Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Africa: ‘Oppenheimer’ and the origin of the atomic bomb
In 2015, when he was still writing a weekly “Astronomy” column, in The Guardian, J.K. Obatala published a long serial, entitled “Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Africa”. The article ran for 10 weeks; but he did not mention J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer, a physicist, was director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, in New Mexico, which designed the two bombs—plus the historic “Trinity,” test explosion—that were dropped on Japan, in 1945.
Obatala never thought about Oppenheimer—now the subject of a film, released in Nigeria, on July 21st. “If I could do it over again,” he concedes, “I’d probably mention his famous Hindu quote, “Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds”. But he’d still be a minor figure”!
Not that Oppenheimer was inconsequential, in a generic sense. It’s just that, from Obatala’s vantage point, and ours, other issues loomed larger. One of these, was the Manhattan Engineer District’s (MED’s) appropriation of African resources.
“MED,” was a codename for the $2 billion ($24 billion, at 2021 prices) emergency bomb-building project—based, essentially, on uranium from the strategic Shinkolobwe mine, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But unlike ‘Oppenheimer,’ “Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Africa,” is not fiction. The rotted limbs of the Bateke, from radioactive exposure, and the sinister calculations of Edgar Sengier, director of Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK), are very real.
With rare exception, the only editorial changes we have made, has been to merge segments together, to accommodate one issue (instead of 10) and to delete extraneous material.
It is hoped, that reprinting Obatala’s landmark essay, will add perspective to ‘Oppenheimer,’ the film. The bomb testing tower was erected on a stretch of desolate wasteland, in the western state of New Mexico. The Spanish, who once controlled most of the American West, dubbed this particular area (near Alamogordo) Jornada del Muerto — the “Journey of the Dead Man.”
But not even the ruthless Conquistadors could have known how ironic and prescient the name they coined, would turn out to be. It is doubtful too, that they would have conjured up a name like “the Gadget,” for what was, at that time, the most destructive device in human history. When it occurred, the explosion not only vindicated Hans Bethe—who had described the fireball, before it occurred—but also Einstein, whose historic letter convinced U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to act. (Leo Szilard, probably wrote the letter for Einstein.)
The dark, mushrooming (toadstool shaped) cloud that followed detonation, quickly became an iconic image—the symbol of a new era, in which states that could harness and unleash atomic energy, would reign supreme.
As the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) put it, in a posting by its Office of History and Heritage Resources, the mushroom cloud provided “a visual image that has become imprinted on the human consciousness as a symbol of power and awesome destruction”.
“Power,” of course, is what the atomic bomb was all about…. It had nothing to do with “morality”. The use of nuclear weapons against Japan, was a matter or race, power and retribution.
This is clear, from Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speech, after Germany surrendered. Japan’s “treachery and greed,” he said, plus “The injury she has inflicted on Great Britain, the United States, and other countries, and her detestable cruelties, call for justice and retribution”.
Remember, Churchill was speaking on May 8, 1945: Nearly a year after Allied troops started to reveal the horrors of the Holocaust. It is a fact, that both the U.S. and Britain knew what was happening in the concentration camps (where millions of people were gassed or worked to death) long before July, 1944.
Alas, no known acts of Japanese “treachery” or “cruelty,” during World War II, could match the German state’s murder of some 11 million Jews, Rhineland Africans, Senegalese prisoners, Roma (Gypsies), mixed-race Germans and other “impure” or “non-Aryan” types.
The test—code named “Trinity”—was still eight days away. But by this time, it was apparent to most insiders that the Manhattan Project was going to succeed. So confident were its scientists, that the Uranium bomb, which exploded over Hiroshima, was never tested.
It is equally apparent, that from a very early stage in the Manhattan Project (a largely British, American and Canadian enterprise), Japan was the sole intended target of the bomb—and that its use was a forgone conclusion.
The DOE reports, for instance, that immediately after the test, a lieutenant, attached to the military administrator of the project, remarked to his boss that “the war is over”—to which the officer replied, “Yes, after we drop two bombs on Japan”.
No less instructive, is the callous, and even comical, demeanor of U.S. President Harry Truman (who ordered the bombing), after the first device had destroyed Hiroshima and wiped out 66,000 Japanese—instantly.
You Tube footage, of Truman’s address the next day (uploaded April 8, 2014, by “Critical Past”), shows that the President burst into a big grin, during a break in the recording!
Before the bombing, anti-Japanese sentiment had led to the internment of law-abiding citizens on the U.S. west coast, which faces Asia across the Pacific Ocean. But while Japanese were being held in detention camps, the U.S. military was dealing secretly with a firm that was founded in Germany.
Established in Munich, in 1879, Linde Air Products was contracted to process “K-65” residues, which Wikipedia describes as “very radioactive mill residues resulting from a uniquely concentrated uranium ore, discovered before [World War] II in Katanga province…of the [now] Democratic Republic of the Congo…”
Linde was one of two firms, which secretly processed K-65 residue for the Manhattan Engineer District (MED). The other was Mallinekrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis Missouri; with headquarter in Dublin, Ireland.
The Linde Company, in particular, converted Congolese (and other) uranium oxides into uranium tetrafluoride, or “green salt”. Processing units elsewhere, would react the green salt with magnesium to convert it, first to uranium metal and then into ingots, which were shipped to various clandestine sites.
“K-65” signified the uranium content of the African ore and its province of origin, in the then Belgian Congo. In Katanga, the mineral was mined at the small village of Shinkolobwe, where the extracted ore had a yield of 65 percent uranium—the highest known, anywhere.
Uranium was available, for instance, from Canada’s Eldorado Mine at Great Bear and from the plateau area of the U.S. state of Colorado. Initially, the Manhattan Project had relied on these sources. But neither the quantity nor the quality of their ores, could meet MED’s urgent needs.
“In the earliest stages…,” notes a compendium of the Canadian Coalition For Nuclear Responsibility, “Eldorado ores… played a key role…. In… 1942, however, things changed. It was not the… Eldorado mine that would determine the pace of the Manhattan Project, but the rich African concentrates…”
The K-65 concentrates, which Linde processed at its Ceramics Plant in Tonawanda, New York State (and poured the radioactive waste into underground wells and a nearby creek!), are commonly referred to as “residue” or “tailings”: Because uranium was actually a secondary product of extraction.
Prior to the discovery of nuclear fission, and the ensuing advent of MED, the market for uranium was small; and the ore was scarce. Its main use was in the manufacture of bright yellow, orange and green pigments for glazing ceramics and staining glass windows, in churches.
The metal was mined primarily to obtain radium—which is derived, in nature, from the radioactive decay of uranium and, accordingly, is associated with it, geologically. After 1903, radium was widely used in the treatment of cancer and for painting luminous hands on watches and dials.
Wikipedia reports that, “Radium metal was first industrially produced in the beginning of the 20th century by Biraco, a subsidiary company of Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK) in its Olen plant in Belgium”.
Congo being a Belgium colony, UMHK naturally obtained its ore from Katanga. By 1926, writes John F. Harrington, in The Salt Lake City Weekly, the Belgians monopolized radium production “and were charging $70,000 U.S. dollars a gram. The material was used in the first prototypes of X-ray machines. Fabulous profits were extracted from the Shinkolobwe ore”.
The meaning of “Shinkolobwe” isn’t all that clear. It apparently translates from the local dialect as “the fruit that scalds”—paean to a thorny, apple-like fruit with a porous, insulating interior. Squeezed too soon after boiling, hot water trapped inside can ooze out and burn the impatient hand.
Yet, according to the Belgian GECO Project website, “Shinkolobwe is also the name of a small river that has its source at the base of a high hill… It [the hill] was a protruding outcrop in the eroded area of a Cu-Co [copper and cobalt] deposit, about 3 km east of the native village of Kasolo”.
In any event, the outcrop is centrally important in the story of Africa and the A-Bomb. So too, is the legendary Bateke Ghost Warriors: Who used to strike terror in their opponents, by appearing in the forest on dark nights, with their bodies aglow in bluish-white light.
Bateke foes often fled, convinced that the radiant warriors possessed magical powers. In a sense, they did: Because what made the Bateke glow, were pigments from Shinkolobwe—rich in highly radioactive radium and uranium—which they smeared on themselves.
But this “magic” came with a cost. “The Bateke would learn,” lamented Stefene Russell, in Poetry Scores, “that direct contact with radioactive material has its consequences; their flesh began to rot off their bodies. It was if hell had sprung a little leak and leached through the Earth’s crust”.
The fate of Japan, was thus foreshadowed in the forests of the Belgian Congo. Hell had indeed sprung a leak—a radioactive ooze, in Katanga, that would irrupt into unearthly infernos over Hiroshima and Nagasaki….
Yet these were manmade reactors: Mere imitations of nature’s own nuclear knowhow. Indeed, when Enrico Fermi achieved the first controlled chain reaction in 1942, under a stadium in Chicago, nature had already bested him in Africa: By nearly two billion years!
Africa is the only place, where sustained nuclear chain reactions are known to have occurred naturally—not once or twice, but 16 times! This happened in Gabon, just up the Atlantic coast from the Democratic Republic of Congo, at a place called Oklo.
Perhaps I should explain, that a “nuclear reactor” is an apparatus, in which rods of uranium—or some other radioactive material—are inserted, as fuel. Neutrons are then fired into the fuel, to induce a chain reaction.
In a nuclear bomb, the reaction is instantaneous and violent. By contrast, a reactor is designed to do work (such as generate electricity or create new substances) over an extended period of time. Consequently, control rods are moved up or down, to regulate the reaction and prevent an explosion.
The trick, is to slow the neutrons down, so uranium nuclei can capture them. Otherwise, they’ll zip right pass. Such a speed-breaker is termed a “moderator’. In 75 per cent of reactors, it’s light (ordinary) water…
Using water as a moderator, a cluster of natural fission reactors generated energy, spontaneously, for some 300,000 years. Writing in Scientific American, Alex P. Meshik hypothesized that the Oklo reactor may have operated in spurts—turning on for 30 minutes, then shutting down for 2.5 hours.
Robert Rich Sharp came to the Congo in 1904, as a prospector and surveyor for Tanganyika Concessions Limited (TCL)—a British firm, which held a mineral concession in Katanga.
When TCL merged with Union Miniere, Sharp then joined the latter and continued scouting for minerals, mainly copper. This is what brought him to Shinkolobwe, in 1915: The first of two momentous occurrences, involving Union Miniere operatives.
Katanga had a thriving copper industry, centuries before Europeans arrived. Its metallurgists (the “eaters of copper”) had developed furnaces, ore concentration methods and smelting techniques. They forged hoes, ornaments and “handas”—the fabled “Katanga Crosses,” widely used as currency…
Reports of copper mining in the Congo, started reaching Europe in the late 1700s. And when Sharp bicycled into Katanga, copper was the central focus of foreign prospecting. Yet there was also, in Europe, a nascent interest in radioactive elements, particularly radium.
The word “radioactivity,” first appeared in an 1898 paper on polonium. But G.R. Choppin and J. Rydberg note, in Nuclear Chemistry: Theory and Application, that “in the same year” three researchers isolated another radioactive substance “for which they suggested the name radium”.
Sharp was obviously aware of this—since the scientists shared the 1911 Nobel Award. At the same time, he had heard the stories of tribesmen, who painted their bodies with bright pigments and rampaged at night, glowing in the dark.
In 1913, Sharp took samples from a pocket of brilliant reddish-orange, yellow, and green minerals in the side of a copper pit and sent them to Belgium, for analysis. The mineralogist wrote back, counselling that the colours signified “highly radioactive” substances.
Two years later, Donald D. Hogarth, of the University of Ottawa (Canada), reports, Sharp was delineating boundaries on the Katanga grasslands, near Kasolo. While awaiting his crew’s arrival, the prospector began poking idly into the soil—and gouged up coloured clumps, like the ones he’d sent to Belgium.
Sharp had happened upon the richest cache of uranium, on the planet. But UMHK’s blessing, proved to be a diabolical and deathly bane for hundreds, possibly thousands, of Black men in the then Belgian Congo.
Harrington, of The Salt Lake City Weekly, termed Sharp’s discovery “The Devil’s Dirt”. “Natives,” he wrote, “were impressed into digging out and accumulating the extremely ‘hot’ ore—up to 65 percent pure uranium.
“Hapless workers,” Harrington continued, “strung from the mines to the transportation and refining [areas]…, were clueless about the harmful effects of radiation”.
In simple terms, the “natives,” as he calls them, were commandeered to process radioactive pitchblende ore, without protective gloves or clothing—and without being told the implications.
Russell is even more cogent: “The African miners who inhaled radon gas and uranium dust carted ore in open wheelbarrows, breathing in particles that would emit alpha radiation from within their bodies, causing lung cancer, leukemia and lymphoma…”
It was Union Miniere’s hunger for radium [found with uranium] and cobalt that motivated this murderous mobilization. With the advent of the U.S. bomb project, and its voracious appetite for Congolese uranium, UMHK’s gluttonous diet would expand.
“They were hand sorting this damn stuff,” U.S. Army Colonel, Kenneth Nichols would recall, with astonishment, years after World War II. Nichols, who purchased the Katanga ores for MED, was recounting his experiences to Stephane Groueff, during an interview for the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
“My God!” Groueff exclaimed.
But Nichols had only hinted at the horrors. He made no mention to Groueff, for instance, of the 1941 massacre, at Elizabethville (Lubumbashi), of 15 uranium workers, during a strike for higher pay. Amour Maron, the Belgian Governor of Katanga, personally gunned down Léonard Mpoyi, the strike leader.
In any event, Nichols and the MED team nearly missed the boat. Knowledge of Katanga’s unique mineral lode, had long eluded the bomb-makers. That the U.S. Army eventually obtained the ore, is due largely to another momentous happenstance, across the Atlantic Ocean from Congo.
Uranium is not a rare metal. It’s rather abundant on Earth’s surface. But the bomb-builders didn’t know this… “They urgently needed a source,” noted Vincent G. Jones, of the Army Center for Military History, “that could provide high-grade uranium on short notice”.
In Manhattan: The Army And The Bomb, Jones reported that the Office of Scientific Research and Development S-1 Committee (OSRD—the executive committee of the Manhattan Project) would later discover a solution which had, for nearly two years, been staring MED in the face.
When World War II broke out, in 1939, Union Miniere (UMHK) had closed and flooded the Shinkolobwe mine. But several thousand tonnes of pitchblende ore—previously mined, mainly for radium—lay stockpiled at the site.
Belgium fell to German forces in 1940; and Edgar Sengier, UMHK’s director, feared the colony might follow. Congo was, after all, part of “Mittelafrika”—a swathe of territory, encompassing virtually all of Central Africa, which the fascist “New Order” conceived as a strategic German interest.
Then too, Sengier, a mining engineer, interacted with European scientists, who kept him abreast of current ideas and trends. From British and French physicists, he learned of advances in fission research, and was reportedly advised against letting the Shinkolobwe ore fall into German hands.
Thus Nichols told Groueff, that Sengier “had been following some of the work done by the French scientists before the war, and he knew the importance of the uranium as a possibility. Sengier knew what the hell we were doing”.
The fall of Belgium found the director in America—Union Miniere having abandoned Brussels, for New York, in 1939. From his headquarters-in-exile, Sengier continued to sell Congolese ores through the African Metals Corporation, a UMHK subsidiary.
Along with radium, he also marketed copper, tin and diamonds. The U.S. aircraft industry used Congolese cobalt, in manufacturing engines. Ultimately though, African Metals would be remembered, as the conduit through which uranium flowed from Shinkolobwe to MED.
In 1940, Sengier ordered that 1,250 tonnes of the ore stockpiled at Shinkolobwe, be shipped to New York. He instructed Union Miniere’s processing plant in Olen, near Antwerp, to send its pitchblende to the U.S.A. as well. But the Nazis took Belgium before the Olen ore could be moved out.
German U-boats (submarines), armed with torpedoes, patrolled the Atlantic, off Africa. So the ore was secretly transported via river and rail, from Katanga, to the Angolan port of Lobito—and then shipped to New York.
Wikipedia (relying on The New York Times), says 2,006 drums “were stored in a vegetable oil warehouse…in the Port Richmond section of Staten Island. They were plainly marked ‘Uranium Ore, Product of Belgian Congo’”.
The atom, to use Harrington’s metaphor, was now very much “on the loose”. The presence of the Katanga ore, in New York, was hardly a secret. Sengier had sold small amounts to Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab), Monsanto Chemicals and Standard Oil Development Company, all units of MED…
News of Sengier’s Staten Island stash, slowly seeped through to the OSRD S-1 Committee, at Los Alamos. The first awareness emanated from a U.S. State Department official, after African Metals had requested permission to export ore to a Canadian refinery.
The official, Thomas K. Finletter, contacted Colonel Nichols, who was deputy to General Leslie Groves, top military administrator of the Manhattan Project. This, Jones notes, was Nichols’ “first inkling of the existence of the Congo ore”. The Committee promptly ordered Nichols, to buy all of Sengier’s uranium….
The U.S. Army not only acquired the Staten Island cache, but also Union Miniere’s Katanga inventory—taking complete control of Shinkolobwe. Sengier, says Paul DeRienzo, executive producer of Last Secret of the A Bomb, “allowed US troops to seize and reopen the Katanga mine”….
According to Wikipedia, the Army purchased about 30,000 tonnes of uranium oxide (ore) between 1942 and 1944. Other sources report a monthly average of 400 tonnes. Volume aside, the Army Corps of Engineers revived the mine, denied journalists access and removed “Shinkolobwe” from all official maps.
In his book, Uranium, which Atlantic Monthly excerpted, Tom Zoellner wrote: “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 of plutonium that went into the bomb dropped on Nagasaki” ….
As I close out this very long serial, a depressing thought comes to mind. It is ironic, that the African, who provided most of the uranium for the first atomic bomb is, 78 years after Hiroshima, in the very same position as Japan was: That being unarmed and vulnerable.
Japan paid the price of vulnerability, with the lives of its women and children. “Whether one thinks the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified or not,” asserted Alex Wellerstein (The Nuclear Secrecy Blog), “it must be remembered that…they were massacres of civilians. It was not an incidental or accidental side-effect: it was what they were planned to be”.
…Nigeria, as the closest thing to a world-class state that Black Africa has, ought to be thinking beyond conventional weapons—beyond Pelindaba and Nuclear-Non-Proliferation.
Japan manufactured aircraft, cannons and ships. But the monstrosity that rested atop the tower at Las Alamos would render these conventional armaments obsolete. After the Trinity test, the definition of “freedom” and “independence” changed, forever….
Now, only states with nuclear weapons can exercise independence; and only individuals within those states, or who have genetic ties to them, can ever be truly “free”. This is the message of Trinity, which the U.S. subsequently hammered home.
Henry Stimson, the U.S. Secretary of War in 1945, stated the case even more dramatically. Writing in Atlantic Monthly, Paul Ham attributed this observation to him:
“We do not regard it as a new weapon merely,” Stimson reportedly declared, during the meeting to select Hiroshima as the target “but as a revolutionary change in the relations of man to the universe.”
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