Not the reason for China's scramble for African cobalt

It’s entirely true that there’s a scramble going on for the very rich cobalt deposits of certain parts of Africa. It’s also true that there are people with nuclear weapons, also people who would like to have them. It’s even true that there’s a certain type of atomic bomb which could use cobalt in part of its function. However, there’s precisely no connection between the two things, the bombs and the scramble. You don’t need very much cobalt to make a cobalt bomb, there’s no one interested in making or using cobalt bombs and no one, other than in the most noodly and ivory tower manner, has ever seriously suggested making one.

Which makes this from Ghana all more than a little odd:

A Chinese company Molybdenum announced it was buying one of Africa’s largest copper mines and one thing was soon clear: the acquisition was about far more than the red metal.

The $2.65bn deal, the biggest private investment in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s history, is instead designed to secure China’s supplies of cobalt, a once niche raw material that is crucial to developing nuclear weapons to boast the Chinese military capabilities in it quest to usurp the United States of AmericaAttachment.png as the world’s military power house.

The purchase of the Tenke mine, which contains one of the world’s largest known deposits of copper and cobalt, shows how Chinese companies are now moving to take a dominant position in nuclear warhead supremacy as the country prepares to bypass the US and Russia in the unending war of military supremacy in the world.

Cobalt is a dangerous radioactive materials used in making a cobalt bomb, a type of “salted bomb”: a nuclear weapon designed to produce enhanced amounts of radioactive fallout, intended to contaminate a large area with radioactive material.

Cobalt hits a sweet spot—it fires off just enough radioactivity upfront to kill you (or at least cause serious cancers), but holds onto enough reserves to make wherever the cobalt rain settles inhospitable for future generations, too. Calculations made in 1950 hinted that sprinkling one-tenth of an ounce of cobalt-60 on every square mile of earth (admittedly, a lot of cobalt overall) would wipe out the human race, a nuclear version of the cloud that killed the dinosaur.

It’s absolutely true that the use of cobalt-60 enhanced bombs would wipe out a great deal, if not all of, life on Earth. Which is why no one is seriously suggesting even their manufacture, let alone their use. The idea that it’s a salted bomb is correct, that it is deliberately to create more and longer lasting radioactivity also is. But then that’s why no one wants them nor has them to use. Because what’s the point of sterilising large tracts of land for generations to millennia? Anyone going to war wants to conquer land, not make it unusable.

Sure, nuclear bombs, great at killing people. But bomb development moved the other way for pretty obvious reasons. Things like the neutron bomb. Which kills the people, quickly, then the radioactivity declines rapidly, allowing the people who dropped the bomb to move onto and exploit that land they’ve bombed. C-60 bombs just don’t make any sense which is why:

No nation is known to have done any serious development of this type of weapon.

OK, so no one makes them, no one wants to and most certainly no one wants to use them. But there’s more misunderstanding here too. There would be no point at all in buying a cobalt mine in order to get the cobalt. You just don’t need enough of it for that to be worthwhile. We are talking of the order of tens of kgs per warhead here to produce that C-60 bomb that no one does want to use. How many warheads are we talking about? 100? That’s more than anyone other than China, the US and Russia have already. So, we’re talking about 10 to 20 tonnes of cobalt to go make our bombs with. Why would you buy a mine for $2.6 billion to do that? You’d wander around to Glencore and buy a short container of cobalt for $2 million, wouldn’t you?

That is, even if China were trying to build an armoury of cobalt bombs – which they’re not – they still wouldn’t be buying up a mine in DR Congo from which to build them.

This knowledge and wisdom thing is pretty good, obviously, but it’s not true that all have either.

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  1. “Anyone going to war wants to conquer land, not make it unusable.” No, Tim, anyone going to war wants to win the war, not keep the parkland pristine. Some wars are about territorial conquest, in which the territory ought to be usable, but a typical attack from China, or threat of attack, would be to dissuade the U.S. from interfering on the Korean peninsula or from defending Taiwan, in which case a credible claim to be able to make Los Angeles uninhabitable would be so effective that China wouldn’t even have to do it. China does not care whether Los Angeles is inhabitable.

    The triple missile attack on Manhattan and D.C. in 2001 left no radiation at all, but shut down the entire U.S. economy until we knew the attack was spent, shut down the airlines for days until they could be proven safe, diverted billions of dollars to litigation and to government relief funds, and induced a minor recession. I heard a radio ad this week in which lawyers were still trolling for people with maladies traceable to the attack. The damage caused by a weapon is not just the damage caused by the weapon, and some of the damage is achieved by the mere threat. A dirty bomb might be useful to China. Moreover, it would not have to be a bomb.