U.S. officials say it is no secret that terrorists would like to obtain weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. They also say it is no secret that terrorists are on the lookout for so-called "soft" targets - those considered at low-risk of a terrorist strike. Are there soft targets among the world's nuclear facilities? Authorities say there is at least one reactor in sub-Saharan Africa where the security is questionable.
The Federation of American Scientists calls highly-enriched uranium of the type used in nuclear reactors "the material of choice for terrorists seeking nuclear weapons." It also says the uranium found at small research facilities is at greater risk of diversion, and should have a higher priority for elimination, than supplies found in nuclear weapons bunkers or processing plants.
So there was alarm four years ago, when Italian authorities recovered a highly-enriched uranium fuel rod from an organized crime group in Italy that was trying to sell it. The source of the fuel rod was not, however, Russia or any of the other former Soviet states where the security of nuclear materials has in recent years been a source of deep concern.
Instead, this fuel rod came from a nuclear research reactor in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the least stable countries in Africa. Journalist Michela Wrong has visited the one megawatt reactor at the University of Kinshasa. She found rusted gates, fastened by a simple padlock, leading to the reactor. She saw only two guards, and gained entrance merely by signing her name in a book.
"I think it's an extremely worrying situation there," Ms. Wrong said. "I mean, it's almost surreal the security conditions there, and I really emerged from there thinking I couldn't quite believe what I had seen."
Ms. Wrong, author of In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz, Living On The Brink Of Disaster In Mobutu's Congo, interviewed the director of the reactor. He said he believed the fuel rod may have been stolen when his predecessor lent out his keys to the facility. "As we were chatting away about the history of the reactor," Ms. Wrong explained, "he revealed, really quite casually, that one day they had realized one of the rods in the reactor had gone missing, and he had learned subsequently that it had turned up in Sicily in the hands of the Mafia, that it had been reclaimed by the Italian police."
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) acknowledges one of the Kinshasa reactor's fuel rods did go missing. But downplaying the potential risk, it reported the rod contained low enriched uranium with a fissionable U-235 content of 19.9 percent, just below the 20 percent threshold that defines highly-enriched uranium.
But the International Nuclear Safety Center, operated by the U.S. Department of Energy and dedicated to improving reactor safety worldwide, says the Kinshasa facility's fuel rods are all 20 percent, or "highly-enriched."
Nevertheless, the IAEA is clearly concerned about security issues at the Kinshasa reactor, a Triga Mark II type, built in 1970. Just two years ago, the director general of the IAEA described the facility as one requiring attention. The official said an agency mission sent to inspect the reactor reported soil erosion around the facility that could soon threaten safety.
According to the Pentagon, authorities in Kinshasa have approached the United States about removing spent nuclear fuel rods stored at the reactor. The International Nuclear Safety Center reports there are 58 such rods in storage. However, there is no indication any rods have yet been taken away.
The Kinshasa situation is not the only one in Africa involving radioactive material that has garnered international attention.
Earlier this year, the IAEA reported sending another mission to the continent, this time to Uganda. There, they assisted in securing what an agency statement described only as a "radioactive source" containing a significant amount of cobalt-60. It provided no additional details, but cobalt-60 is considered by experts to be the type of material terrorists might favor in creating a non-nuclear, but radioactive "dirty bomb."