Remembering the notorious ‘Uranium Gulag’

Joachimsthal mine

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Soviet Gulag was the brutal slave labor camps located in the mountains of Czechoslovakia following World War II, where prisoners were exploited in order to provide uranium for the Soviets’ nascent atomic warfare program.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin – recognizing the advantage the US had with its possession of atomic weaponry – sent the Red Army to capture one of the few areas then known to possess material that could be used in the construction of atomic bombs.

The Ore Mountains, which then marked the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany, first gained fame in the late 15th century as the site of a major silver discovery, with the Bohemian town of Joachimsthal taking on special significance as a source of the metal.

Also discovered around this time was pitchblende, a radioactive, uranium-rich ore, which early miners discarded as a waste byproduct.

Only at the beginning of the 20th century was it learned that pitchblende was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Within pitchblende, a variety of uraninite, Marie Curie discovered the element radium, and until the First World War Joachimsthal pitchblende was the only known source of radium in the world.

Also found within pitchblende is uranium. Like other elements, uranium occurs in slightly differing forms known as isotopes. The most common form of uranium is U-238, which makes up more than 99 percent of natural uranium found in the Earth’s crust.

However, another uranium isotope, U-235, while it is makes up less than 1 percent of the Earth’s uranium, is important because under certain conditions it can readily be split, yielding a tremendous amount of energy.

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 derived its explosive power from the nuclear fission of uranium-235.

In late 1945 Stalin pressured the Czechoslovak government to sign a confidential treaty that would give Moscow the rights to material from mine, according to Tom Zoellner’s outstanding 2009 work “Uranium.”

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The Marie Curie-Yasser Arafat connection

The substance alleged to have been used to assassinate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004 is a radioactive element discovered by the famed scientific duo of Marie and Pierre Curie more than a century ago.

Arafat’s nephew Nasser al-Qidwa claimed Thursday that Israel poisoned the former Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman with the lethal dose of polonium, discovered by the Curies in 1898 and named for Marie Curie’s native land of Poland.

Polonium was the first element discovered by the Curies while they were investigating the cause of radioactivity in pitchblende, a uranium-rich mineral and ore.

Pitchblende, after removal of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium, was found to be more radioactive than both the uranium and thorium combined. This spurred the Curies to find additional radioactive elements.

The Curies first culled out polonium from the pitchblende, and a few years later also isolated radium, according to science writer John Emsley in his book Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements.

The choice of the name Polonium was not without controversy.

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Sweden: Don’t split atoms in your kitchen

One can just hear the old line by George Costanza of Seinfeld fame being repeated after a Swedish man was arrested by police after he tried to split atoms in his kitchen recently.

“Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I’m sorry, I’m gonna have to plead ignorance on this thing, because if I had known that sort of thing was frowned upon…”

Richard Handl had the radioactive elements radium, americium and uranium in his apartment in southern Sweden when police showed up and arrested him on charges of unauthorized possession of nuclear material.

The 31-year-old Handl told The Associated Press he had tried for months to set up a nuclear reactor at home and kept a blog about his experiments, describing how he created a small meltdown on his stove.

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