Willis D. Vaughn / National Geographic / Getty Images

In Congo, silence surrounds forgotten mine that fueled first atom bombs

The US sourced uranium for the weapons used on Japan from Shinkolobwe; though the site is closed, locals mine illegally

One of the manifest ironies of the nuclear age is just how primitive it all is. A complicated war was brought to an end within a week by a pair of indiscriminate hammer blows. The logic behind the next 45 years of Cold War military strategy — hit us and we both die — was as simplistic as it was problematic. And driving everything was a bomb fashioned out of dirt.

A particular kind of dirt, of course, and one that required a lavish industrial process before it could be made into a fissile device. That dirt is uranium, and it lies all around the world in abundant quantities. A place where it was concentrated to levels of freakish purity is now just a curious footnote of the nuclear age, but at one time, it was treated with intense secrecy.

Shinkolobwe was a small settlement in the Katanga province of what was then the Belgian Congo. Its name refers to a particular kind of boiled apple that would leave a burn if it was squeezed. In 1915 a prospector, Robert Rich Sharp, was looking for geological signs of copper and heard stories about people rubbing a particular kind of colorful mud on their skin. He thought it might be copper, but what he found on the top of a short hill was uranium, which can oxidize with other minerals in a variety of bright colors.

This looked like big money to Sharp. Uranium is the mother product of radium — the radioactive wonder mineral that had been recently isolated by Pierre Curie and Marie Curie. A Belgian company recruited a native workforce and dug a terraced pit that chugged out radium for more than 20 years before the market soured and the pit was allowed to fill up with dirty, gray water. But when British scientists learned in the 1930s of experiments in chain reactions of uranium that could be forced to explode under the right conditions, they began making discreet inquires about spare barrels of uranium — previously considered nearly worthless — from Shinkolobwe.

Guards outside the Shinkolobwe uranium mine in March 1953.
Dmitri Kessel / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Many of the barrels had been shipped to a vegetable oil warehouse on Staten Island in New York. On Sept. 18, 1942, one of the most important transactions of World War II took place in an office in midtown Manhattan. The Belgian company Société Generale offered to sell the Shinkolobwe uranium to the U.S. Army for slightly more than $1 per pound.

This put the Shinkolobwe mine back in business. Société Generale had the water pumped out and rehired a small army of Congolese workers to do the secret, dirty, dangerous and radiation-steeped work of mining uranium for the Manhattan Project. The mine furnished nearly two-thirds of the uranium (the rest came from Canada and Colorado) used for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and supplied much of the plutonium — an even more volatile byproduct of fission of uranium — used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later.

The mine produced uranium for U.S. nuclear weapons until 1960, when enough uranium mines had opened up in the American Southwest to meet the nuclear hunger, and Shinkolobwe was closed. The Belgians poured concrete down the mineshaft and closed off the pit.

I visited Shinkolobwe in 2007, 120 miles from the city of Lubumbashi over disintegrating roads through the rain forest. A permit to go there cost $80, payable to a member of the presidential staff. We had to walk the last several kilometers until we reached a decrepit fence overgrown with vines.

A man enters a tunnel dug with shovels in the Shinkolobwe mine, in 2004.
Schalk van Zuydam / AP

Sharp’s hill had given way to an immense pit, which had been chewed over for decades by local freelance miners. The mineshaft the Belgians built and then filled with concrete had been dug away to a depth of about 100 feet and fallen over. The scene was disquietingly peaceful. Though we had been told it was heavily guarded, no soldiers or police were there to challenge us.

The birthplace of the Bomb has been forgotten by the outside world but not by everyone. Teams of Congolese miners kept slipping inside the old pit to dig out residual supplies of copper and cobalt, which they sell on the black market. There have been persistent rumors — and some occasional instances — of local businessmen selling uranium to outside parties. There is also evidence that some of the Shinkolobwe uranium has found its way into Iranian centrifuges, though this remains publicly unconfirmed by Western intelligence agencies.

In some ways, I felt, this was just as important a monument to the nuclear age as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were improbably and awesomely destroyed by the dirt in this pit in 1945. The ghosts of those leveled cities haunt the world today.

They have since been rebuilt, but Shinkolobwe slumbers in the forest. Geologists report the pit still contains a significant quantity of uranium, enough to make at least a few more bombs. The ground is open. The uranium there has existed since the beginning of the earth. It is continuously disintegrating.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter