NOTE: Just to be clear, all sources quoted in this story think a Canadian nuclear bomb is an unbelievably terrible idea that is bad for everyone in almost every way.
As U.S. president Donald Trump thumps Canada with an out-of-the-blue trade war, he is simultaneously cozying up to a nuclear-armed North Korea: Saluting their generals, flattering their dictator and even making them fake movie trailers.
“Your world would change,” said Mitchell Reiss, a former director of policy planning at the United States Department of State.
The action would be so needlessly provocative that it would likely result in Canada’s immediate ejection from NATO.
A Canadian A-bomb would also violate a whole host of international agreements. As soon as word got out about a Canadian effort to build nuclear weapons, Ottawa could expect to see the evaporation of whole webs of alliances and trading partnerships.
A nuclear-armed Great White North “would change the national character and how the world views Canada,” said Reiss.
This has been true since at least the 1950s. Canada was a critical partner in the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb during the Second World War.
Canadian technology was also key to another country’s development of a nuclear bomb. In 1974, India detonated their first nuclear weapon using plutonium that was clandestinely made in a donated Canadian research reactor.
Nevertheless, Canada has a long history of eschewing atomic weapons for itself. The country has never tested an atomic bomb, nor considered acquiring a nuclear arsenal.
In a 1978 speech to the United Nations, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau referred to Canada as the “first country in the world with the capability to produce nuclear weapons that chose not to do so.”
This isn’t to say that Canada hasn’t dabbled with nuclear weaponry. For a 20-year period during the Cold War, up to 200 U.S.-controlled warheads were stored at Canadian military bases for use in an all-out war with the Soviet Union.
However, the country has been entirely nuclear-free since 1984, when Canada returned the last batch of Genie nuclear-tipped missiles to the Americans. Ever since, Canada has pursued a policy of increasingly strict non-proliferation.
On the face of it, Canada has all the ingredients to become a nuclear-armed state: Ample uranium, plenty of engineering talent and a robust nuclear power sector. Ontario’s Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, in fact, is the world’s largest nuclear power plant.
What’s missing, though, are the facilities needed to make weapons-grade nuclear fuel, be that plutonium or enriched uranium.
John Luxat is the director of the Hamilton-based Centre for Advanced Nuclear Systems. He estimated that it would take “years” for Canada to develop the capability to build its own nuclear weapons.
“The knowledge Canada has acquired over the decades posy-WWII, while substantial, has always been focused on the commercial nuclear power arena, and really does not give us an advantage with respect to the resources and time required to establish nuclear weapons complexes,” he wrote in an email.
To enrich uranium, Canada would need to build extremely costly complexes of centrifuges requiring specialized materials, such as high-strength aluminum. By the mere act of purchasing such materials, Canada would immediately tip off the international community that it was up to something.
Rogue nations like North Korea or Iran have evaded this problem by simply acquiring materials illegally — and sealing off their borders to nuclear inspectors. Even then, said Luxat, “establishing such a facility takes many years.”
Canada would also have the option of building a facility to separate plutonium from its vast stores of spent nuclear fuel.
“Only 1% of the spent fuel is plutonium. So tons of spent fuel would have to be processed to get enough plutonium for a weapon,” said Leonard Spector with the Washington, DC-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
This too takes time, and it would similarly be hard to keep it a secret. As Spector noted, all spent nuclear fuel is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In short, the only way Canada could develop a bomb in secret would be to somehow acquire rogue nuclear technology and operate it in secret. While this might be relatively simple for an isolated authoritarian state, it’s next to impossible for a democracy with extremely close defence ties to the United States.
The U.S. has historically frowned upon all foreign nuclear proliferation, even from allies. In the 1960s, for instance, U.S. pressure was key in shutting down the Swedish effort to build an atomic bomb.
As a result, it’s entirely likely that the mere act of trying to go nuclear would attract waves of punitive U.S. trade barriers.
There’s also the problem of delivery systems. The Canadian military is unable to perform plenty of conventional tasks, not to mention the considerable logistical challenge of launching a nuclear war.
Any development of a Canadian nuclear bomb would be delayed by the fact that it would need to be small enough to fit aboard a CF-18. Canada has no dedicated bombers, long-range missiles or nuclear weapons-capable submarines.
However, Reiss noted that delivery systems might be a moot point if Canada’s ultimate adversary was his home country.
“You could put it on an oxcart and push it across the border,” he said.