Anyone unaware of the part Portugal played in the British atomic bomb project may be intrigued to learn that a film on the subject is now available online, and will be being presented next week at the CineEco Festival in Seia.
British filmmaker Ramsay Cameron was connected to the subject before he even became aware of it himself. He was born in Urgeiriça, in the Beira-Alta – the site of the once active mine that in its dying days ended up supplying former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with uranium.
Ramsay’s 100 anos da Urgeiriça traces the founding of the mine to its closure amid controversy, and subsequent abandonment at the turn of the century.
Decontamination efforts are still ongoing but as Cameron explains, in its heydey, the mine literally shaped the 20th century, being a valuable source of radium for Marie Curie in her efforts to find a cure for cancer, “and subsequently uranium for both Britain and America” as they developed their own weapons of mass destruction.
Between 1945-62, Urgeiriça came under the control of the British government which used it for “producing nuclear fuel for their atomic bombs, attracting the attention of Soviet spies”, says the film’s synopsis.
When the British left, Portugal’s then dictator António de Oliveira Salazar “used the mine as the focus for his ambitions to build a nuclear-powered Portugal”. This too came to an end with the toppling of Salazar’s dictatorship in the 1974 revolution.
It was at this point that the mine was “forced to become economically self-sufficient, and found a willing customer for its wares in Saddam Hussein”, “when he was still the Americans’ friend”.
The fascinating documentary, presented in both English and Portuguese, includes rare archive footage and interviews with people who lived in the area and worked at Urgeiriça.
It will be screened at the CineEco (environmental film) festival on Thursday October 13 at 6pm.
Ramsay Cameron is an independent filmmaker who specialises in factual films for companies and NGOs.
He tells us it is “early days” for 100 Anos de Urgeiriça as far as distribution and exhibition are concerned, but the 52-minute film is certain to strike a chord in anyone interested in the general context of nuclear history, and how it has roots in a little corner of rural Portugal.