The astonishing biography of a mineral that can sustain our world- or destroy it
Uranium occurs naturally in the earth's crust-yet holds the power to end all life on the planet. This is its fundamental paradox, and its story is a fascinating window into the valor, greed, genius, and folly of humanity. A problem for miners in the Middle Ages, an inspiration to novelists and a boon to medicine, a devastating weapon at the end of World War II, and eventually a polluter, killer, excuse for war with Iraq, potential deliverer of Armageddon and a possible last defense against global warming-Uranium is the riveting story of the most powerful element on earth, and one which will shape our future, for better or worse.
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About the Author
Tom Zoellner has worked as a contributing editor for Men’s Health magazine and as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. His book The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds and Desire will be published in the summer of 2006.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - SCALDING FRUIT
Chapter 2 - BEGINNINGS
Chapter 3 - THE BARGAIN
Chapter 4 - APOCALYPSE
Chapter 5 - TWO RUSHES
Chapter 6 - THE RAINBOW SERPENT
Chapter 7 - INSTABILITY
Chapter 8 - RENAISSANCE
NOTES ON SOURCES
VIKING Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in 2009 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
All rights reserved
Portions of chapter 5 originally appeared in the article “The Uranium Rush,” by Tom Zoellner, in the Summer 2000 issue of The American Heritage of Invention and Technology.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Uranium : war, energy, and the rock that shaped the world / Tom Zoellner. p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-101-02452-2
1. Uranium. 2. Uranium—History. I. Title.
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This all began for me at a mesa in Utah called Temple Mountain, so named because its high-pitched walls and jagged spires had reminded early Mormon settlers of a house of worship.
I had driven into the wide canyon at its base, pitched a tent among some junipers, and eaten a can of chili while sitting on a rock and watching the day’s last sunlight creeping upward on the salmon-colored walls to the east.
A set of caves, their mouths agape, dotted the face of the cliff. Pyramid-shaped mounds of rock and talus were piled under them, and rotten wooden boards lay half drowned in this debris.
I looked closer and saw that the caves were square, and one appeared to be propped with beams. These weren’t caves at all. They were mine entrances.
It now made sense. The valley floor had that ragged and hard-used look common to many other pieces of wilderness in the American West that had been rich in gold or silver in the nineteenth century. A braiding of trails was etched into the dirt, and the slabs of an abandoned stone cabin and shattered lengths of metal pipe were down there, too, now almost obscured in the dusk. The place had been devoured quickly and then spat out, with a midden of antique garbage left behind.
What kind of ore had been carted away from here? Curiosity got the better of me, and I wandered over to a spot down the trail where three other people had also set up camp. They were recent college graduates from Salt Lake City on a spring camping trip. After offering me a beer from their cooler, they told me the holes on the cliff were of much more recent origin than I had thought. Uranium mines had been drilled in southern Utah after World War II, and the mineral had gone into nuclear weapons. This was common knowledge around southern Utah.
Uranium. The name seemed magical, and vaguely unsettling. I remembered the boxy periodic table of the elements, where uranium was signified by the letter U. It was fairly high up the scale, meaning there were a lot of small particles called protons clustered in its nucleus. So it was heavy. It was also used to generate nuclear power. I remembered that much from high school science. But it had never quite registered with me that a mineral lying in the crust of the earth—just a special kind of dirt, really—was the home of one of the most violent forces under human control. A paradox there: from dust to dust. The earth came seeded with the means of its own destruction, a geologic original sin.
There was something personal here, too. I had grown up in the 1980s in Tucson, Arizona, a city ringed with Titan II missiles. One of those warheads was lodged in a concrete silo and surrounded by a square of barbed wire in the desert about twenty miles north of my high school. It was nearly five hundred times as powerful as the bomb that leveled Hiroshima. Our city was supposed to have been number seven on the Soviet target list, behind Washington, D.C.; the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska; and several other missile fields in the Great Plains. I lived through my adolescence with the understanding that an irreconcilable crisis with Moscow would mean my family and I would be vaporized in white light, and there might be less than ten minutes’ warning to say good-bye (the brief window of foreknowledge seemed more terrible than the vaporizing). Like most every other American of that day, I subsumed this possibility and went about my business. There could be no other choice; to dwell on the idea for very long was like looking at the sun.
And now, here I was in a spot that had given up the mineral that had haunted the world for more than half a century. The mouths in the canyon walls at Temple Mountain looked as prosaic as they would have at any other mining operation. They also happened to be in the midst of some of the most gorgeous American landscape I know: the dry and crenulated Colorado Plateau, which spreads across portions of four states in a pinkish-red maze of canyons, sagebrush plains, and crumbling pinnacles that, in places, looks like a Martian vista. This, too, was an intriguing paradox: radioactive treasure in a phantasm landscape. The desert had birthed an awful power.
After my trip, I plunged into the library and wrote an article for a history magazine about the uranium rush of the 1950s, when the government paid out bonuses to ordinary prospectors to comb the deserts for the basic fuel of the nuclear arms race. But my fascination with uranium did not end, even years after that night I slept under the cliff ruins. In the present decade, as the United States has gone to war in Iraq on the premise of keeping uranium out of the wrong hands—and as tensions mount in Iran over that nation’s plan to enrich the fatal ore—I realized that I still knew almost nothing about this one entry in the periodic table that had so drastically reordered the global hierarchy after World War II and continued to amplify some of the darker pulls of humanity: greed, vanity, xenophobia, arrogance, and a certain suicidal glee.
I had to relearn some basic matters of science, long forgotten since college. I knew that the nuclear trick comes from the “splitting” of an atom and the consequent release of energy. But why not copper or oxygen or coffee grounds or orange peels or anything else? Why does this feat require a rare version of uranium, known as U-235, that must be distilled, or “enriched,” from raw uranium?
I started reading again about the infinitesimally small particles called neutrons and protons packed at the center, or nucleus, of atoms, and the negatively charged particles called electrons that whiz around the nucleus like bees around a hive. Puncture that nucleus, and the electrical energy that bound it together would flash outward in a killing wave. U-235 is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of injury, and I understood this in concept but could not really visualize it until I came across a line written by the physicist Otto Frisch. He described this particular nucleus as a “wobbling, unstable drop ready to divide itself at the slightest provocation.” That image finally brought it home: the basic principle of the atomic bomb.
A uranium atom is simply built too large. It is the heaviest element that occurs in nature, with ninety-two protons jammed into its nucleus. This approaches a boundary of physical tolerance. The heart of uranium, its nucleus, is an aching knot held together with electrical coils that are as fragile as sewing thread—more fragile than in any other atom that occurs in nature. Just the pinprick of an invading neutron can rip the whole package apart with hideous force. The subatomic innards of U-235 spray outward like the shards of a grenade; these fragments burst the skins of neighboring uranium nuclei, and the effect blossoms exponentially, shattering a trillion trillion atoms within the space of one orgiastic second. A single atom of uranium is strong enough to twitch a grain of sand. A sphere of it the size of a grapefruit can eliminate a city.
There are other dangers. A uranium atom is so overloaded that it has begun to cast off pieces of itself, as a deluded man might tear off his clothes. In a frenzy to achieve a state of rest, it slings off a missile of two protons and two neutrons at a velocity fast enough to whip around the circumference of the earth in roughly two seconds. This is the simplest form of radioactivity, deadly in high doses. These bullets can tear through living tissue and poke holes in healthy cell tissue, making the tissue vulnerable to genetic errors and cancer.
Losing its center piece by piece, uranium changes shape as it loses its protons—it becomes radium and then radon and then polonium—a lycanthropic cascade that involves thirteen heavy metals before the stuff finally comes to permanent rest as lead. More than 4.5 billion years must pass before half of any given sample decays. Seething anger is locked inside uranium, but the ore is stable and can be picked up and carried around safely as long as its dust is not inhaled. “Hell, I’d shovel some of it into my pillow and sleep on it at night” is a common saying among miners.
Only when the ore has been concentrated to more than 20 percent U-235—which is, thankfully, a job of massive industrial proportions—is there the danger of a spontaneous chain reaction. But after that point, it becomes frighteningly simple. Two lumps of enriched uranium slammed together with great force: This is the crude simplicity of the atomic bomb. (A similar effect can be achieved through the compression of plutonium, a by-product of uranium fission that is covered only briefly in this book.)
Though uranium’s lethal powers have been known for less than seventy years, man has been tinkering with it at least since the time of Christ. Traces of it have been found as tinting inside stained-glass mosaics of the Roman Empire. Indians in the American Southwest used the colorful yellow soil as an additive in body paint and religious art. Bohemian peasants found a vein of it in the lower levels of a silver mine at the end of the Dark Ages. They considered it a nuisance and nicknamed it “bad-luck rock,” throwing it aside. The waste piles lay there in the forest until the beginning of the twentieth century, when chemists in France and Britain started buying uranium at a deep discount for the first experiments on radioactivity. A West Virginia company briefly used the stuff as a red dye for a line of dishes known as Fiesta Ware. But it was not until the late 1930s when an ominous realization began to dawn among a handful of scientists in European and American universities: that the overburdened nucleus of U-235 was just on the edge of cracking asunder and might be broken with a single neutron.
This was the insight behind America’s Manhattan Project, which brought a startling ending to World War II and initiated a new global order in which the hegemony of a nation would be determined, in no small part, by its access to what had been a coloring dye for plates. As it happened, a Japanese company had been among the outfits searching for ceramic glaze at the Temple Mountain site in the years immediately before Pearl Harbor. They left several of their packing crates abandoned in the Utah desert, sun-weathered kanji characters visible on the wood. Had the government in Tokyo understood what really lay there at Temple Mountain, the war might have ended differently.
Uranium did not just reshape the political world. Its first detonation at Hiroshima also tapped deep into the religious part of the human consciousness and gave even those who didn’t believe in God a scientific reason to believe that civilization would end with a giant apocalyptic burning, much as the ancient texts had predicted. A nonsupernatural method of self-extinction had finally been discovered.
This unstable element has played many more roles in its brief arc through history, controlling us, to a degree, even as we thought we were in control. It was a searchlight into the inner space of the atom, an inspiration to novelists, a heroic war ender, a prophet of a utopia that never arrived, a polluter, a slow killer, a waster of money, an enabler of failed states, a friend to terrorists, the possible bringer of Armageddon, an excuse for war with Iraq, an incitement for possible war in Iran, and now, too, a possible savior against global warming. Its trajectory has been nothing short of spectacular, luciferous, a Greek drama of the rational age. The mastery and containment of uranium—this Thing we dug up seventy years ago—will almost certainly become one of the defining aspects of twenty-first-century geopolitics. Uranium will always be with us. Once dug up, it can never be reburied.
In this rock we can see the best and the worst of mankind: the capacity for scientific progress and political genius; the capacity for nihilism, exploitation, and terror. We must find a way to make peace with it. Our continuing relationship with uranium, as well as our future as a civilization, will depend on our capacity to resist mirroring that grim and never-ceasing instability that lies within the most powerful tool the earth has to give.
There may be no better place to begin this story than at a different set of ruins. These are in Africa, at the edge of a hole that will not stay closed.
The place is called Shinkolobwe. Its name comes from the Bemba language of south-central Africa and is the word for a thorny fruit resembling an apple, typically cooked by submersion in a pot of boiling water. The outside of the fruit cools quickly, but the inside is like a sponge. It retains hot water for a long time. Squeezing it results in a burn.
The word is also slang for a man who is easygoing on the surface but who becomes angry when provoked.
There used to be a village of the same name at the edge of the pit, but it has since been destroyed by fire. A local story says the area is haunted by a spirit named Madame Kipese, who lives inside the pit. The madame was a cheery and forceful woman when she was alive, but she grew evil after her death and burial. White men came here many years ago to dig the pit and became friendly with her. They may have even had sex with her.
Madame Kipese needs to consume human souls to keep herself strong. She emerges from time to time to kill someone. Unexplained deaths in the area are sometimes attributed to Madame Kipese.
“I would not go there myself,” an officer of the federal police told me. He was on the protection staff of Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“It’s a very dangerous place,” he went on. “Cell phones burn out when you take them there. Television sets wouldn’t work, even if there were a place to plug them in. Be sure you don’t wear a T-shirt. You must wear a long-sleeve shirt to protect yourself from the dust. All the men who work there are supposed to wear long-sleeve shirts. Try not to breathe the dust. Whatever you do, don’t put any of that stuff in your pocket.
“Are you sure you want to go?”
I told him I was sure.
“You have to cross through at least four roadblocks before you get there,” he said. “Each one is more serious. That place is very heavily guarded. It is considered a strategic site. They want to make sure you are not a saboteur. The last line of defense is a squad of United Nations soldiers. I won’t be able to help you with them.”
I wound up paying him $80 for what he described as a special police authorization.
The next day, I received a photocopy with the presidential letterhead on it. Below the letterhead, in blue ballpoint scrawl, was my name, my passport number, my birthday, and a series of villages I was to pass through on my way. The final destination was marked SHINKOLOBWE.
“That place is highly secure,” an employee of a mining company told me. “You’re not even allowed to fly over it.” He knew this because he had been a passenger in a small airplane the previous year, and the pilot had shown him flight maps. The airspace around the pit was marked RESTRICTED, unlike any other nearby terrain.
Shinkolobwe is now considered an official nonplace. The provincial governor had ordered a squad of soldiers to evacuate the village next to the pit and burn down all the huts in 2004, leaving nothing behind but stumps and garbage. A detachment of army personnel was stationed there to guard the edges and make sure nobody entered.
The government had been embarrassed by a series of accidental deaths inside the pit. Some men were digging inside a jerrybuilt tunnel when it collapsed on them. Eight were killed and thirteen injured.
Fatal accidents are all too common in the illegal mining trade of the Congo. Abandoned mines such as this one are scattered all over the southern savanna, and most of them are still being picked over by local farmers hoping to boost their income by selling a few bags of minerals on the side, usually copper and a smattering of cobalt.
Shinkolobwe was different. This was the pit that, in the 1940s, had yielded most of the uranium for the atomic bombs the United States had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But this was more than a historical curiosity. Shinkolobwe had been a menace for years. The mine shafts were sealed tight with concrete plugs when the Congo became an independent nation more than four decades ago. Yet local miners had been sneaking into the pit to dig out its radioactive contents and sell them on the black market. The birthplace of the first atomic bomb was still bleeding uranium, and nobody was certain where it was going.
Shinkolobwe is in the midst of a pleasant savanna of hills and acacia trees in a region called Katanga, where people have been farming for more than two thousand years with tools made from wood and copper picked from the ground. This place, and the rest of the Congo, had been the private preserve of King Leopold II of Belgium, who claimed the territory for himself when European powers were beginning to plant their flags around Africa in the 1870s.
Leopold had enlisted the help of an adventurer named Henry Morton Stanley, a former staff writer for the New York Herald, already famous for his publicity stunt of “finding” the lost missionary Dr. David Livingstone. Stanley set off on a five-year journey to sign land treaties with local chiefs across central Africa, promising liquor, clothing, and some toiletries in exchange for lumber and ivory, in addition to the limitless physical labor of the natives. Within twenty years, Stanley had claimed for King Leopold an estate that was seventy-five times larger that the nation of Belgium. He called it Congo Free State, a corruption of “Kongo,” the name of one of the ancient native kingdoms that had signed itself away. Leopold promised to run “this magnificent African cake” for the charity and benefit of the natives.
The Congo instead became a gigantic forced-labor camp. The Africans were threatened with brutal beatings and the amputation of their hands and even beheadings if they failed to collect enough ivory tusks or lumber to satisfy the quotas of Belgian managers. A blanket of rubber trees covered the region, and King Leopold was in an excellent position to fill the demands of the newborn automobile industry, as well as the need for bicycle tires, electrical insulation, telephone wires, gaskets, and hoses. By the turn of the century, more than six thousand tons of rubber sap was leaving the Congo, all of it tapped by Africans threatened with beatings, imprisonment, kidnapping, murder, and systematic rape. Those deemed lazy had their hands and forearms hacked off by members of Leopold’s security organization, the Force Publique, who sometimes collected baskets of severed hands to prove to their supervisors they had been diligent in encouraging the harvest.
As stories of the abuses leaked out, the Congo became a symbol of greed. Among Leopold’s many critics was Joseph Conrad, who had taken a job on a steamship responsible for moving a load of railroad ties up the Congo River. What he saw there disgusted him. In his novel Heart of Darkness, he wrote of a rapacious company modeled after some of Leopold’s concessionaries. “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the earth was their desire,” he wrote, “with no more moral purpose at the back of it than burglars breaking into a safe.”
Leopold died of an intestinal blockage in 1909, having extracted from the Congo a personal fortune exceeding $1 billion. He never once visited it. The government of Belgium took over the estates and was only slightly more merciful than the king, moderating but not ending the reign of the Force Publique and preserving the system of forced labor under the rule of monopoly companies. The largest was a mining giant called Union Minière du Haut Katanga, which started exploiting copper in the southern tail section. Leopold hadn’t much cared about mining (it was too expensive; rubber was much easier), but the company discovered what he had missed: generous quantities of bismuth, cobalt, tin, and zinc at shallow depths. Under a rug of grass, a golden floor.
Delighted executives called it un scandale géologique—a “geological scandal”—and built an empire of mills, furnaces, and rails in the bush. Locals were paid the equivalent of 20 cents a day to break rocks and push carts. It amounted to a version of debt slavery: Taxes were kept purposefully high, and workers were not permitted to select their own occupations. The men slept eight to a hut in settlements ringed with barbed wire to prevent them from leaving before their contracts were up. Typhoid and dysentery were rampant, and about one miner out of every ten died every year from disease, malnutrition, rock collapses, or beatings administered by the Belgian managers. “The food of the workers is awful,” reported one observer. “They are only fed during the week with flour or corn.”
One of these sites had been Shinkolobwe, where patches of high-grade uranium had been found in 1915. Radium was the most valuable substance on earth at that time; American doctors were calling it a miracle cure for cancer, and some were counseling their patients to drink a weak radium solution sold under the name Liquid Sunshine. A gram of it could fetch $175,000, thirty thousand times the price of gold.
Union Minière tore apart the hill and started tunneling underground, forcing more than a thousand African laborers to dig into what would turn out to be the purest bubble of uranium ore ever found on the earth. The workers were made to carry sacks of the velvety black stone more than twenty kilometers to the railhead, where the sacks were sent to port and then shipped by ocean steamer to Belgium. The uranium-rich leftovers, known as tailings, were simply thrown away. Uranium was interesting only because it hosted tiny bits of radium. By itself, it was considered worthless: a trash rock.
When the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, Union Minière moved its headquarters to New York. War was lucrative, and the United States would soon become the world’s largest user of Congo cobalt, an important metal for the manufacture of aircraft engines. American consumption would rise by a factor of ten before the end of the war, and the Congo mines started operating around the clock.
But there was something of much greater value than copper that the United States would need. On the afternoon of September 18, 1942, a U.S. Army colonel named Kenneth D. Nichols paid a visit to Union Minière. He wore a coat and tie for the occasion. Nichols had just been hired to help administer the Manhattan Project, the top-secret effort to build the atomic bomb, and he was there to buy the waste uranium from Shinkolobwe, which was one of the only known sources of the mineral.
Nichols left the office thirty minutes later with some figures on yellow scratch paper that formed the basis of a secret contract between the United States and Union Minière. The mine would go on to supply nearly two-thirds of the uranium used in the bomb dropped over Hiroshima, and much of the related product plutonium that went into the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The pit was deepened and widened, and the ebony vein of uranium would go on to feed the massive American buildup of nuclear weapons after the war.
“A freak occurrence in nature,” Nichols called it. “Nothing like it has ever again been found.”
For the next two decades, Shinkolobwe enjoyed a mystique as the number one producer of the most powerful substance on earth. Access to the site was forbidden, and the closest a visitor could get was to view the giant block of pure uranium the company put on display in the nearby city of Elisabethville. “As big as a pig, its color was black and gold, and it looked as if it were covered with a green scum,” reported one observer. Visitors were warned not to get too close with their cameras, lest their film be fogged and ruined. A sign said: ATTENTION.BLOC RADIOACTIF!
The Belgians had expected to rule their colony for more than a century, but increasing violence in the capital convinced them to step aside and grant the Congo its independence in 1960. They left behind not so much a country as a plantation. There were only seventeen university graduates left to run a new nation of sixteen million people. With American backing, a twenty-nine-year-old army officer named Joseph-Désiré Mobutu seized power in a coup and would, over time, set himself up as a secular messiah even as he looted the nation as systematically as had King Leopold. The currency, the major river, and the entire country itself were renamed Zaire. New parents were discouraged from giving their children European names, with the president setting the example by renaming himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, which officially meant the “Warrior who knows no defeat because of his endurance and inflexible will and is all powerful, leaving fire in his wake as he goes from conquest to conquest.” (A translation in a related dialect is “Fierce warrior and a cock who jumps on any chicken that moves.”) He took a cut from virtually every business in his country, siphoning off $4 billion and building luxurious marble palaces for himself all over his wretchedly poor nation. The once-promising economy went into a tailspin. Roads fell apart. Farms dehydrated in the equatorial sun. Union Minière’s property was nationalized and then looted.
But not Shinkolobwe. The ore was already running low when the colonial era came to an end in 1960, but the managers feared that such a lethal substance would fall into the wrong hands. They poured concrete into the shafts and carted off the equipment. Scavengers tore the metal from the uranium warehouses. The workers’ village was evacuated and sealed off, and weeds began to sprout inside the shells of brick town houses. Mango trees drooped, nodded, and eventually toppled onto the deserted streets. Shinkolobwe crept back, day after day, into a state of nature.
In the confusion of the Belgian retreat from the Congo, the CIA’s station chief, Larry Devlin, received an unusual cable from his bosses. Could he go out to the campus of the University of Léopoldville and take the uranium fuel rods out of the nuclear reactor? The CIA further instructed him to find a deserted spot in the African countryside to bury the rods until the rioting calmed down.
Devlin was at a loss. He had no training for handling hot radioactive goods. And as for sneaking out to the jungle to bury them, “I could not think of a way to do that in a country where a white man stood out like a cigar store Indian,” Devlin recalled in his memoirs.
This reactor owed its existence to Shinkolobwe. A priest named Luc Guillon, the founder of the Congo’s only university, had argued that the colony had done a patriotic service by allowing its uranium to be acquired by the Manhattan Project, and therefore deserved its own piece of the nuclear future. Guillon was allowed to buy an experimental reactor from the U.S. company General Atomics and install it on the edge of campus. Africa’s first reactor went critical in 1959, to local fanfare. But one year later, the Congo was a newborn independent nation in a state of war, with uranium fissioning behind a flimsy fence while gun battles flared outside.
Devlin sought gamely to carry out his order. He drove out to the university through uneasy streets, passing three roadblocks on the way, and explained his mission to Guillon, who told him that hiding the uranium in the jungle was “a crazy idea.” The rods were safer just left in place. And there they remained.
Mobutu loved the reactor—it was a source of national prestige—and he made sure to attend all its ceremonial functions. But the facility grew shabbier with each passing year as the economy decayed. The cooling water is now said to be filthy, and the power is switched on only once a week, to ensure that it still functions. At only one megawatt, the plant is a toy by world standards (by contrast, the Indian Point station outside New York City has a capacity of two thousand megawatts), but its presence in such an unstable country has long been a worry. A meltdown would not destroy the city; the facility is too small for that. But an accident or sabotage could kill hundreds of people and leave the neighborhood toxic for decades. Guillon’s sense of topography was also poor. The reactor is on sandy soil about a hundred yards from a hill that tends to crumble and slide in the rain.
Security here has been a long-standing joke. When the British journalist Michela Wrong visited the facility, she found “no carefully monitored perimeter fences, guard dogs, or electric warning systems. Only a small sign—one of those electrons-buzzing-around-an-atomic-core logos that once looked so modern and now look so dated—alerts you to the presence of radioactive material.”
The facility is guarded by a low fence sealed with a padlock. Two of the uranium rods in the facility were stolen in the 1970s without anybody realizing they had disappeared. One of them eventually turned up in Rome in the possession of members of a Mafia family, who were offering it for sale to “Middle Eastern buyers” who turned out to be undercover Italian police officers. Only at this point was the long-ago burglary discovered. The other rod has never been found.
For the Congolese, this was just another sour joke; another application of the catchall term Article Fifteen, which is a supposed unwritten clause to the constitution that allows a certain amount of dishonesty in one’s personal affairs.
Article Fifteen is how the Congolese squeeze out a living by any method possible: by selling cigarettes in the nightclubs after work, by smuggling copper into neighboring Zambia, by printing up school diplomas with a forged signature, by renting out the boss’s car as a taxi before he finds out. The phrase, according to Wrong, seems to have originated in the early 1960s when the leader of a breakaway republic in south Kasai grew weary of the pleas for shelter and food from the refugees flooding into his region. He gave them this imperial retort: “It’s your country, so fend for yourself.” This statement was repeated so often, and with such amusement, that some said it ought to be posted as a motto in government buildings. In the wreckage of an economy that is the Congo, this is how things get done.
Mobutu was overthrown by a rebel army in 1998, shortly before he died of prostate cancer. The nation was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the flag of Zaire was replaced with a blue banner with a gold star in the middle—a flag that bore a strange resemblance to King Leopold’s flag. The new government promised better roads and schools. But the culture of graft known as Mobutuism is still pervasive. Diplomas and government contracts are still for sale to those who ask. A request for sucre, or “a sugared drink,” is the usual euphemism for a bribe.
Occasionally the request can be blatant. I once had a brief and inconsequential conversation with one of the top officials at the Ministry of Mines in a southern city. I had met him in his crumbling office building, where the hallways were dark and the lights were broken. When I made motions to leave, he said, out of the blue, “So, don’t you have something there in your pocket for me?”
This was really nothing out of the ordinary: only a customary application of Article Fifteen. In a country raped so long and so badly by those who sought its riches, this is the way many official things are done. It is also the governing principle in the uranium ruins.
Shinkolobwe does not appear on most local maps, but is not a difficult place to find. I hired a translator named Serge, and we rented a Toyota Land Cruiser for a few hundred dollars in the city of Lubumbashi, once called Elisabethville, the principal railhead for most of the ore trains that used to run to the Atlantic. The city’s weak economy still thrives on minerals, both legal and bootleg. Chinese companies have established a presence as buyers of the copper and cobalt picked out of the open pits.
We left the city at dawn and headed north on a potholed national highway that faded into dirt, through forests of eucalyptus and acacia. Ore furnaces lined the road near the town of Likasi, and the road was dusted black with cobalt. Serge turned onto a rutted sidetrack in the hilly country north of Likasi, and we soon got bogged down in the mud. He gunned the engine while I got behind the Land Cruiser and pushed. A group of local farmers happened down the road at that moment, all of them wearing T-shirts and carrying machetes. They joined me in the pushing.
One of them was a man in his thirties with calloused hands and a red jersey. He told us his name was Alphonse Ngoy Somwe and that he had worked as a miner at Shinkolobwe, where copper was usually the big thing. There had been at least one time, however, when he had looked for uranium.
A few years ago, he recalled, some white men had come to buy their ore and had waved electronic devices over the rocks. This would not have been unusual in itself, as the cobalt ore is sometimes vetted for radioactivity, but the men seemed to be looking for uranium specifically. This surprised Somwe. It had previously been considered garbage, a nuisance.
He said he didn’t want to do mining anymore—“it kills”—but after we pushed the Toyota loose, he agreed to show us the way.
We bounced past a Pentecostal church made out of poles and grass and, shortly thereafter, came to a spot where the road took a plunge into a rocky valley, too precipitous for the Land Cruiser to handle. Somwe told us the mine was about four miles farther. Serge pulled the vehicle off to the side. I shouldered my pack, and we all started walking.
A substantial amount of uranium has been smuggled out of the Congo in the last decade, and the source is almost certainly Shinkolobwe.
In October 2005, a customs official in Tanzania made a routine inspection of a long-haul truck carrying several barrels labeled columbite-tantalite, otherwise known as coltan, a rare metal used in the manufacture of laptop computers and cell phones. But he found a load of unfamiliar black grit instead.
One of his bosses later recalled the scene to a reporter: “There were several containers due to be shipped, and they were all routinely scanned with a Geiger counter. This one was very radioactive. When we opened the container, it was full of drums of coltan. Each drum contains about fifty kilograms of ore. When the first and second rows were removed, the ones after that were found to be drums of uranium.”
The truck had come into Tanzania from neighboring Zambia, but had started its journey in the Congo. This was an echo of an incident three years prior in the town of Dodoma when a large cache of raw uranium, sealed in plastic containers, was confiscated. A United Nations panel came in to investigate and concluded the source of both shipments had been illegal mining at Shinkolobwe.
“The frequency of seized consignments in the Central African region leaves no doubt that the extraction and smuggling must be the result of organized efforts, and that these illegal activities must be highly rewarding financially,” said their final report. At least fifty cases of uranium and other radioactive material had been confiscated around the capital city of Kinshasa in the last eight years and even more was going undetected. “Such incidents are far more frequent than assumed,” said the inspectors.
The clandestine picking of uranium is not hard to conceal in the midst of so much other petty corruption. In most of Union Minière’s abandoned pits, there is an active hunt for what is called “Congo caviar”—the rich mineral blend of cobalt and copper harvested by scavengers and purchased by speculators. This activity is supposed to be illegal, but it has been widely tolerated for more than a decade. The miners work in T-shirts and flip-flops and dig out the chunks of “caviar” with shovels, picks, and their bare hands. Approximately fifty thousand to seventy thousand people are doing this on any given day.
The work is dark and dangerous. The miners sink handmade shafts that go perhaps forty feet down, then kink crazily in all directions. The horizontal chambers are known as galleries. They are no larger than crawl spaces; there is barely enough room to make a half swing with a pick. At least forty people a year are killed in tunnel collapses. There is little chance of underground rescue; the galleries become tombs. Giant fissures have appeared on the floor of some pits, indicating that the honeycomb of tunnels underneath has weakened the ground to the point of fracture and collapse.
Once mined, the caviar is packed into threaded plastic bags that resemble sacks of corn or wheat and sold to brokers called négociants, who turn around and sell to a trading company. The cobalt is particularly prized and fetches high prices. It is a vital metal in the construction of jet engines and turbines. Energy-hungry China is a primary buyer. But in the majority of cases the minerals leave the country illegally, without being recorded and without being taxed. The usual route is through Zambia. And at every step in this unofficial process, from the mine to the border, successive layers of police and inspectors demand a cut.
“Those who work in the sector have little choice in the matter; their ability to work, to buy and sell is dependent on paying these bribes,” reported the British advocacy group Global Witness. “The practice has become so institutionalized that it is no longer challenged.”
A freelance miner named Bedoin Numbei, whose T-shirt bore the legend ALADDIN, LAS VEGAS, told me this was true. He himself had snuck into the mine at Shinkolobwe to mine ore with the approval of the same guards who were supposed to be preventing this activity. “You just have to pay a little gift to the soldiers and you can go in there at night,” he told me.
A common joke among nuclear policy analysts is that the best way to move an atomic bomb across a national border is to hide it inside a truck-load of marijuana. In other words, smuggling routes used by average criminals provide good cover for the occasional piece of nuclear merchandise. This appears to have been the case at Shinkolobwe. A dossier from the government in Kinshasa reported that radioactive products, with no weights reported, have been sold in Katanga at prices ranging from $300 to $500 to a variety of traffickers from India, China, and Lebanon. Article Fifteen had been applied to more than just cigarettes, gasoline, and batteries. Uranium ore was now for sale.
After about two hours, we came to the remains of a metal fence nearly covered in the jacaranda trees on the side of the road.
“This was the beginning of the secure zone,” said Serge. He pointed out a small concrete foundation off to one side, also hidden in the brush. There were a few bricks scattered about. It appeared to have been a guardhouse.
Somwe took us down a winding path through man-high grass that eventually led into the ruins of a European-style village in a clearing among mango trees. We walked down a narrow lane that separated two rows of town houses. The walls had mostly collapsed, and those that stood upright were speckled with dark moss. Grass obscured the floors. A line of what had been streetlights was now just hollow steel stumps; the streetlights had been cut down like cornstalks. Mud huts of more recent construction were off to the side, their roofs missing. It felt as if we were walking through the leavings of a bygone civilization—a garrison on the Roman frontier, perhaps, or one of the forgotten silver villas in the Andes. But this was antiquity of the atomic age.
Somwe motioned us onward. We walked about a half mile down a concrete road, past mounds of black dirt, old slag. This was the outer fringe of what had been the B Zone, the heart of the uranium mining operation run by the Belgians fifty years ago. Shards of iron pipe and green chips of oxidizing copper lay scattered on the path. To the west were the metal skeletons of what had been a warehouse and a water tower.
When we passed through a gap in the trees, a panorama suddenly opened. Across a wide clearing in the forest, it was possible to see a line of trees a mile away, across a low man-made canyon whose sides were stained black and brown and whose bottom held pools of cloudy green water. This was the Shinkolobwe pit, the womb of the atomic bomb. On a different side of the world, a quarter million Japanese had been killed with the material from this cavity.
Clinging to the edge of the pit was a steel shaft. It was crowned with a slab of concrete, which gave it the appearance of a toadstool. This was one of the entrances that Union Minière had plugged in 1960, in an attempt to keep anyone from getting at the ore remaining inside. The shaft went almost six hundred feet down. There were no freelance miners anywhere in sight, but the soil in the center of the pit had been thoroughly worked over. Broken wood slats were littered about the slopes, the remnants of jerrybuilt mine works.
The three of us stood at the edge of the pit and looked in for a while. None of us spoke. A few fat cumulus clouds drifted overhead.
We were there for several minutes before I realized that I still had the “letter of authorization” from the police official in my backpack. I hadn’t needed to withdraw it because we hadn’t encountered a single roadblock. Nobody was guarding Shinkolobwe. We had walked right in.
The story of the atomic bomb began in the Middle Ages, in a forest surrounded by mountains.
The range was known as Krušnè Hory, or the “Cruel Mountains,” because of the harsh winter winds and snows near the summits. They took on an even more melancholy appearance in the spring, when creeks drained snowmelt from the meadows and fog pooled in the valleys. Only bears, wolves, and a few tough hermits could live here. Because of the mountains’ obscurity, they became a hiding place for refugees during the religious wars of the fifteenth century, when the reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake in Prague and a radical sect of his followers, known as Taborites, started slaughtering their neighbors and then retreating into walled towns to wait for the end of the world.
Silver was discovered in a creek on the southern slope in the 1490s, which changed everything. Restless young men from farm villages flooded in to comb the forests for easy money; silver was said to be so plentiful that crumbs of it could be seen clinging to the roots of upended trees. When the surface ore ran out, the migrants started hacking into the slopes. They built rude cabins on the hillsides and smelters to roast the ore. The Czech historian Zbynek Zeman cites a pioneer song from the Cruel Mountains that captures the mad glee of that era:
Into the valley
One local strongman, a count named Stephan Schlick, took over the valley in 1516 and started cleaning up the mess. He hired some journey-men to stabilize the mine shafts and brought law and order to the ramshackle outpost that had taken root about halfway to the summit. Seeking a bit of class, he called his roaring camp St. Joachimsthal—or “Saint Joachim’s Valley”—after the father of the Virgin Mary.
The town quickly became the third most populous in all of Bohemia. Taverns sprang up on the valley bottom, where fog and hearth smoke and gases from the smelters thickened the air on cold days. Chicory stew and potatoes were the usual suppers. An early resident complained of “tricksters, riffraffs, and low-lives” as well as “lazy craftsmen, for whom the room and the stool were too hot.”
The silver in the valley made it an inviting military target, and so Count Schlick invested heavily in fortifications. On a promontory overlooking the valley, he built a stone castle with a deep cellar and told his metallurgists to start minting coins inside. The first silver disks they produced featured an engraving of the Bohemian king Ludwig I over the name of the town. More than that, they were big—larger and weightier than any other coin in circulation. Carrying one in a pocket made a person feel instantly rich. They became a regional sensation.
Count Schlick disappeared after marching off to fight the Turks in 1528, and his mines were eventually annexed by the Hapsburg house of Vienna, which ensured a wider reach for the valley’s silver (and handsome seigniorage for the royal sponsors). The big, heavy coins became a staple in market tills and court treasuries in France, Spain, and England. It was a publicity coup for the valley. Merchants began calling the coins Joachimsthalers, later shortened to “thalers,” which became bastardized to “dollars” in English-speaking regions.
In this way, the U.S. dollar took its linguistic roots from the mine shafts of St. Joachimsthal, which, in addition to a river of silver, yielded a curious material that stuck to the miners’ picks. Dark and greasy, it typically showed up in kidney-shaped blobs, with the neighboring rocks stained brilliant shades of green, orange, or yellow.
Excerpted from "Uranium"
Copyright © 2010 Tom Zoellner.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Scalding Fruit 1
2 Beginnings 15
3 The Bargain 43
4 Apocalypse 69
5 Two Rushes 130
6 The Rainbow Serpent 180
7 Instability 213
8 Renaissance 249
9 Legacy 287
Notes on Sources 312
What People are Saying About This
"[Listeners] will be engaged by this story of the most powerful source of energy the earth can yield." -Library Journal