/ 18 April 2007

DRC nuclear reactor seen as ‘national pride’

Only a thin barbed wire fence protects Africa’s first nuclear reactor, once Kinshasa’s pride that today sits dormant on an eroding hill in a country wracked by decades of misrule and conflict.

Last month international experts again voiced concern about security at the Kinshasa Regional Centre for Nuclear Studies (Cren), a few weeks before violence killed about 200 more people in the troubled capital.

The new warning came in a report stating that United States-supplied uranium bars stored at Cren ”are at an enrichment level sufficient to potentially be … transformed into a nuclear weapon … or be used as a ‘dirty bomb’,” according to a copy obtained by Agence France-Presse.

The report by Belgian senator Alain Destexhe called for the reactor to be dismantled, saying that the last inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2004 found ”only 10% of the protection measures and internationally recognised norms were in place”.

Today, a handful of friendly police officers along with a few dozen scientists in white lab coats watch over the reactor at the heart of Kinshasa’s university campus.

Officials say they are committed to improving conditions, insisting the reactor is key to helping medical and agricultural research in this country of 62-million that has been struggling to reverse decades of decline.

”We know that there are things that need to be done and we will do them, in collaboration with the IAEA,” said Leopold Makoko, interim head of the DRC’s atomic energy agency.

”But this reactor is our national pride. It is an absolutely indispensable tool for medical, nuclear and radio-agronomical research,” he said.

Makoko pointed out that the International Atomic Energy Agency ”has never asked that it [the reactor] be dismantled”.

”The site is very well protected,” he said. ”The reactor has been shut down for several years but is in very good condition.”

The Triga Mark II reactor with a one-megawatt capacity is located behind two glass doors and buried seven metres underground — and sits 500m from a crater, the work of a landslide that ate away part of the hill seven years ago.

”It’s the erosion,” said Cren researcher Jean Ndembo Longo.

He said only 2 000 students were on the university campus when the reactor was first built in 1958.

”Today there are 20 000. People have cut down the trees that surrounded us to make wood for burning and building” the bigger complex, he said.

The older reactor was replaced by the current one in 1972. ”We have replanted and rearranged the land to protect the site,” he added, pointing to the acacia trees and vetiver plants on campus. The Central African nation is blessed with enormous natural resources including uranium, which already holds a place in history. The DRC’s uranium was most famously used for the so-called Manhattan project to make the world’s first nuclear bomb, which the United States dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 1945.

The country, through decades of fighting, dictatorship and political upheaval, has repeatedly been accused of selling its naturally enriched uranium or of being unable to guard against it being removed from the country.

According to some observers, more than 90% of the country’s mining exports, including uranium, slip past the country’s customs officers. Only last month, two officials from Cren were arrested in a police inquiry over the illegal sale of uranium, the general prosecutor Tshimanga Mukeba disclosed.

Though the Belgian report said the Cren site was ”weakly guarded”, problems seem to go beyond security.

The report said the start button for the reactor was only protected by a ”plastic cap” and uranium bars were lifted out or lowered into the reactor with ”a fishing rod”. The control room was also ”totally outdated”, the report said, though it noted that radioactivity levels were not above authorised levels.

And a small unguarded building farther down the slope holds the radioactive waste from the site. Covered in concrete and stored in 200-litre metal vats, the waste remains ”in transit”, since the permanent burial site has yet to be built, Longo explained.

Makoko however insists shutting down the reactor would be a mistake.

”We should receive help in relaunching our research, instead of trying to deprive us of this tool,” he said. ‒ Sapa-AFP