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Nuclear Weapons

The DRC and America’s Nuclear Weapons

by Jasmine Owens / Tara Drozdenko
February 27, 2019

The link between colonialism, exploitation, and nuclear weapons is seen most clearly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Eighty percent of the uranium used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs originated from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Belgian Congo, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Congo was the number one supplier of uranium to the U.S., and the people of the DRC paid a heavy price.

Two men in short-sleeve uniforms stand on a dirt road in front of a closed gate.

Guards salute at the gate of the Shinkolobwe uranium mine, 1953.

Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Forced Labor and Exploitation

In 1885, without the support of his government, King Leopold of Belgium created his own personal colony in what is now the DRC. Leopold's private army terrorized the indigenous population and basically turned the entire area into a forced labor camp for resource extraction. The human rights violations were so extreme that there was intense diplomatic pressure on the Belgian government to take official control of the colony, which it did by creating the Belgian Congo in 1908. Things improved slightly when the Belgian government took over, but not much.

Article 3 of the new Colonial Charter stated that: "Nobody can be forced to work on behalf of and for the profit of companies or privates". But, this was not enforced, and the Belgian government continued to impose forced labor on the population through less obvious methods.

When Germany occupied Belgium in June of 1940, the U.S. convinced the Belgian company that managed Shinkolobwe to move all of its mined supplies of uranium to the United States for safekeeping. Twelve hundred tons of ore was shipped from the Congo to Staten Island, NY, and stored there.

When the Manhattan Project launched in 1942, the U.S. government finally bought this 1200 tons of uranium that had been sitting in New York, in addition to 950 tons still sitting in the Congo. In order to get that 950 tons packed up and shipped, the Belgian overseers ran round-the-clock shifts, where the miners sorted and packed the uranium by hand for about two weeks straight. It’s possible the miners were exposed to a year’s worth of radiation over the course of those weeks, and they may have had no idea of the danger of their work.

open pit mine

The Shinkolobwe mine in the 1940s.

Public Domain

During the 1950s, the U.S. wanted to monopolize the uranium sector in the Congo in order to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining access. So, the U.S. hid the amount of uranium they were extracting from Congolese mines and capped costs at the expense of the miners who continued to be underpaid and overworked. As a result, Congolese miners were forced to work under secret contracts to produce uranium at extremely low costs for the sake of U.S. national security.

Secessions, Assassinations, and Dictators

When the Congo secured its independence from Belgium in 1960, Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically-elected prime minister of the new country. Lumumba made it clear that he would not give the U.S. the same amount of freedom as Belgium had when it controlled the Congo, worrying the U.S government.

two men sign papers seated at desk

Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese Prime Minister, and Gaston Eyskens, Belgian Premier, sign the act of independence in the Palais de la Nation, June 30, 1960.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Eleven days after the DRC gained independence, the Katanga province where the Shinkolobwe mine was located seceded from the country. Private mining companies working with Western governments likely planned the secession in order to secure uranium production no matter who stepped into power. After the secession, Lumumba reached out to the Soviet Union and other states for help, which only heightened U.S. concerns.

After less than 6 months in power, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in a mission authorized by U.S. President Eisenhower. The assassination of Patrice Lumumba changed the course of Congolese history forever. With the help of the CIA, Joseph Mobutu was appointed the new leader of the DRC. He proceeded to transform his rule into a clear dictatorship with the full support of the U.S. government. In the years since the DRC has gone through a succession of authoritarian leaders.

Corruption, Violence, and Wealth Inequality

Mobutu controlled all mining from the Katanga region. Corruption was the name of the game as revenues were diverted to Mobutu and his cronies. This unfettered theft drove the mining company into bankruptcy. In 2000, the mining company had to be privatized. This resulted in both a power and security vacuum as state involvement dissipated. Mining was left completely unregulated, and illegal artisanal and small-scale mining of uranium and other minerals flourished. Artisanal, small-scale mining has had poor economic effects on the DRC. It has deepened severe socioeconomic disparities within Congolese society, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

While national and international elites have profited from the mining industry in the DRC, the people living in and around the mines are plagued with health issues, inescapable poverty, and perpetual conflict.

young boy in the mines

Boys go to work on December 13, 2005, in Ruashi mine about 20 kilometers outside Lubumbashi, Congo, DRC. At the time, about 4,000 young men and children worked at Ruashi as artisan miners from dawn to dusk, mining copper and cobalt. Conditions were dangerous, and every month a few of the miners were killed.

Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

Security at What Price?

The story of the DRC’s role in America’s nuclear weapons program is rife with tension. We see the tension between national security and human rights concerns played out as the U.S. sourced uranium from a colonial power that used exploitation and forced labor to pull uranium out of the ground. During World War II, the race to develop a nuclear weapon before the Nazis led the U.S. to turn a blind eye to that injustice. And, during the Cold War, the effort to prevent the Soviet Union access to the mine led the U.S. to subvert the DRC’s democracy.  

There’s no way to know how the DRC might have developed had the U.S. not intervened and assassinated the first democratically-elected leader. But, we do know that the DRC was set up for failure as it transitioned from one authoritarian leader to the next even as the U.S. nuclear weapons complex flourished.

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