Stalin and the Atomic Gulag – by Zhores A. Medvedev

The birth of the uranium gulag

The main raw material of the atomic industry, uranium ore, was mined nowhere in the Soviet Union until 1942. It is therefore possible to date the beginning of the atomic era in the USSR to 27th November 1942, to the State Committee for Defence (GKO) top secret decision no.2542 ‘On mining uranium’.

The location of uranium ore in the Tabosharsky region of Tadjikistan had been known since the beginning of the century. It was thus decided to build the first uranium mine there. The work was allocated to the State Commissariat of Non-ferrous Metals which already had enterprises in Central Asia.

As a result, one of these factories was reequipped and, already by May 1943, was producing at the rate of four tonnes of 40 per cent uranium concentrate a year. By the end of 1943, this level was expected to triple.1 On 30th July 1943, having noticed the lack of real progress in mining and enriching uranium ore, GKO order no.3834ss enrolled several more commissariats and departments to help solve the problem.

They included the committee on geological affairs and the commissariats of ferrous metals, machine construction, coal, ammunition, and others, to ensure that the uranium mine in Taboshar received the necessary equipment and cadres. The committee of higher education was charged with providing 18 physicists and chemists for constant work at the uranium mine, and 450 students for work there during the holiday period of 1943.

But this GKO directive turned out to be unrealistic. First of all, it was essential to build uranium mines to extract ore and transport it along mountain paths on donkeys and camels to the central enrichment plant in the Leninabadsky region. Students could not do such work during their holidays. V.M. Molotov, the deputy head of the GKO, had responsibility for the uranium problem, and his apparatus prepared the projects to carry out all these tasks.

Igor Kurchatov, who had already been appointed the scientific head of all the atomic projects, demanded 200 tonnes of pure uranium metal in order to beginwork on the bomb: 50 tonnes for the experimental reactor, and 150 tonnes for the industrial one. To begin with, he had only 700 grams of uranium powder which had been kept from pre-war times.

This presented a seemingly impossible impasse, which the leaders of the atomic project in the United States had foreseen. They had brought under their control all the world centres for mining uranium, in the Belgian Congo, in South Africa, and in Canada. These centres could not export anywhere else after Germany’s occupation of the greater part of Europe.

In Europe, uranium was mined in Saxony, in the former Czechoslovakia, and in France. There were also uranium deposits in Bulgaria. The American administration knew that uranium wasn’t mined in the Soviet Union. That was the main factor in their hope, which was dominant after 1943, of an atomic monopoly.

Just at the end of 1943, hopeful news was received in both the United States and Great Britain, that Germany’s uranium project had also almost completely halted following the destruction by allied bombardments of the factories producing heavy water in Norway. The German project was based on reactors which used heavy water to slow the neutrons in the chain reaction, since this required significantly less uranium. By the end of 1944 it was obvious that the war in Europe would finish without the use of atomic weapons. This, however, did not stop the Manhattan project. The possession of nuclear weapons began tofulfil other functions for the United States

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