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Silence around Shinkolobwe lifted: DRC’s uranium-rich mine a grim link to atomic war

The Khayelitsha Youth Choir (KYC) performing at the commemorative event to highlight Shinkolobwe’s role in the atomic bombing of Japan. Picture: Shakirah Thebus/Cape Argus

The Khayelitsha Youth Choir (KYC) performing at the commemorative event to highlight Shinkolobwe’s role in the atomic bombing of Japan. Picture: Shakirah Thebus/Cape Argus

Published Jul 31, 2023


Cape Town - To commemorate the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Congolese Civil Society of South Africa (CCSSA) gathered to create awareness around the victims rarely thought of or known – namely those at the uranium-rich Shinkolobwe mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Annually, the society hosts the commemorative event called “The missing link of Hiroshima & Nagasaki”, with this year’s focus on Shinkolobwe’s radioactivity footprint around the world. It was held at the Artscape Theatre Centre on Sunday.

Joining and presenting virtually were descendants of those who survived the attacks on the two cities.

While under colonial rule by Belgium, the mine located in the Katanga province was the source of the majority of the uranium used for the atomic bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively.

They were part of the Manhattan Project, a US government-led research project from 1942-45 to produce the first atomic bombs. The project resulted in the first use of atomic weaponry in war during World War II.

The bombings killed between 129000 and 226000 people, the majority of whom were civilians.

Historian Dr Garret Eriksen said more than 200 people from Hiroshima sought refuge in Nagasaki and were again bombed, with most fortunate to survive.

The mine supplied nearly two-thirds of the uranium used in the bomb at Hiroshima and much of the plutonium used in the bomb used on Nagasaki.

CCSSA chairperson Isaiah Mombilo said the focus this year was on the continued negative impact of uranium and nuclear waste on populations.

“The Congo one, it’s not spoken about until now. There’s still silence around it but wherever there is nuclear waste and negative impacts happening somewhere, people pay attention.

“Like in the US, it’s becoming a serious problem now. So why can’t we make it also seen (in Congo)? Since they took it out (uranium), it has caused lots of disaster up to now.”

The society’s vice-chairperson, JoeYves Salankang Sa Ngol, said: “Up to now, there is no effort that is done to clean up the place (Shinkolobwe).

There are not even proper assessments. The last time that the International Atomic Energy Agency came in 2004, they just spent 10 days but they went I think twice to Shinkolobwe itself and then they said they don’t have enough funding, they don’t have time and they also don’t have proper equipment to go closer to the mine.

“The only advice they gave was that there should be a proper assessment of how dangerous the place is.

“They also said it must be totally cleaned up, and all the remaining infrastructure had to be destroyed. But 19 years later, after that report, none of that happened.”

Authorities have also failed to properly seal off the mine and investigate the harmful effects mining at the site has had on miners and the broader community, he said.

“Yes, we’re fighting to stop the nuclear programme, but there is a very dangerous mine that is open, people are still going there and there is no proper investigation.”