Seventy-five years ago today, on August 6th, 1945, the first atomic bomb used in combat was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It killed 70,000-80,000 people through blast and the subsequent firestorm, while another 70,000 or so were injured.
Many people still don't know that the uranium used in the bomb did not come from North America. It originated in an obscure part of Africa. The BBC reports:
The Shinkolobwe mine – named after a kind of boiled apple that would leave a burn if squeezed – was the source for nearly all of the uranium used in the Manhattan Project, culminating with the construction of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.
. . .
The story of Shinkolobwe began when a rich seam of uranium was discovered there in 1915, while the Congo was under colonial rule by Belgium. There was little demand for uranium back then: its mineral form is known as pitchblende, from a German phrase describing it as a worthless rock. Instead, the land was mined by the Belgian company Union Minière for its traces of radium, a valuable element that had been recently isolated by Marie and Pierre Curie.
It was only when nuclear fission was discovered in 1938 that the potential of uranium became apparent. After hearing about the discovery, Albert Einstein immediately wrote to US president Franklin D Roosevelt, advising him that the element could be used to generate a colossal amount of energy – even to construct powerful bombs. In 1942, US military strategists decided to buy as much uranium as they could to pursue what became known as the Manhattan Project. And while mines existed in Colorado and Canada, nowhere in the world had as much uranium as the Congo.
“The geology of Shinkolobwe is described as a freak of nature,” says Tom Zoellner, who visited Shinkolobwe in the course of writing Uranium – War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World. “In no other mine could you see a purer concentration of uranium. Nothing like it has ever been found.”
Mines in the US and Canada were considered a “good” prospect if they could yield ore with 0.03% uranium. At Shinkolobwe, ores typically yielded 65% uranium. The waste pile of rock deemed too poor quality to bother processing, known as tailings, contained 20% uranium.
In a deal with Union Minière – negotiated by the British, who owned a 30% interest in the company – the US secured 1,200 tonnes of Congolese uranium, which was stockpiled on Staten Island, US, and an additional 3,000 tonnes that was stored above ground at the mine in Shinkolobwe. But it was not enough. US Army engineers were dispatched to drain the mine, which had fallen into disuse, and bring it back into production.
Under Belgian rule, Congolese workers toiled day and night in the open pit, sending hundreds of tonnes of uranium ore to the US every month. “Shinkolobwe decided who would be the next leader of the world,” says Mombilo. “Everything started there.”
All of this was carried out under a blanket of secrecy, so as not to alert Axis powers about the existence of the Manhattan Project. Shinkolobwe was erased from maps, and spies sent to the region to sow deliberate disinformation about what was taking place there. Uranium was referred to as “gems”, or simply “raw material”. The word Shinkolobwe was never to be uttered.
This secrecy was maintained long after the end of the war. “Efforts were made to give the message that the uranium came from Canada, as a way of deflecting attention away from the Congo,” says Williams. The effort was so thorough, she says, that the belief the atomic bombs were built with Canadian uranium persists to this day.
There's more at the link, including the less savory side of the mine and the damage it's done to the Congo over the decades since then.
I've been in that area. Shinkolobwe isn't far from the road between Lumumbashi and Kolwezi, in southern Congo. I've traveled between them more than once. I knew there was a mine there, still operational at the time, but didn't know the details. It's interesting that I had to wait until I was on another continent, decades later, to find out its history.