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Lack of Safeguards in Africa Leaves Nuclear Materials Vulnerable


Nuclear experts are expressing concern that countries trying to develop nuclear weapons may try to exploit resources in Africa. They say one of their concerns is that African nations lack the proper safeguards to thwart such exploitation as the continent increasingly looks to nuclear technology for its own energy needs. Phuong Tran has this report from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

In 2005, Tanzanian customs officials seized a large shipment of smuggled uranium 238, which can be used to make the materials used in nuclear weapons. The shipment was destined for a port in Iran.

A United Nations investigation team concluded the uranium came from the Lubumbashi mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a source of high-grade uranium that was used to create the bombs dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War Two.

Some experts also worried that North Korea received uranium for its nuclear program from the Congo, in return for supplying the Central African nation with military assistance and training during its cash-strapped civil war years.

Meir Javendafar, an Israeli analyst and author of the book, "The Nuclear Strength of Tehran", says nations with nuclear ambitions may look to Africa because the resources are easily exploited.

"African countries are easier to deal with because they are not so reliant on the U.S. Many of them are in economic difficulties," he said. "The Iranian government can use its financial power to convince them. All these factors point Iran to Africa as a source of minerals for Iran's economy and its nuclear program."

There are already a number of international conventions and U.N. Security resolutions that prevent the illegal trafficking of nuclear technology materials.

But Carina Tertsakian, an analyst at the British non-profit group Global Witness, says these are largely ineffective in Africa.

She said, "Either they are not carried out, or they are carried out but the results put on the documents are false and people who are exporting these minerals will often bribe the officials with large amounts of money in exchange for them being allowed to take the minerals across the border without controls or paying taxes."

Earlier this month, African officials meeting in Algeria pledged to tighten nuclear security, while asserting their right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful uses.

Anita Nilsson, director of the Office of Nuclear Security at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, says that as more African countries look to nuclear technology to solve their energy needs, preventing the raw materials from getting into the wrong hands is critical.

She said, "While they are very important for development, these materials have also risk factors in that if used for a bad purpose, malicious purpose, it could cause harm, health effects, contamination, disruption."

Nilsson says there are controls to prevent smuggling, but they require resources, training of border officials, enforced legislation, and political will.

Energy officials say there are nuclear reactors in eight African countries, and at least one nuclear power plant in South Africa.

Government representatives in Namibia, which accounts for almost one tenth of the world's supply of uranium, are seeking help to build a nuclear power plant to generate electricity.

The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed El Baradei says that Algeria, Egypt and Nigera are also interested in nuclear power for both electricity and desalination of seawater.

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