Edgar Sengier

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Edgar Sengier
Born (1879-10-09)9 October 1879
Kortrijk, West Flanders, Belgium
Died 26 July 1963(1963-07-26) (aged 83)
Cannes, Alpes-Maritimes, France
Nationality Belgian
Alma mater University of Leuven
Occupation Director of Union Minière du Haut Katanga
Known for Uranium supply to the Manhattan Project

Edgar Sengier (9 October 1879 – 26 July 1963) was a Belgian businessman and director of the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK) mining company during World War II. Sengier is credited with giving the American government access to much of the uranium necessary for the Manhattan Project extracted from the company's mines in the Belgian Congo.[1] He was the first non-American civilian to be awarded the Medal for Merit by the United States government.

The Union Minière du Haut Katanga[edit]

Born in Kortrijk in Belgium, Sengier graduated in 1903 as a mining engineer from the University of Leuven and joined the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK) as it was beginning to exploit mines in the province of Katanga in the Belgian Congo. The UMHK was owned jointly by the Société Générale de Belgique, a Belgian monopolist investment company, and the government of the Belgian Congo. The Société's activity was, among other things, to mine copper deposits in Katanga.

World War II[edit]

Uranium was discovered as early as 1915 in Shinkolobwe, and extraction began in 1921. Uranium ore from Shinkolobwe was very rich (it contained up to 65% of uranium); in comparison, Canadian ore contained only 0.02%.

In May 1939, Edgar Sengier, then director of both the Société Générale and the UMHK, learned about the potential of uranium from European scientists. British scientists had warned him that should the material he possessed fall into the enemy's hands, the consequences would be catastrophic. Sengier understood that uranium, a by-product that had until then been stored without being used, could become a crucial resource in times of war. In September 1940, he ordered that half of the uranium stock available in Africa (about 1,250 tons) be secretly dispatched to New York, arriving on 10 November – 19 December 1940.[2]

At the start of the war, Sengier himself travelled to New York to conduct the Union Minière's worldwide operations from there. At first, the UMHK's uranium stockpile remained in a Staten Island warehouse.[3]

Manhattan Project[edit]

Shinkolobwe mine

In September 1942, Colonel Kenneth Nichols met Sengier in his New York office. Nichols had been ordered to find uranium by the head of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves. He asked if the Union Minière could supply uranium ore, and Sengier's answer became history: "You can have the ore now. It is in New York, a thousand tons of it. I was waiting for your visit." Nichols had heard of the ore from the State Department and Rosen of Standard Oil, but was surprised at the amount: 1200 tons, of which 100 tons was to go to Canada immediately for refining by Eldorado in Ontario. Nichols and Sengier negotiated a contract, and the Staten Island stockpile was transferred to the US Army. The Army also secured the remaining ore (3000 tons) in Shinkolobwe, which was shipped to America. Nichols wrote that "Our best source, the Shinkolobwe mine, represented a freak occurrence in nature. It contained a tremendously rich lode of uranium pitchblende. Nothing like it has ever again been found. The ore already in the United States contained 65 percent U3O8, while the pitchblende aboveground in the Congo amounted to a thousand tons of 65 percent ore, and the waste piles of ore contained two thousand tons of 20 percent U3O8. To illustrate the uniqueness of Sengier’s stockpile, after the war the MED and the AEC considered ore containing three-tenths of 1 percent as a good find. Without Sengier’s foresight in stockpiling ore in the United States and aboveground in Africa, we simply would not have had the amounts of uranium needed to justify building the large separation plants and the plutonium reactors."[4]

Shinkolobwe Mine[edit]

The Shinkolobwe mine had been closed since 1939 and flooded. The American Army sent a squad from its Corps of Engineers to restore the mine, expand the aerodromes in Léopoldville and Elizabethville, and build a port in Matadi, on the Congo River. Between 1942 and 1944, about 30,000 tons of uranium ore were sold to the US Army.

The American government wanted exclusivity on the Shinkolobwe uranium ore, but Sengier initially refused. With support from the British government, the United States obtained exclusive rights on the Shinkolobwe ore in negotiations with the Belgian government (which was then in exile in London). However, it seems that Sengier alone was at least partially aware of the Manhattan Project, as he got an assurance from Nichols that the ore would be used for war purposes, saying "You don't need to tell me how you'll use it. I think I know."[5]

The agreement between the United States, Great Britain, and Belgium lasted 10 years and continued after the war.[6] The uranium agreements in part explain Belgium's relative ease in rebuilding its economy after the war, as the country had no debt with the major financial powers.

Awards and recognition[edit]

According to Helreich, "Surely the West owed him great thanks for his foresight in assuring the safety of existing uranium supplies in 1939, for calling them to the attention of the Americans, and for arranging their sale so quickly and without fuss. The ores which Sengier brought to New York before the outbreak of war were of inestimable value for the American research program. The tons supplied in the initial postwar years were to fuel the development of the American nuclear shield which in turn was to have extensive meaning for the balance of power in the new Europe."[7]

In 1946, Sengier returned to the United States, where General Groves handed him the Medal for Merit for his contribution to Allied victory. He was the first non-American civilian to receive this distinction. His citation merely mentioned "services in supplying material", as there were still restrictions on wartime information at the time he was awarded his medal.[8]

Sengier was also made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire,[9] Commander of the French Légion d'honneur and Officer of the Order of Leopold and the Belgian Order of the Crown.

In 1948, a radioactive mineral discovered in Congo, Sengierite, was named in his honor.[10]

Later life[edit]

Edgar Sengier remained director of the Société Générale and the Union Minière until 1949. He remained on the company's administrative board until 1960, before retiring in Cannes, where he died in 1963.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Broad, William J. (30 October 2007). "Why They Called It the Manhattan Project.". New York Times. Edgar Sengier, a Belgian with an office here, had his company mine about 1,200 tons of high-grade uranium ore and store it on Staten Island in the shadow of the Bayonne Bridge. 
  2. ^ Pollack, Michael (25 March 2011). "Answers to Questions About New York City". New York Times. Retrieved 3 September 2012. 
  3. ^ Zoellner, Tom (2009). Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World. Viking Penguin. ISBN 0670020648. 
  4. ^ Nichols, K. D. The Road to Trinity pages 44-47 (1987, Morrow, New York) ISBN 0-688-06910-X
  5. ^ Nichols, K. D. The Road to Trinity page 45 (1987, Morrow, New York) ISBN 0-688-06910-X
  6. ^ Helmreich, Jonathan E. (1990). "The Negotiation of the Belgian Uranium Export Tax of 1951". Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire. 68 (2): 320–351. ISSN 0035-0818. doi:10.3406/rbph.1990.3713. Retrieved 22 May 2012. 
  7. ^ Helmreich, Jonathan E. (1986). Gathering Rare Ores. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 40-41. ISBN 9780691610399. 
  8. ^ 9 April 1946 http://dds.crl.edu/loadStream.asp?iid=6284&f=5
  9. ^ "Belgian Honoured by Britain". New in Brief. The Times (53650). London. 1 October 1956. col C, p. 6. 
  10. ^ Vaes, J. F.; Paul F. Kerr (1949). "Sengierite, a preliminary description" (PDF). 34 (1-2): 109–120. Retrieved 23 May 2012. 

Further reading[edit]