Congo’s Forgotten Uranium How The DRC Was Used to Make the First Nuclear Bomb

On 06 August 1945, the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on a Japanese city, Hiroshima, during the Second World War. Did you know that the uranium used in making the bomb and subsequent atomic weapons were sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)?

On Saturday, 06 August 1945, the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on a Japanese city, Hiroshima, as a warning message to end the Second World War. As with other major world events like the First World War, Africa was involved, and in this instance, as a secret borrowed hand. Most of the uranium used in making the bomb and subsequent atomic weapons were sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 

During the Second World War, world powers were in a race to figure out nuclear weapons. News spread that Nazi scientists in Germany discovered how to split a uranium atom, a process known as nuclear fission. The process required a neutron, which is an electrically neutral particle in an atom, to collide with a uranium atom to release a devastating amount of energy. This alarmed scientists worldwide. To this effect, the US started The Manhattan Project in 1939, which cost about $2 billion and 130,000 personnel. It was stationed in Los Alamos, Mexico and headed by American physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. On 21 July 2023, a biopic based on Oppenheimer was released. The film was written and directed by Christopher Nolan and offered a comprehensive understanding of the events leading up to and following the invention of the atomic bomb from the perspective of Oppenheimer. Like many historical accounts from a global perspective, however, it failed to mention the connection between the bombing and the sourcing of uranium from the DRC. 

A large amount of uranium used in making the first atomic weaponry was sourced from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Katanga province of the DRC. First discovered in 1915 and under Belgian colonial rule, the mine was manned by Congolese labourers to produce uranium for the US. These labourers worked under secret contracts and low wages for the United States national security. To prevent information from leaking, Shinkolobwe was erased from maps and the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, referred to the uranium as an ‘indispensable raw material for the project’. Misinformation was also spread to make it appear that they were sourced from Canada, whose ores yielded 0.03 per cent uranium while Congolese ores yielded 65 per cent uranium. 

Years after, the US was less dependent on Shinkolobwe but still had to prevent other world powers from accessing the uranium. To do this, they ensured that whoever was ruling over the DRC was under their control, especially as the DRC gained independence from Belgium in 1960, with Patrice Lumumba becoming the first democratically elected leader of the country. Six months into Lumumba’s tenure, he was killed in a power struggle. Later, the US supported a dictator coup by Mobutu Sese Seko who remained in power from 1965 to 1997. The economic effects of the coup are still felt to this day as well as health issues arising from the ore radiations. Mobutu who was accused of corruption hoarded the proceeds from the mines which led to the privatization of the sector. This only resulted in unregulated and illegal mining which plunged the DRC into deeper poverty and as of 2023, 62 per cent of the population live on less than $2.15 a day.  

In a 2004 assessment of the mine, the United Nations found ‘high risks of mine collapse and potential chronic exposure to ionizing radiation’. They, therefore, concluded that the mine remained closed down. Talking Humanities also covered the 2016 summit at the South African Museum in Cape Town, ‘The Missing Link: Peace and Security Surrounding Uranium’. The event was attended by Congolese families who believe their history was tarnished by the mine exploitation. Dr Susan Williams, author of Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II affirms that the town is still ‘haunted by the ghost of Hiroshima’. Miners desperate to make a living still go to the site to dig for uranium despite the health and safety risks. 

The DRC was assaulted in the world’s struggle for power but remains uncompensated. Presently, many files on Shinkolobwe are still kept classified and the extent of the exploitation is uncertain. What is for sure is that the forced labour coupled with the health implications of the toxic waves makes Congo another victim of the atomic war

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