Immediately after the end of World War II, the Soviets started exploration and mining of uranium in the historic mining provinces in the Ore Mountains. Subsequently, the Wismut company developed the third-largest uranium mining province of the world (after the US and Canada) in the Southern part of the German Democratic Republic. Information on this huge operation was not publicly accessible until the young peace and environmental activist Michael Beleites published his famous underground report “Pechblende – Der Uranbergbau in der DDR und seine Folgen” (Pitchblend – Uranium Mining in the GDR and its Impacts) in 1988. With the political changes in 1989, it came to light to the larger public that in Eastern Germany large areas had been devastated for the production of the source material for the nuclear bomb.
With the unification of Germany in 1990, uranium production was terminated. What is left over, are the huge shut-down uranium mines, hundreds of millions of tonnes of radiating waste rock and uranium mill tailings, presenting health risks through release of radon gas and contaminated seepage. This legacy does not only present an immediate hazard, but also endangers future generations for tens of thousands of years. Reclamation is underway to contain the hazards, but questions remain concerning the long-term effectiveness of the measures being taken.
Between 1946 and 1990, Wismut produced a total of around 220,000 tonnes of uranium. During peak times, production exceeded 7000 tonnes per year. For subsequent processing, all uranium produced was delivered to the Soviet Union. Initially, the uranium produced was exclusively used for nuclear weapons; later it was also used for nuclear power plants.
Wismut’s staff in the early years is estimated to have been up to 130,000, among them many in forced labour. In the mid-eighties, the staff figures were around 27,000. More than 400,000 people have been working with Wismut at one time or another.
At the end of 1990, uranium mining was discontinued as a consequence of the German unification. Since 1991, Wismut carries out the work necessary for shut down and reclamation with drastically reduced numbers of employees (mid-1998: 3500). The government estimates the clean-up period at 10 – 15 years, at costs of DM 13 billion (US$ 9.3 billion). Since no reserves were saved by the former operators, the clean-up has to be funded from the Federal budget. Until end-1998, DM 5.7 billion (44 %) have been spent already.
In the beginning, Wismut’s uranium mining focused on the locations Johanngeorgenstadt / Aue / Schlema in the Saxonian part of the Ore Mountains, later also on Ronneburg in Eastern Thuringia, and Freital / Dresden-Gittersee and Königstein near Dresden. In addition to these major sites, there exist many other places where uranium was explored or temporarily mined.
“Wismut” is the short name of the company. From 1946 to 1953, it was a Soviet stock corporation; so the complete name was “SAG Wismut”, where SAG stands for Sowjetische Aktiengesellschaft, and Wismut is the German name for bismuth – it was used to conceal the true purpose of the enterprise. From 1954 to 1991, it was a joint Soviet-German stock corporation (50% / 50%); so the complete name was “SDAG Wismut”, where SDAG stands for “Sowjetisch-Deutsche Aktiengesellschaft.” In December 1991, the company was completely taken over by the government of the united Germany and was converted to a limited company; the name thus is now “Wismut GmBH”, where GmbH stands for Ltd. But during all these years, the company was usually referred to as simply “Wismut”.