Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Congo mine that made the Hiroshima bomb work

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.



MrGarabaldi said...

Hey Peter;

I remember reading about the mine and the results believe it or not from WEB Griffin's books "The Brotherhood Of War" I believe it was, about getting the uranium out of Africa on a storyline. WEB Griffin had done his research well, before that, I never had heard of anything about that.

Old NFO said...

Yep, an interesting history to say the least. Much of what we 'know' isn't actually true, because it's based on long running disinformation programs to protect assets.

BadFrog said...

Mr Garabaldi, I think the books are the 'Men at War' series and were originally published under the name 'Alex Baldwin'. They're rather hard to get hold of here in the UK.

Philip Sells said...

Fascinating stuff! Speaking of Kolwezi, Peter, did you ever hear about the monk from Mt. Athos who ministered there? I forget his name - back in the 60s or 70s, I think. Maybe Elder Kosmas?

Will Brown said...

The Hiroshima bomb was the atomic bomb that used the uranium from Africa. The Nagasaki bomb was a plutonium bomb (that only functioned due to the "shaped charge" developed by Britain as part of their Baker Street [SOE predecessor] guerrilla war against the Nazis during WW II).

See: Churchill's Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton for this and much more:

Peter said...

@Philip Sells: I recall hearing of him/them, but never met them. My visits were not of the kind involving religious activities.

Orvan Taurus said...

I recall reading of an 'investor' who just happened to have a bunch of pitchblende he 'sat on' "because it might be useful." And now I suspect that was one of the stories concocted to cover the actual source. I read that in the early 1980's, but the book (long forgotten) was decidedly not close to new then.

Rick said...

One of my geology professors in the early 1980s held forth on a fascinating experience he had in Africa involving 'pitchblende'. His reluctance to provide the 'rest of the story' was disappointing for it was like reading a cliffhanger only to find the last chapters are missing. said...

Long time lurker here, but I wanted to decloak to let you know I find your African anecdotes quite interesting.

However I must remember never to let you see my possible retro-1980s action-movie type novel set in 1986 Angola if I ever write it. Even though not meant to be in any way historical or 100% tactically accurate I think it'd quickly break suspension of disbelief.)

(Think Charles Bronson goes to Africa and teams up with Jean-Claude Van Damme to rescue passengers from a hijacked American airliner diverted by Cabindan separatists before the Cubans storm the plane. Meanwhile the Soviet military advisor is trying to stall to prevent a major international incident if the Americans should get killed. And then the SA commando raid goes off just in time for a handy diversion...)

Will said...

Mark Felton has released a video about the British backup plan to drop the Japanese nukes for the US. Seems the B-29 wasn't designed to carry either of the two atomic bomb designs, and they weren't sure it could be modified to do it.

The British Lancaster Dam-buster bomber WAS capable of carrying them, but didn't have the range needed. They came up with an air to air refueling system to manage that problem. Neat story!

Along with that, the bombbay release system the Brits used for their monster earthquake bombs was also employed to handle the nukes in the B-29. Lots of British involvement in the overall Manhattan Project, apparently.