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Beneath campus, an abandoned nuclear physics lab lies in decay A special report from The queen's journal

By Amelia Rankine and Iain Sherriff-Scott

In the corner of a dusty basement classroom under Ontario Hall, a sign reading “danger, do not enter” is crudely taped to a door.

The door, nearly inaccessible behind a wall of cluttered desks, chairs and other furniture, leads to a long-forgotten underground laboratory, built to house a state-of-the-art particle accelerator in the 1950s. Today, nearly 70 years later, the lab sits in ruins, sealed off from campus.

Through a confidential source, The Journal obtained photographs of the lab and its hidden underground annex.

The entrance, pictured below, has the lab's only remaining ceiling light.

Inside the main chamber, through a pair of large doors, boxes of moldy records, scattered shelving units and rusty chairs fill the room. The particle accelerator is long gone.

“Tremendous possibilities”

The laboratory in Ontario Hall was constructed to house a seventy-million-volt particle accelerator Queen’s purchased in the late 1940s.

At the time, the machine, called a synchrotron, was hailed as a leap forward in atomic energy research and the study of radiation in Canada.

Intended to help facilitate research into x-ray radiation, the synchrotron consisted of a large electromagnet weighing roughly eight tonnes, which produced a magnetic field to guide electrons around a circular path inside an airtight hollow glass ring.

The Synchrotron laboratory's annex, highlighted in blue. Credit: Queen's University Archives

Operated by remote control because of the radiation the machine emitted, a circuit was adjusted to give the electrons a push each time they went around in a circle, increasing their energy each time. After traversing the circle around a million times—which took about one two-hundredths of a second—the electrons acquired an energy corresponding to seventy million volts.

The synchrotron spins electrons in a circular motion before they are directed to strike a piece of metal. This slows their speed, creating x-rays in the process.

Photos from inside the laboratory for the unveiling of the synchrotron on Feb. 8, 1950. Bottom left: Professor Gray (left). Credit: Queen's University Archives

The machine was used to study the effects of a high-energy x-ray radiation and the properties of electrons—the goal being to learn more about atomic reactions and energy distributions of the x-rays and other radiations.

Professor Joseph Alexander Gray, a veteran of the First World War and the Chown Science Research Professor, led the Queen’s synchrotron project.

Two men exit the newly-minted underground lab. Credit: Queen's University Archives.

In the lead-up to the Second World War, Gray’s objective was to build a nuclear physics laboratory at Queen’s.

He first attempted to purchase a cyclotron—a different kind of particle accelerator—which he argued would keep Queen’s competitive with other institutions, but his request was denied.

However, Gray persisted. The Friday before the outbreak of the Second World War, his application to acquire an electrostatic high-voltage generator was approved, only to have the approval withdrawn the following Monday after the declaration of war.

Only after the war did nuclear physics receive renewed interest, and the Atomic Energy Control Board stepped in to fund Queen’s project. Gray was approved for the new laboratory.

“With this machine the Department of Physics will be able to keep in the forefront of atomic energy research for many years to come,” an article published in The Journal at the time read. “A new field with tremendous possibility has opened up.”

An invitation to the unveiling ceremony of the synchrotron, held on Feb. 8, 1950, said the machine was the first of its kind in Canada and would produce the highest x-ray energy available in the country for several years after.

“Harmful effects”

The project carried safety concerns about radiation exposure. A Journal article announcing the construction of the underground annex explained that, if the machine were housed in a laboratory above ground level, concrete walls ten feet thick would be required to contain the radiation produced by the synchrotron.

“X-radiation from the newly-developed machine is both intense and penetrating and it is important that experimenters and others in the neighborhood be fully protected from its harmful effects,” the article read.

According to the article, the machine’s radiation safely dissipated into the earth from the underground bunker.

Researchers operated the synchrotron from the above-ground control room in Ontario Hall, which was, at the time, the physics building—safe from radiation.

“Stay awhile”

The control room, containing the entrance to the underground annex, is now a dusty sculpture studio.

Ontario Hall has served as a home to several programs over the years, including geology, chemical engineering, geography, math, and now fine art and art history.

The physics department moved to Stirling Hall in 1965, leaving Ontario Hall, and its underground laboratory, to be repurposed. Based on present-day photographs, the annex appears to have been used as storage before it was forgotten.

Words written on the side of a wooden shelf in pink chalk read "stay a while"—evidence other students have visited the underground chamber.

The white tiles that line the annex in the historical photographs have rotted off the walls. Overturned metal chairs have become rusty hazards, while records covered in mold are stacked on tables and in mildewed boxes.

In the original construction of the laboratory, the equipment was moved down the ramp into the annex: everything but the electromagnet. Because of the machine’s weight, it had to be lowered down through a hole in the basement ceiling, which was later sealed with concrete.

The hole is now covered by the sidewalk that runs between Ontario Hall and Douglas Library, and the door in the dusty basement classroom, once left ajar, is now locked.

Workers lower the annex into the ground beside Ontario Hall. Credit: Queen's University Archives.
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