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African Uranium Security Raises Concern - 2002-09-24


In the British government dossier released Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair accuses Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of trying to acquire substantial quantities of uranium from Africa, as part of his effort to develop nuclear weapons. One facility has drawn concern of Western experts.

In his speech, Prime Minister Blair did not name the countries in Africa that Saddam Hussein has allegedly approached to purchase uranium. But for years, Western experts have been worrying about security at a nuclear facility at the University of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The United States built the one-reactor facility in the 1960s as an energy research center. The facility fell victim to the chaos of war and poverty that followed the fall of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. The reactor, since then, has been largely shut down.

But thefts at the facility have deeply alarmed the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. In 1998, authorities in Italy recovered a radioactive fuel rod taken from the Kinshasa nuclear reactor, after thieves tried to sell it on the black market. In July of this year, the Agency confirmed the disappearance of another fuel rod from the same reactor. Officials say they have no idea where it is and have not ruled out the possibility that it may now be in the hands of terrorists.

The International Atomic Energy Agency insists the missing rod does not contain enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon or a radiation bomb, called a "dirty" bomb. Uranium is the main raw material used in nuclear weapons and is the principal fuel for energy producing atomic reactors.

The head of the University of Kinshasa nuclear facility, Professor Leopold Makoko, denies that the facility has become a source for illicit uranium. Professor Makoko says his nuclear center is now closely guarded by soldiers. He says he is certain that the facility is secure.

In recent years, the International Atomic Energy Agency has sent numerous teams of experts to Kinshasa to help increase security and safety at the nuclear facility. But the agency says trying to achieve that in a country with one of the world's highest corruption levels has been next to impossible. A well-placed source says the United States is in negotiations with the government in Kinshasa to purchase the remaining nuclear material from the reactor in order to ensure terrorists can not get to it.

East Africa lately has seen a rise in the number of people claiming to have uranium for sale. The most recent incident occurred last week in Nairobi. Kenyan police apprehended three men attempting to sell what they claimed was uranium to an undercover policeman.

The material turned out to be a harmless substance. But the police say the fact that even fake uranium is being peddled here shows how much the real thing is in demand, and that potential buyers believe it is available in Africa.