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Nuclear Fuel Rod Reported Missing from DRC - 2002-07-03

Another nuclear fuel rod is missing from the troubled research reactor in Democratic Republic of Congo and international authorities said they cannot exclude the possibility it is in the hands of terrorists.

The Voice of America has learned a second fuel rod manufactured for the nuclear research reactor at the University of Kinshasa is unaccounted for.

It was previously reported that one rod made for the controversial facility disappeared and was recovered from criminals in Italy by police in 1998, in an undercover operation.

But nuclear industry sources have said at the time of that incident, inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, also raised questions about a second radioactive fuel element that was apparently lost.

The fact that a second fuel rod might be missing had not been previously reported. However, a spokesman for the IAEA, responding to a VOA inquiry, has now confirmed the loss of the second element.

But spokesman Mark Gwozdecky downplayed the loss and potential danger. "Although the whereabouts of that single fuel element are not known, we would say that one element would be of essentially no use in constructing a nuclear device, nuclear explosive device, and it would also be a poor choice for constructing a radiological or so-called dirty bomb," he said.

The University of Kinshasa first went on line with a 50-kilowatt research reactor in 1959. That reactor was replaced with a more modern, one megawatt facility which was powered up in 1972. Both reactors were made by General Atomics, a U.S. firm that also made the fuel elements for the research facility.

Officials of General Atomics, backed by the IAEA, said the missing fuel rod, like the one recovered by authorities, is considered low-enriched. That is to say, it contains between 19.7 and 19.9 percent fissionable U-235.

The threshhold defining highly-enriched uranium is a flat 20 percent.

It is unclear how the fuel rods disappeared from Kinshasa. The current Director of the reactor has told reporters it could have happened when his predecessor lent out keys to the facility, where visitors said security has been minimal.

It is also unclear how the one rod recovered in Italy was brought into Europe. That rod had never been irradiated or used. But industry sources say when the element was retrieved it was apparent someone had tampered with it. The sources say an effort had been made to cut into the cladding around the uranium fuel core.

The IAEA said all the other fuel rods made for the Kinshasa reactor, both fresh or unused elements and spent or used rods, are otherwise accounted for. Spokesman Gwozdecky says the count has been re-verified during annual inspections.

He also revealed several expert missions have been sent to Kinshasa in recent years to perform technical inspections to ensure the safe operation of the facility.