SDAG Wismut

Kumpeltod, Bergbaumuseum Ronneburg, Deutschland. Public Domain.
Yellow Cake (NH4)2U2O7, Bergbaumuseum Ronneburg, Deutschland. Public Domain.

SDAG Wismut (Sowjetisch-Deutsche Aktiengesellschaft Wismut) was a mining company that was the fourth-largest uranium producer in the world for a long time. After World War II the later GDR was the Soviet occupation zone, and the occupying forces demanded reparations in the form of uranium. The mining of uranium was therefore of the utmost urgency. In addition, a certain degree of secrecy was necessary, as uranium was needed for nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

This is why the WISMUT miners had a special status in the GDR. Of course, they were not allowed to talk about what was being mined, but that was probably an open secret. They were paid exceptionally well and received many goods, even from the West, at reduced prices in their own shops. They were also given preferential treatment for many products, such as cars. For example, they only had to wait one or two years for a Trabbi, whereas the waiting time for normal citizens could be over ten years.

Mining itself was rather unspectacular; it made little difference whether you were extracting tin ore, silver ore or pitchblende from the mountain. The uranium miners, like other hard rock miners, were affected by silicosis, or pneumoconiosis, which meant that life expectancy was 40 to 50 years. However, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the dust was slightly radioactive due to the uranium and therefore caused cancer. This too was probably an open secret. Miners were, if you want to put it cynically, supplied with cheap schnapps to anaesthetize them. As a result, there were probably many people who were alcoholics and entered the mine drunken. This was neither good for their health nor for the accident statistics. That's why schnapps was cynically referred to as Kumpeltod (miner's death).

As early as 1789, the Berlin chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered uranium in samples from the Georg Wagsfort mine in Johanngeorgenstadt. In the 19th century, it was extracted as a by-product because it could be used for colour pigment production. The radioactive glazes were used for a long time because their harmful effects on health were not recognised. In 1898, 1600 tonnes of uranium paint were produced in Jáchymov for the manufacture of uranium glass, among other things. This was, in fact, the first real uranium mining with uranium as the main product worldwide. 14 of the 21 uranium minerals known in 1898 had their type locality in the Erzgebirge. Marie and Pierre Curie utilized large quantities of processing residues from Jáchymov in their discovery of polonium and radium. And highly radioactive water from the mines was also used for spa operations.

"Wismut" was the cover name for the mining of uranium, it was not about bismuth. It was founded in 1946 as Wismut AG, a German branch of a Moscow company, also known as the Staatliche Aktiengesellschaft der Buntmetallindustrie ‚Wismut‘ (State Joint Stock Company of the Non-Ferrous Metals Industry 'Wismut') or SAG Wismut. Wismut AG was initially directly subordinate to the Soviet defence industry, later to the Soviet Ministry of Medium Machine Building. In order to find personnel, miners were conscripted, a euphemism for forced labour. The operations were supervised both externally and internally by the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD). Hundreds of miners were subjected to draconian punishments for minor offences, and at least 70 Wismut employees were deported to the Soviet Union as alleged spies and executed there. From 1950, more than 1000 tonnes of uranium were produced per year.

From 1954, "Die Wismut" became SDAG Wismut (Sowjetisch-Deutsche Aktiengesellschaft Wismut). The share capital of two billion GDR marks was owned 50/50 by the GDR and the USSR. However, it was not actually renamed; the old Wismut AG was liquidated, and the new SDAG Wismut was founded. It took over all of Wismut AG's facilities, but did not become its legal successor, a cunning move to avoid legal claims for forced labour and other issues. It mined uranium until 1990, until the end of the GDR. Originally this was done in various polymetallic vein mineralizations, later huge open-cast mines and even chemical processes were used. After the German reunification, the successor company Wismut GmbH was founded, which is responsible for the remediation and recultivation of the radioactive slag heap. For decades, contaminated sites had to be disposed of and environmental contamination prevented. The most spectacular museum on the history of uranium mining, Object 90, is located on the backfilled open-cast uranium mine in Ronneburg.