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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The Congolese Mine Where the Uranium for the U.S. Atomic Bombs Came From

Photo credits: Julien Harneis

This article is based on this piece, which is from a French version by Remy Zahiga. This article is part of a collaboration with the Foreign & Security Policy division of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. 

The Atomic Bombs

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the largest countries on the African continent, with natural wealth and forest cover being characteristic of its place on the world map. The southeastern part of this vast country cuts through a rich mineral belt that offers cobalt, copper, uranium, and more in vast quantities. Little known to many, it was the Shinkolobwe mine in that part of the DRC that provided two-thirds of the uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Decision of 2004

The Shinkolobwe mine in the province of Katanga, was managed by the Belgian company Union Minière du Haut-Katanga between 1921 and 1959 during the colonial times. From the year 2000, the Shinkolobwe mine was taken over by small-scale miners extracting copper and cobalt with no protection whatsoever against radioactivity. In the interests of ensuring the safety of the population, the Congolese government prohibited mining activities in the Shinkolobwe mine in 2004 by means of a presidential decree. In the same year, around 15,000 people were evacuated from their villages near the mine, according to a 2004 OCHA/UNEP report.

Sifa’s Account

Sifa, a mother of four, was one those who had to relocate, and now lives in the town of Likasi. She still remembers the event as it happened twenty years ago, which she describes as “brutal”. Her husband, Charles, was a small-scale miner in the mine, and the family relied on his job to survive. The day they were evicted was an ordeal for Sifa: “I spent the night outside with my children, as our house and our neighbours’ houses had been burnt down. My heart ached seeing my children cry and knowing that I had nothing to give them to eat. I couldn’t afford transport from Shinkolobwe to here, to Likasi, and I was worried about my husband, as the soldiers in charge of security at the mine were on the hunt for small-scale miners. My husband died in 2010 after a serious illness. I have to look after my children alone now”, she says.

The Closure Leading to Informal Mining

In stark contrast to the nuclear arms race that began during World War 2, the entire African continent is a nuclear weapons-free zone by virtue of the Treaty of Pelindaba. Moreover, the DRC joined 92 other countries in signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2022, which forbids the use and production of nuclear weapons, which in turn rely on uranium ore from around the world. The same treaty states that assistance must be provided to the victims of the whole nuclear fuel cycle and thus also to the communities affected by uranium mining. Despite these obligations and measures put in place by the Congolese state itself, illegal mining continues. In fact, after formal mining operations were prohibited at the Shinkolobwe site, illegal mining without protection and safety measures had led to a multitude of accidents and fatalities.

Ilunga’s Account

Ilunga, a former small-scale miner at the same mine, lives in the village of Mwobesa, a few kilometres southeast of Shinkolobwe. He says that his health has got worse and worse after his long period of work in the mine. In the absence of a scientific explanation, Ilunga suspects that he was exposed to heavy metals and radioactivity in the mine: “I can’t breathe properly and every time I go to the hospital, the doctors say they can’t find any sort of illness. I don’t have the strength to work, nor the financial means to seek treatment in a large hospital or abroad.” He also recalls that in 2006, the wife of one his mining colleagues gave birth to a child with deformities who died one week later. It is likely that the baby’s birth defect was linked to exposure to radioactivity from the mine, as shown by this study from the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).

Energy Transition

A 2021 study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) showed that “[t]he clean energy transition needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change could unleash unprecedented metals demand in coming decades, requiring as much as 3 billion tons [of minerals].” With more than 80 percent of the world’s cobalt reserves located in the Congo, an increasing number of mining operations are set up in the province of Haut-Katanga and other parts of the country. The price of minerals extracted at the Shinkolobwe site, from uranium to cobalt and copper, is constantly increasing due to the worldwide demand for raw materials being intertwined with technological progress and the global energy transition. 

Elisabeth’s and Blaise’s Accounts

Due to the high global demand for mineral resources from Katanga, Elisabeth, aged 54, was shocked to lose a field belonging to her family near the village of Sandra, to the west of the mining town of Likasi, which she had used for farming. “I no longer have anywhere to plant my vegetables to feed my family, I’m not allowed to go there because there’s a mining operation there now, and I have received no compensation,” she says. Meanwhile in Mukumbi, Kikala, aged 43, works with his son Blaise, aged 15, in a small-scale cobalt mine. “I have to fight to feed my family,” he says. “Blaise and I work to pay the school fees of his eight younger siblings.”

An Amnesty International study published in 2023 refers to a UNICEF estimate from 2014 which revealed that almost 40,000 children work in the mines of the Congo.

 

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