Shinkolobwe: Uranium Mining and its Legacy

Artist: Roger Peet

Anti-nuclear sentiment seems to be disappearing with the lack of cold war fear mongering, but movies like Oppenheimer and artists like Roger Peet are proof that the history and consequences of atomic destruction are still on people’s minds. Granted, Hollywood chose to skim the surface on a topic that Peet manages to highlight with genuine dedication, critical thought, and a block of wood and ink. With mindful consideration of the communities left victim of colonialism, nuclear bomb testing, and harmful health effects from the detonation, Roger Peet’s work uplifts the history of uranium mining in the Congo, and how the planet and people have been impacted by the pollutive and dangerous nature of nuclear waste. 

Adverse Health Consequences from Uranium Mining 

“During the last few years of World War II, the U.S. government sourced the majority of the uranium necessary to develop the first atomic weapons from a single Congolese mine, named Shinkolobwe. 


If you follow the arrows in Peet’s linoleum block print, they tell a story the Manhattan Project worked hard to keep secret, starting with exploited miners in the Congo. While colonizers like the U.S. benefited from the Shinkolobwe mine’s uniquely high quality uranium to build atomic bombs, the land and the natives both felt “devastating health and ecological impacts.” 

The Shinkolobwe mine in the DR Congo

“Enormous open-pit mines worked by tens of thousands of miners form vast craters in the landscape and are slowly erasing the city itself.”


Erasure shows up in various ways. It can be seen in the disappearing fish population due to the toxic water, completely undrinkable. The flora that relied on the metals for nutrition cannot survive after those metals have been extracted. Even documents on the most frequent consequences on human health were “disappeared by the authorities” after Peet’s research. If the most common mining ailment, silicosis (a long-term lung disease) is being shamefully hidden from history, what trauma lives through the Congolese people and land that can’t be seen? 

Impacts of Uranium Processing, Testing and Detonation

“It’s not just Congolese miners who felt health impacts from the making of the bomb. In the U.S., Shinkolobwe’s uranium has left a deadly impact on towns across the country where it was processed, as residents still grapple with the cancers, blood diseases, and soil pollution that the contamination caused.”


Transporting the uranium to Los Alamos left hazardous waste all over the North American continent. Radioactive contamination affected a nearby high school in New Jersey, turned igloos attempting to contain the material in Ontario radioactive, and destroyed the ecosystem around the Handford site in WA due to haphazard systems of waste disposal - “commonly referred to as the most highly contaminated site in the entire western hemisphere.” 


The Hanford Site

“The stones of Shinkolobwe are in the plumes of radioactivity leaking from underground tanks at the Hanford reservation, they are in the water supply of the schools of East St. Louis and the cancer clusters of the Marshall Islands and the living memories of the hibakusha, the nuclear survivors of Japan.”


Testing in the Tularosa Basin

 The tragedy of those whose land and people were sacrificed for testing and war is horrendous. Tests at the Tularosa Basin in the southwestern United States, including tests done on the Trinity and Los Alamos test sites, had devastating immediate and generational health impacts on those who call this area home. Both Trinity and Los Alamos were on Native land in New Mexico that was home to Hispanos and Native ranchers who were forcibly evacuated from their homes, in the case of Trinity only 48 hours before the tests took place. These tests poisoned the air and land, cancer rates increased dramatically, and the U.S. government has essentially ignored this history and legacy.


The Trinity Site in Los Alamos

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

No one knew about the horrific journey starting at the Shinkolobwe mine, but the tragedies that befell Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 8th of 1945 cannot be ignored. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed from the burns, radiation, and debris, but even more were haunted by the traumatic loss of home, family, and past down health issues. The history of violence to end violence leaves a history that’s difficult to reflect upon, but must be done so we don’t continue to repeat terrible choices. 


The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima

The Hydrogen Bomb and the Marshall Islands

After the war, the Marshall Islands became the home of over sixty atomic explosions, tainting their wildlife and waters with radiation. While the U.S. feels resolved of their responsibilities towards recompensation for creating “near-irreversible environmental contamination,” the Marshallese are still feeling the repercussions through hereditary diseases, including a “list of cancers” tied to the nuclear testing. 


The Runit Dome: Marshall Islands (vulnerable nuclear waste tomb) 


Words cannot convey the complexity of atomic warfare’s impact on the world. Instead of “disappearing” the facts too difficult to bear, Roger Peet’s artistic map of the uranium ore’s journey from the Shinkolobwe mines to Hiroshima and Nagasaki lifts up the dichotomy between creation and destruction; building the atomic bomb led to desolation of the people and land’s health. Additionally, exploitation of these harmed communities continues in the DRC as “the frantic pace of cobalt extraction in Katanga bears close resemblance to another period of rapid exploitation of Congolese mineral resources.” Let us not make the same mistakes as the past generations and work together to bring marginalized stories to light. 



Roger Peet’s Bio: 

“Roger Peet is an artist, printmaker, muralist etc. etc. living in Portland, Oregon. His work tends to focus on civilized bad ideas, predator-prey relationships, and the contemporary crises of biodiversity and Capitalism and what can and can't be done about them. He coordinates the national Endangered Species Mural Project, and helps to run the cooperative Flight 64 print studio in Portland. He collaborates with artists, activists and scientists globally and locally in the service of a more generous and a wilder world.”