Monday, March 5, 2012

Turning Gold into Uranium and Vice Versa

Yellow Mud
South Africa's Prime Minister Daniel Malan pressed a stubby finger to a small gold button one day last week and touched off a $112 million uranium industry. There had been hints that South Africa was in the atomic business, but this was the first firm news that the country was producing uranium on a scale that is expected to net $84 million a year. 

Back in 1945 the late Prime Minister Jan Christian Smuts phoned Calvin Stowe McLean, president of the Transvaal Chamber of Mines
"Is it true that there's uranium in our gold mines?" 
McLean told Smuts: "Yes, but it is of no commercial value." 
Said Smuts (who knew about the Manhattan Project): "I want to know how much there is and how we can get it out." 
General Smuts in uniform: Canada, So. Africa, UK, NZ and Aus. Prime Ministers

From this conversation grew a plan to combine uranium production with gold production (both from the same ore). In his Atomic Energy Act, Smuts put a clamp (20 years in prison, $15,000 fine) on all discussion of the project, so that South African newspapers did not dare even reprint articles from overseas newspapers. The area chosen for the development was the West Rand Consolidated gold mine on the Witwatersrand field near Johannesburg. 

After removal of the gold by the cyanide process, the tailings (i.e., waste) are treated by a secret chemical process to produce uranium oxide, which in its exportable form looks just like yellow mud. The project will extend to all other Rand mines, which will jointly share a giant uranium refinery. Chief buyer of South African uranium oxide will be the U.S., with Britain, which put up some of the capital, making purchases on a smaller scale. Said Prime Minister Malan: "It must give satisfaction to our partners in America and Britain that this valuable source of power is in the safekeeping of South Africa." 
[Source: Time Magazine  10/20/1952, Vol. 60 Issue 17, p42, 1p]


Although the first nuclear weapon was built on American soil, it was not without a great deal of help from men from other countries, and the uranium used in those first devastating bombs was all derived from sources in Canada and the Belgian Congo. Although uranium had been detected in gold tailings at the Witwatersrand gold mines as early as 1921, South Africans ignored its significance until in 1944, according to an article by C.S. McLean and T.K. Prentice on the history of uranium mining in South Africa:
an American geologist, Weston Bourret, visited the Witwatersrand when on his way to Madagascar, and he submitted a secret report to the United States Government on the occurrence of uraninite in amalgamation barrel residue. This led Dr. G. W. Bain, Professor of Geology at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and consultant to the United States atomic bomb undertaking, the Manhattan Project, to make a radiometric examination of two specimens of Witwatersrand ore in his possession, which confirmed the presence of radioactive minerals in these ores. He made a secret report to the combined American and British Authorities and, as a result, these two Governments approached the South African Government in 1945 about the possibility of extracting uranium from Witwatersrand gold ores. At the same time, Dr. Bain and Dr. C. F. Davidson, Chief Geologist of the Atomic Energy Division of the Geological Survey of Britain, visited South Africa. The first quantitative assessment of the uranium potentialities of the Witwatersrand goldfield in the light of modern requirements was made by these two men and Dr. Davidson's report in October, 1945, to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in London ended with these significant words: "Present evidence appears to indicate that the Rand may be one of the largest low-grade uranium fields in the world." The findings of Bain and Davidson indicated that the uranium in Witwatersrand ores was many times more plentiful than gold.
This same basic story was later told by General Leslie R. Groves in his autobiography, Now It Can Be Told.

The covert nature of the cooperative effort among the Allies during those war years is revealed by Stephen Dorril in his book about the British equivalent of the CIA--
MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service--in which he recounts that the Combined Development Trust, code-named "Murray Hill Project," was in charge of "allocating scarce and vital uranium ores," and was often referred to by insiders as the "insecticide committee."

British Banker Sir Charles J. Hambro was appointed to represent the project on behalf of Britain, having already been knighted in 1941 for outstanding service in obtaining war materials. A director of the Bank of England, he was sent to Washington, D.C. as the head of the British raw materials mission, succeeding Sir Clive Baillieu, in January 1944. One goal in the spring of 1945 was to find and confiscate the uranium ore (over a thousand tons) the Germans had seized from Belgium in the early days of the war and had removed it to an area deep in the Russian Zone, Strassfurt. Not only did Hambro and his men recoup this ore, as Dorril says in MI6, he and his associates found a nest of German bomb-making scientists dubbed "Hitler's Uranium Club"--giving them a "heaven-sent opportunity for Britain to get back into the atomic intelligence game." (p. 139)
Excerpt from MI6 by Stephen Dorril, p. 139
The "Farm Hall Transcripts" were never declassified until recent years, and these transcripts appear to reveal how little the German scientists captured and housed near Cambridge, England really knew.

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