Despite confirmation from the International Atomic Energy Agency, authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo are denying that another nuclear fuel rod is missing from the small research reactor in Kinshasa.
In a statement to the Voice of America, the Regional Center for Nuclear Studies in Kinshasa dismisses as "false," "absurd" and an "invention" last week's report that nuclear material is missing from the one megawatt Congolese reactor.
But the confirmation of the loss of low-enriched uranium fuel rods comes directly from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' body in charge of promoting the safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy worldwide.
IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky revealed last week for the first time that the agency has known two fresh fuel assemblies were missing from the reactor since the mid-1970s.
That information had never before been made public. But the loss of one fuel rod was confirmed after officials in Italy recovered one of the assemblies from criminals in a 1998 undercover operation. That a second fuel rod was also missing and unaccounted for remained a closely-held secret until last week when Mr. Gwozdecky, responding to a VOA inquiry, disclosed its loss.
He said its whereabouts remain unknown and authorities cannot rule out the possibility it is in the hands of terrorists. Still, he downplayed the potential danger. "Although the whereabouts of that single fuel element are not known," he said, "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'."
It is unclear why authorities in Kinshasa would deny the loss of the nuclear materials, especially since the loss was disclosed by the IAEA.
However, some nuclear industry sources say Congolese officials, as a matter of national pride, have in the past resisted international efforts to shut down or impose stricter controls on the reactor, long considered a kind of embarrassment as well as a potential hazard.
IAEA spokesman Gwozdecky said in his VOA interview the agency has sent several expert missions to Kinshasa to inspect the facility and to recommend improvements. He said authorities there have been cooperative.
"I think it is important to say that while there were measures that needed to be corrected, and a good number of them, that the authorities in Congo have taken the recommendations that we have put to them very seriously and have done a number of things to address both the safety issues with regard to the reactor and security issues," Mr. Gwozdecky said.
Nevertheless, the spokesman says the reactor still "has some ways to go" before the IAEA would certify it meets all requirements.
Kinshasa received its first research reactor in the late 1950s under the U.S. "Atoms for Peace" program. The more modern Triga Mark II reactor replaced the original facility in the early 1970s.