Steven Olson: The Apocalypse Factory

On August 17, 2020, Steve Olson is discussing his book on the nuclear bomb and the Hanford site: where lies the remains of the factory that refined plutonium fuel for the bombs.

Seventy-five years ago, on August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb ever used in war was dropped on Hiroshima. A city was destroyed. Three days later, on August 9th, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Another city destroyed.

In Revelations, it is Armageddon that destroy the world, but the revelation is meant to give hope with view of the future. The revelation includes prophecies of great suffering, but also that we will not be entirely destroyed. There are costs ahead, and pain we cannot avoid, but this need not end with our total destruction.

This brings Olson to the factory in Hanford, near where he grew up, where lies a mess of nuclear waste that will require hundreds of billions of dollars to clean and set right. This mess we inherit from our ancestors. Over seventy-five years, three generations have come and gone, but none have cleaned the mess. This mess we will bequeath as a toxic inheritance on future generations. In this way, The Hanford site is a generational problem.

The history of the Hanford site teaches what we already know, but from which are quick to look away. We struggle with generational problems.

The same questions of inheritance arise in our shared societal history of race and racism. What do we do with the mistakes of our ancestors? How do we own their mistakes enough to fix them? While we aren’t responsible for the injustice done by others, we are responsible for perpetuating the unjust world we inherited. Do we have the hope, though, to truthfully remember our history? What costs would we pay to build a just world in place of what we were given?

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The Congo’s impact on the world has been immeasurable. Recognising the name Shinkolobwe alongside Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be the first step to repaying that debt.

The Shinkolobwe mine – named after a kind of boiled apple that would leave a burn if squeezed – was the source for nearly all of the uranium used in the Manhattan Project, culminating with the construction of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

“It’s an ongoing tragedy,” says Williams, who has examined the role of Shinkolobwe in her book Spies in the Congo. She believes there needs to be greater recognition of how the exploitation and desire to control the mine’s contents by Western powers played a role in the country’s troubles.

Mombilo too is campaigning to raise awareness of the role played by the Congo in deciding the outcome of World War Two, as well as the burden it still carries because of this. In 2016, the CCSSA’s Missing Link forum brought together activists, historians, analysts, and children of those affected by the atomic bomb, both from Japan and from the DR Congo. “We are planning to bring back the history of Shinkolobwe, so we can make the world know,” says Mombilo.

Under Belgian rule, Congolese workers toiled day and night in the open pit, sending hundreds of tonnes of uranium ore to the US every month. “Shinkolobwe decided who would be the next leader of the world,” says Mombilo. “Everything started there.”

All of this was carried out under a blanket of secrecy, so as not to alert Axis powers about the existence of the Manhattan Project. Shinkolobwe was erased from maps, and spies sent to the region to sow deliberate disinformation about what was taking place there. Uranium was referred to as “gems”, or simply “raw material”. The word Shinkolobwe was never to be uttered.

This secrecy was maintained long after the end of the war. “Efforts were made to give the message that the uranium came from Canada, as a way of deflecting attention away from the Congo,” says Williams. The effort was so thorough, she says, that the belief the atomic bombs were built with Canadian uranium persists to this day.


Schoepite-curite-uraninite, huge old specimen. Very heavy, as matrix is pure uraninite (steel-gray). Shinkolobwe is the type locality for schoepite and curite. Ex-Carnegie Museum of Natural History, removed from display for being “too hot”(radioactive). Size: 14.0 x 10.0 x 7.2 c

Uranophane in malachite specimen from the Shinkolobwe mine