying of cancers and other related diseases from unprotected labor during the mining of the uranium ore.

The Southern and Northern parts of Canada are distinctively different. The idea of the north has been shrouded by myths and fascination. One can describe it as an inhospitable, dark and cold frontier (Wyck 12).

The author leads the reader to get a perspective of how to define the North as he tries to lay a foundation for his research and the reader tries to get the background of the unfolding events. This is mostly influenced by the works of various writers concerning the idea of North.

There have been attempts to make the Canadian government compensate the Dene for the exposure to radiation as they worked for a crown owned company.

As much as there are disputes going on about the cause of death and cancers in the Deline community and the supposed radiation exposure, scientists from the government claim that there was no direct link between those deaths and the radiation exposure.

It is also argued that none of the Dene worked inside the mine, so the level of exposure was minimal as they only transported the ore to the boats.

The ideas and arguments presented by the author are consistent; this is evident from the beginning of the story as he develops the meaning of his title and background for his research. He follows through to explain how the mining took place, the Dene involvement in the project and the effects of the mining.

From the very beginning and up to the end, reader gets the entire image of the book as ideas combine with each other giving a flow to the work. The research that he bases this book on seems credible since he considers all the sources of information in his study.

His interaction with the Dene and their elders gives him more information for his book. At the beginning of the book, the author explains his attempts to get archived documents about the mining process by Eldorado Company. He is unable to do so because of the access and privacy legislation that protects such documents as Eldorado was a crown owned entity.

He was not able to get information on the policies, practices and directors of the mining company.The Library and Archives Canada contain these records. He gathers information from Journals written by people who lived at Port Radium before and after the mining began.

Maps and photos can link ideas in this history. The author had to separate the truth from the myths of radium mining and the North. He started his research 9 years before the publishing of the book, I am sure this gave him enough time to research thoroughly the material used in this book.

He spent time with the Dene community and interacted with them. Although at first, the people were not really interested in what he was there to talk about, as most of those who had worked in the mines were dead. The author could get information that confirmed what he had already known from other sources and see a new perspective.

The author presented his ideas clearly throughout the book. He even used photographs of the places relevant to this history which make the reader get a better understanding of these places.

In the first chapter of his book, the setting takes place in Great Bears Lake in 2003, he starts by examining the meaning of the title of his book, the road the uranium atom takes, which is from Port radium to Manhattan and eventually to Japan thereby ending World War II.

It leaves a lot of destruction and deathes along the way with leakages and waste dumping at the mining sites and radiation exposure to the miners and ore carriers. The highway that was used as trade route became the highway of contamination and death.

The 2nd chapter is about the author’s inspiration to tell the story of the Deline community in Northern Canada. He is intrigued by the Dene community elders’ journey to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and questions why they took responsibility for something they did not do.

The documentary Village of Widows by Peter Blow played a great role in inspiring Wyck to write this book. The 3rd Chapter focuses on what happened around 1930; there were explorations North of Canada aided by the local natives before the discovery of the Pitch Blende.

Based on information from journals and newspaper clippings from that period, the author highlights the fact that copper and natural silver mining brought a lot of people to the Great Bear Lake region.

Gilbert LaBine was one of Eldorado mining and refining company’s directors and claimed that he discovered the Pitch Blende that had the uranium ores. The people of the Dene say that Gilbert stole a sample of the uranium from one of their members and did not just stumble on the Pitch Blende ore, but was led there.

This chapter also explains how the uranium found its way to the Manhattan project. Upon the discovery, the Canadian government acquired shares in the Eldorado mining and refining company.

During the War period, all the allies wanted to increase their uranium deposits making the demand high and this led to the reopening of the mines around 1944 with the aid of the government. In this chapter, the author visited the Dene community to get answers from them.

His experience sheds light on the native communities of Canada in the North and their relationship with the South. The last chapter concludes this history about the Dene community, the historical implication of the uranium mining as well as the effects.

The author makes an interesting quote that death can make claim on the living through the highway of the atom. The contaminated bodies show all the awful consequences through their progeny.

The contamination of the land and body is only seen as disease through the poisoning of someone or something (Wyck 4). The Dene only discovered later on that the radium rock they carried for Eldorado and the Canadian government was causing cancers among their people and also poisoned their soils.

Works Cited

Wyck, V. Peter. Highway of the Atom. Canada: McGill’s University Press, 2010. Print.

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