In the high desert plains of eastern Washington in the United States, there is a big blue bend in the vast and winding Columbia River that surrounds a site known as the Hanford Reservation.
Spaced along the banks of the river at regular intervals are huge windowless concrete structures: decommissioned nuclear reactors built in the early 1940s to produce enriched uranium and plutonium for America’s nuclear weapons programme.
The reactors surround one of the most highly contaminated landscapes on the planet, with vast fields of underground tanks and hectares of polluted soil that contain the radioactive legacy of the rush to build the first nuclear bombs.
But that contamination isn’t unique.
It shares a certain quality with several other sites found around the US, where America’s atomic weapons programme, the Manhattan Project, processed the uranium ore that its scientists and military authorities needed to design those bombs, construct them, use them over two cities in Japan — and then to build thousands more.
These sites, from Hanford to the poisoned suburbs of St Louis and Cincinnati, to crumbling industrial structures in Buffalo and Middlesex, New York, show the residue of K-65 contamination.
This is the name given to waste left behind from the processing of a specific body of highly concentrated uranium ore; the most highly concentrated uranium found on the planet.
The source of that uranium was the Shinkolobwe mine in the Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
First developed under Belgian colonial administration in the 1920s, the mine’s potent uranium ore (some of it at 65% concentration, when most mines struggle to produce ore at 0.03%) was ignored at first in favour of mining radium to supply the craze for radiation cures sweeping Europe.
European scientists had just started to imagine the explosive power found in the nucleus of the uranium atom when World War II broke out, and Shinkolobwe’s special rocks became subjects of an international struggle for control of a power that seemed likely to reshape the world.
The US’s wartime military authorities worked hard to ensure that the potency of Shinkolobwe ore was kept from their enemies. Ultimately, this ore helped to win the war — nuclear bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, forcing Japan to surrender — and was subsequently used to develop the US’s vast arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Wartime spy networks that had denied the use of Shinkolobwe ore to the Nazis turned their attention towards concealment of the mine’s location, and even its name, with the word “Shinkolobwe” stricken from maps for decades.
When Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba rose to prominence in the late 1950s, with a promise to liberate the nation of Congo from long years of colonial and postcolonial exploitation, the intelligence machines of the US and Belgium moved frantically to prevent his victorious nationalist movement from seizing control of territories of the nation’s southeast.
This is where most of the country’s mines, and Shinkolobwe, were located.
Just months after taking power in June 1960, Lumumba was ousted with the collusion of American intelligence. He was transferred to the province of Katanga, where he was later assassinated just 80km from Shinkolobwe under the supervision of agents of the Belgian mining consortium Union Minière.
In 1960, the mine was closed and the entrance filled with concrete.
The story of a secret mine possessing ores of immense power inspired US comic artists Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1977 to invent the character of Black Panther, an African king who rules a technologically advanced secret kingdom powered by a magical metal, zealously guarding it against a rapacious outside world that would exploit it.
Today the mine is abandoned, after the extraction of all of the usable uranium and the ensuing six decades of artisanal and informal mining for cobalt and other minerals.
There has been speculation that Russian enterprises have expressed interest in reopening the mine, even though the uranium is long gone.
The DRC’s mineral wealth continues to power much of the world’s rapid technological development, although little of that wealth returns to improve the lives of the people, including children, who work the ore.
The rare metals that power our smartphones (themselves employing technologies developed in the service of the US defence industry) are dug by miners working in conditions that are worse than those of Shinkolobwe’s uranium miners in the 1940s.
The mine’s legacy is still felt by descendants of expatriate Congolese mineworkers in South Africa, where the Congolese Civil Society of South Africa has, for the past six years, organised an annual conference called the Missing Link.
This event has the goal of bringing awareness of the history of Shinkolobwe to a world audience, and linking the histories of people around the world affected by what was done with Shinkolobwe’s ore.
Isaiah Mombilo and Yves Salankang Sa Ngol, directors of the group, speak about the effects that decades of labour in the Shinkolobwe mine had on people who are now elders, as well as their descendants.
Cancers, in-utero deformations and other health consequences are reminders of a history of manual labour performed to bring to light some of the rarest and most potent ores on the planet.
The stories of the people who did this work, and who survived the history of the Shinkolobwe mine, are only beginning to be told.
This articke was first published in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.
Hidden: Shinkolobwe mine provided the uranium ore for the nuclear bomb.