On a quest to trace the origins of the Hiroshima atom bomb, writer Patrick Marnham travelled to the Congolese mine that supplied its uranium, and found the Geiger counter still clicking
By Patrick Marnham 7:00AM GMT 04 Nov 2013
Until the discovery of nuclear fission, uranium was an ore of very limited use, and in 1939 it was also in very limited supply. There was one mine in south-western Colorado in the region of a town called Paradox. There was another that had a small but good-quality production at Great Bear Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and there were the Joachimsthal mines in Bohemia.
Uranium’s primary use had been as a dye for the ceramics industry; it produced lemon-yellow, orange and green colouring at various concentrations. When Pierre and Marie Curie identified radium as a source of radiation and demonstrated its use in treating cancer, for which they were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, uranium mines were presented with a second market: radium is a by-product of uranium. Prices reached $3 million an ounce in 1919 and Paradox and Joachimsthal were doing well until 1922, when a newly discovered mine in the Belgian Congo came on stream.
This mine, Shinkolobwe, had been identified as a source of uranium by the English geologist Robert Sharp in 1915, who made his discovery by chance. He was working for Union Minière du Haut Katanga and looking primarily for copper. One day, while prospecting near Elisabethville, he climbed a low hill to take his bearings and noticed that the earth on the hilltop was stained with several colours. One was yellow, which he associated with uranium. Sharp had heard that local men used coloured mud to decorate their bodies. He was told that ‘Shinkolobwe’ means ‘the fruit that scalds’. He sent the rocks for analysis and they turned out to contain uranium at 80 per cent, the purest concentration in the world. There was so much pure uranium at Shinkolobwe that the mines at Joachimsthal and Paradox in Colorado simply stopped producing it.
Miners push trucks of radioactive ore along a shaft at the Shinkolobwe mine, Congo Photo: National Geographic/Getty Images
On our last night in Kinshasa before flying to Katanga, a Belgian acquaintance from Brussels joined our party. Bob had been one of President Mobutu’s vets in charge of his large menagerie of exotic animals. He was really a horse doctor but had adapted to dealing with lions, tigers, elephants, gorillas and leopards. When Mobutu was overthrown, Bob, who had been born in Katanga in the heyday of the Belgian colony, had lost everything. I asked him what he thought of Mobutu. ‘He was a strong man, a leader. He knew how to hold his country together.’
We were sitting in an Indian restaurant on the top floor of a tall building. Around us we could see the few lights of the city, we could hear no noise from the sparse traffic; the darkness covered the unrepaired wreckage of a civil war that had ended 12 years before. It had taken quite a time to reach the top floor. The city’s electricity supply was unreliable and nobody seemed keen to trust the lift. The lobby was protected from the street by scarred steel doors that looked as though they were designed to withstand missile attack. I asked Bob how much he had lost all those years before, when Mobutu had fled the country and the raggle-taggle army had emerged from the forest and pillaged Kinshasa. ‘About US$15 million,’ he said. ‘I was lucky to get out alive. I don’t like Kinshasa. “Ça peut péter à tout moment.” It could go up again at any time.’