"Tracing the Congolese mine that fuelled Hiroshima"
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
November 4th, 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.
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.’
On the way out, back at ground level, he noticed a hole in the wall of the lift shaft and peered through. Then he turned on his torch. ‘Have a look at this.’ Hundreds of bright little eyes peered back into the torchlight. ‘Rats. It’s the bottom of the rubbish chute. Hasn’t been cleared for years but the restaurant kitchen is still using it.’
Next morning our driver ‘Papa’ Thomas drove us out to the airport and I told him that since we were catching an internal flight to Katanga I expected no entry or exit controls, no customs, no problems. Papa Thomas smiled happily when I took this optimistic line. ‘We’ll see,’ he said. Papa helped me with the luggage and we crossed to the door of the Kinshasa Passenger Terminal. The door seemed to be closed but Papa pushed through the crowd and there was a man in uniform saying, ‘L’entrée est payante.’ I am not sure who he was. I think he was a luggage porter who had decided to block the door. ‘I refuse to pay,’ said Bob. Matter of principle. ‘How much?’ said Papa. ‘US$5,’ said the porter.
‘I refuse,’ said Papa. ‘These messieurs can afford US$5, and you refuse to pay?’ said the porter. ‘No. I refuse to come in,’ said Papa.
‘I’m coming in,’ said Bob. ‘Mission officiel, nothing to pay, no question,’ and he waved a document headed Ordre de Mission and bearing the stamp of the Ministry of Culture. The porter gave way, we waved goodbye to Papa Thomas and together with most of the people outside were swept into the terminal. The ordre de mission got us past the baggage porter but that was the limit of its authority. In the departure hall there was turmoil on all sides.
‘No suitcases to be checked in unless they are padlocked.’
‘Padlocks to be purchased from the porters.’
‘All checked baggage carries charges.’
The crowd surges backwards and forwards – passengers, relations, pickpockets, airline officials, all closely involved in the ritual of ‘checking in’. Faced by the addition of 16, 17 and 19 kilos, the procedure grinds to a halt at the weighing machine, until I tell them my luggage weighs 52. Is it 52? I have no idea. It looks like 52 so we go with 52. Passengers start shouting different figures from all sides. So much for the payload at take-off. For some reason we seem to be the only blancs on the flight. Bob, who was a pilot as well as a horse doctor, passed the time in the departure hall by analysing the previous week’s disaster at Goma, when dozens of people had died after a scheduled flight failed to take off and ploughed into a shanty town.
He said that the airfield at Goma is at 1,200m above sea level, so jet engines run at only 70 per cent efficiency. One third of the runway at Goma was out of action due to a lava flow from a nearby volcano which had never been cleared up. Congolese loadmasters habitually took bribes to overload the planes – fact. So the pilot probably found himself with an overloaded plane that refused to lift on a short runway, and the plane skidded off the end of the runway into a shanty town that was not supposed to be there, killing dozens of Rwandan Hutu refugees.
Our flight with Hewa Bora was not a great success with Bob. As the crowded passenger cabin became fully loaded his state of alert increased. Standing at his seat he surveyed each new arrival, mothers, children, large men with briefcases, as though they were raving mad to be seeking accommodation on this already over-packed aircraft. When the doors eventually closed he set off up the gangway and I saw him push his way into the pilot’s cabin. He returned grim-faced. ‘No whites on the flight deck.’ We taxied towards take-off with the brakes creaking and banging. As the Hewa Bora DC-9 lumbered into the air, Bob remained on full alert. ‘He used the entire runway. What’s more his discs are shot. There’s no doubt the landing’s going to be terrible. There are always problems on the runway at Lubumbashi...’
Despite Bob’s gloomy forecast we landed in one piece and exited the plane through the rear door, beneath the tail. At the foot of the steps a worried-looking mechanic was holding up a bucket to catch a thin fluid stream that was pouring out from above his head and smelt of aviation spirit.
There are many ways to crash a plane in Congo. And the reason why the Democratic Republic ‘holds the world record for air crashes’ – to quote Africa News – has nothing to do with the nationality of the pilot. You can leave a lava flow across a runway (Goma today) and then attempt to take off during a rainstorm along a flooded runway and stall one of your engines – the real reason for the Hewa Bora crash in 2008 (31 dead). Or you can ignore instructions and attempt to land during a violent storm and crash the plane short of the runway (Hewa Bora at Kisangani, 2011 – 101 dead), or even on it (Kinshasa, 2011 – 33 dead, UN flight with Ukrainian pilot). You can under-fuel the plane so that it cannot divert to a safe airfield, but you are able to sell the fuel twice (Kisangani, 2011). Or you can fly in an ex-Soviet Union Antonov.
In 1996 an Antonov failed to take off from Kinshasa and crashed into a local market, killing about 300. In 2003 an Antonov 26 failed to take off from Boende and killed 35 people in the town. In 2006 an Antonov 26 crashed when trying to land at Lubutu, in eastern Congo: 11 people were killed. In 2007 four Antonovs crashed in Congo killing more than 100 people. Alternatively you can fail to check the hand baggage at Kinshasa (2010) and allow a passenger to carry a small crocodile on board, packed into a large sports bag. The crocodile escaped from the bag during final approach to Bandundu causing a stampede of passengers and cabin crew on to the flight deck where the Dutch pilot and his co-pilot, from Gloucestershire, lost control of the L-410 Turbolet – and all on board, except for one passenger and the crocodile, were killed.
Finally you can take off from Kinshasa, in May 2003, with a full load of passengers and land perfectly safely at Lubumbashi but without any passengers at all, since they have all been sucked out of the depressurised cabin somewhere over the rain-forest. No one has ever discovered how many people died on that occasion since an accurate passenger list had not been compiled.
After a while one comes to think of air travel in Congo as just part of the black comedy of daily life, an existence that people accept as routinely hazardous, where each completed day becomes a further excuse for joyful celebration. In a land where planes crash because airline officials have stolen the fuel, you need to be resourceful to survive. We called on an old colonel, Franz Couttenier. Franz was not born in Elisabethville (now renamed Lubumbashi) He set out from Poperinge in West Flanders as a child, one of a family of nine who were attempting to travel overland to Australia. When they passed by the Belgian Congo they decided to stay. Couttenier now lives in a splendid house with a large garden in an unfashionable part of the city. It is unfashionable because it adjoins the main army barracks. He said that he had acquired his house cheaply because everyone else was too frightened to live there. ‘If the army want to shoot me,’ he said, ‘they only have to lean out of their window. They don’t even have to get out of bed.’
Of the original nine children, Franz was the only one left. Some departed after independence, the remainder after the fall of Mobutu. Three of his four children had moved back to Belgium and his wife wanted to go too. But he still had the family farm, 5,000 hectares of good land reclaimed from forest at the heart of the copper-mining belt. He grows maize and raises cattle; he has recorded the lowing of his cattle as his mobile ring tone. He said that by rights Congo should be paradise.
‘Nothing to do with mining but because of the agriculture. Agriculture is a renewable resource. The Congo river crosses the equator twice, so there is no dry season and no low water. And we have incredibly rich soil that is unexploited. Yet today the fields are abandoned and we import food. ‘We have the world’s worst form of government, a dictatorship without a dictator. No strong man. We have miners who have never run a mine and bankers who have never run a bank. Money-laundering and diamond smuggling are well established and drugs will follow. I am not sure what will happen after that. You can never tell in Africa. The Africans are good people, but we never really know them.’
The first farm that Franz Couttenier’s father owned in Congo was at Shinkolobwe, and bordered the domain of the uranium mine. He grew up beside the mine. The current status of this mine is one of the ongoing mysteries of Katanga. It was officially sealed in 1960, although it remains one of the largest deposits of high-grade ore in the world. It also contains cobalt. The Shinkolobwe mine is not only sealed but heavily guarded, and yet it is known to be mined illegally and dangerously by artisan miners who scrabble around the entrance digging up what they can. There are frequent rumours of visiting businessmen in Congo being offered suitcases full of black-market uranium ore.
A United Nations report in 2006 found that 15,000 amateur miners were living in the village of Shinkolobwe and using ‘informal’ or manual methods to mine cobalt from what was supposed to be a sealed uranium mine. Shortly before the UN inspection took place the regional authorities had destroyed the mining village and les creusers (the illegal miners) were dispersed. But rumours of black-market uranium being offered for sale soon started again. Hacking into a flooded uranium mine to remove the ore is a dangerous occupation, but at Shinkolobwe children were said to be employed by the black-market traders, and tunnel collapses were frequent.
It took us three years to get permission to enter Shinkolobwe. Eventually help came from an unexpected quarter. We had dinner with a building contractor who lived by a lake in Lubumbashi. The lake was teeming with tiny frogs. Pretty lake, no mosquitoes, but full of bilharzia. I asked our host if this was the lake where a European ambassador had once been eaten by a crocodile while taking a nocturnal stroll. He said there were no crocodiles and anyway that sort of thing only happened in Kinshasa.
The building contractor said he knew the governor of Katanga very well and would have a word. We heard no more. Then one morning the telephone rang and it was our friend who said that Governor Katumbi had called him at 7.30am and that he was displeased. The governor had given our friend a rocket because the cinéastes had not yet paid a courtesy call. We were to be at the palace in one hour.
The meeting lasted less than 10 minutes. The governor listened to Manu and summarised our project as ‘un document historique’, and said it should be seen by every schoolchild in Katanga. The visit would be organised by the Ministry of Mines and could go ahead at our convenience.
We spent the night before we set out for Shinkolobwe in the guesthouse of a Franciscan convent that was attached to a girls’ boarding school. At 5am the convent bells rang out to rouse the girls. I had not been woken by school bells for 50 years. The girls had breakfast, went to chapel and started lessons at 7am. Our police convoy set out for Shinkolobwe at 9.30.
There were five vehicles in the convoy: the lead car contained a major of police, followed by the Atomic Energy Agency car driven by Leonard, who was equipped with Geiger counters. After 10 minutes we stopped at police headquarters to take on six more policemen. The mine was supposed to be sealed but was said to be infested with creusers who could become aggressive if interrupted.
We reached the mine at 12.20pm after twice losing our way in the forest. On one gentle bend Leonard managed to overturn the Atomic Energy car. Eventually we found the right path by following the wide tracks of a lorry, presumably one that was normally laden with bootleg cobalt and uranium. The trees opened out and we found ourselves in a rather overgrown clearing containing several twisted steel skeletons that marked the site of the world’s most celebrated and most secret uranium mine.
There is no shortage of rumours about Shinkolobwe. We had been told that it was staffed by child miners, that it was heavily guarded by South African soldiers, and that the ‘South Africans’ were actually US marines. A Belgian professor of politics in Lubumbashi had identified the mine as the key to the situation in the Middle East and the target of Sudanese mercenaries working for Hezbollah, which was supplying Iran with uranium. The professor said that he had recently visited the site wearing a lead-lined suit. We had no lead suits but we did have paper face masks, thoughtfully provided by the Atomic Energy Agency.
The Shinkolobwe mine in its heyday was a single shaft that was entered at the summit of a low hill. The uranium lode took the form of a vertical egg and the shaft ran straight down through the centre of the egg with galleries running off to left and right at intervals. When the mine was sealed by Union Minière on its departure in 1960 the shaft was filled with concrete and a solid ferroconcrete cap was constructed over the summit of the hill. It did not take the creusers long to work out that the way to crack this abandoned golden egg was to forget about the central concrete shaft and attack from the sides. Fifty years later the result is a new landscape. The hill has disappeared. In its place there is a raised rim about two metres high encircling a crater about 10 metres deep. And lying at the bottom of the crater is the original mine shaft, now visible as a long concrete pillar that has snapped off and tumbled over. Today the mine is derelict and heavily overgrown, a tranquil relic of the bombs that liquidated two Japanese cities.
Everyone got out of the cars and the major led the way to the lip of the crater around the main shaft. As we started to film, Leonard, the unpredictable driver with the Geiger counter, said that we had a maximum of 30 minutes for the good of our health. He obviously had no idea about the length of the filming process. Manu’s voice rang out – ‘Silence. On tourne.’ Justin, our reliable driver, did not like the look of the Geiger counter and said that he would be getting himself examined by a doctor when he got home. It was a beautiful day. Towering white pillars of cloud against a deep blue sky. There were black martins hawking low over our heads, and white and blue butterflies in the wind that kept the tall grass rustling, a flame tree was in flower and there was a grove of umbrella thorns, all about 30 metres tall. These trees had had 50 years to grow since independence. Radiation seemed to make good fertiliser.
The first shots of the crater used up 20 minutes of our time, leaving us barely 10 minutes to shoot a water reservoir. Leonard said that the reservoir had the highest score on the site and issued more paper face masks as a precaution. The Geiger counter started to click and Leonard told us to move on. The director and crew disappeared to the far side of the mine to film the rusting steel girders, and did not reappear for 40 minutes. By the time we left, 30 minutes had become two hours.
In the forest on the road back to Likasi we came across the ghost of a graveyard lost in the trees. There were lines of rusty red iron crosses that seemed like miniature echoes of the rusty iron superstructure of the uranium factory. Each grave was neatly marked and of exactly the same size and design as though these people had all died at the same time. There were no names but these were clearly African graves because on each there was a white enamel food bowl; this was a precaution, placed there to feed the phantoms so that they did not leave the cemetery and return home looking for food. Each bowl had a neat hole drilled in the bottom to make sure that some profane traveller did not steal it and return it to human use. The fact that so many people had died and been buried in military order at the same time had the unmistakable air of a mining accident.
Days later, back in Kinshasa we said goodbye to Papa Thomas, who was sitting under a gum tree, looking over the Congo towards Brazzaville. There was a thick grey haze on the water but one could still make out the swirling flow just above the rapids, the heavy scattering of timber from the forest being swept on towards the sea, and the fishermen with the long poles standing in their pirogues and casting their nets. This was where it had all started, the point above the rapids where the river became navigable upstream, deep into the heart of the forest, and the place where Stanley set up his first camp. This had been the Central Station, later Léopoldville, now Kinshasa, where the king’s agents realised very quickly that ‘Anything – anything can be done in this country.’ And where their successors have been doing practically anything ever since.
Walking across the tarmac through the night to the A330 Airbus that had landed 12 minutes ahead of schedule, we could see flames and a lot of smoke pouring from the Arrivals terminal. The fire engine had already arrived. Then as we drew closer it became clear that the Arrivals building was fine.
It was the fire engine that was on fire.