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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Uranium flows from Congo mines – in burlap bags

A Jung man carries cobalt on his back in the Shinkolobwe cobalt mine outside the town of Likasi in Congo.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Todd Pitman Associated Press

SHINKOLOBWE, Congo – Business is booming in the mining zone that supplied uranium for the atomic bombs unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – despite a decree by Congo’s president banning all mining activity there.

President Joseph Kabila ordered the zone closed three months ago amid growing concerns that unregulated nuclear materials could get into the hands of so-called rogue nations or terrorist groups.

Yet, 1,000 miles from the capital, Kinshasa, thousands of diggers still are hacking away at a dark cavity of open earth in this southeastern Congo village, filling thousands of burlap sacks a day with black soil rich in cobalt, copper and radioactive uranium.

The illegal mining provides stark evidence of how little control Africa’s third-largest nation has over its own nuclear resources, highlighting the government’s weak authority beyond the capital in the aftermath of Congo’s devastating 1998-2002 war.

“They’re digging as fast as they can dig, and everyone is buying it,” John Skinner, a mining engineer in the nearby town of Likasi, said of the illegal free-lance mining at Shinkolobwe. “The problem is that nobody knows where it’s all going. There is no control.”

The raw uranium is an inadvertent addition to the miners’ real prize – high-grade cobalt in lucrative concentrations – and there is no evidence Congo’s uranium is being spirited away to terrorists. The United States, which pressured Kabila to close the mine out of concern over the uranium, said in March it did not believe there was any “worrisome movement” of the radioactive ore at Shinkolobwe.

But some proliferation experts worry because the digging is uncontrolled, and they caution that even small amounts should be tracked for misuse.

Shinkolobwe’s deposits were discovered in 1915 when Congo was a Belgian colony. The find helped thrust the world into the nuclear age, providing much of the uranium used in the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan in 1945.

Shinkolobwe ceased to be profitable and closed in 1960, Mining Minister Diomi Ndongala said. Belgian authorities, apparently concerned about the mine’s safety, filled the main uranium shaft with concrete.

Congo’s war and accompanying lawlessness brought prospectors back in 1998. Miners dug new pits just a couple of hundred yards from the rusting, weed-choked uranium factory.

Kabila moved against the mine in February to “protect the environment, the population and the world against terrorism,” Ndongala said.

His ban has never been enforced, however. Ndongala spoke of plans to drive the miners away from Shinkolobwe with soldiers, but said his cash-strapped government “doesn’t have the means” to do so.

And perhaps, little real incentive.

Mining is big business in Congo. Government officials declined to give figures on the cobalt industry, but overall exports – including cobalt, diamonds, copper and coffee – topped $1 billion in 2002.

Today at Shinkolobwe, some 5,500 Congolese using shovels, hoes and bare hands haul ores overland to nearby Likasi, where businessmen from Africa, India, China and elsewhere have set up 13 smelting mills.

The end product, and just as often the raw material itself, known as heteroginite, is shipped south by road to neighboring Zambia, and then abroad.

Industry officials say the heteroginite primarily contains high-grade cobalt. But “trace quantities of uranium are being exported unwittingly” along with it, said Skinner, the mining engineer, a Zimbabwean who is a longtime Congo resident.

The diggers, uneducated, hungry and fearful for their jobs, deny any uranium is being mined.

Provincial governor Aime Ngoy Mukena confirmed to the Associated Press that the heteroginite contains uranium, but he and other officials declined to say precisely how much.

Alex Stewart (Assayers) Ltd., a British-based company that provides lab services to the mining industry, found “a high concentration of the highly radioactive uranium-235 in steels from Shinkolobwe,” European Parliament member Bart Staes wrote to the European Commission in 2003.

The isotope uranium-235 is needed to support chain reactions in nuclear reactors and weapons. The metal must be refined first, a process called enrichment.

Foreign experts say the uranium being dug up at Shinkolobwe is not significant enough to attract terrorists – a basic bomb needs a half-dozen tons of the raw ore. But no one consistently monitors how much is being mined or exported.

About 20 state mining police officers are posted at Shinkolobwe, but their main task is to ensure diggers pay their taxes. On the Congolese frontier, underpaid officials are easily bribed to let shipments through.

“It’s a whole other problem when governments can’t control what happens on their own land,” said Michael Levi, a science and technology fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Mukena, the governor, told AP that government experts test all minerals for export, but state labs do not have the means to detect uranium.

“There is no local laboratory that can do it,” Mukena said, adding that Shinkolobwe was closed partly for that reason.

The U.S. government recently sent experts to inspect Shinkolobwe. U.S. Embassy officials in Kinshasa declined to detail their findings.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. organization that monitors nuclear facilities, also has offered to inspect the mines. The government has not taken up the offer, agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said by telephone from IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

The IAEA begins tracking uranium ore only after it has been enriched into weapons-grade material, a process that requires extremely sophisticated technical know-how, Fleming said.

“There is a huge, long process you have to go through before it gets to a point of concern for the world,” Fleming said.

Tom Cochrane, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, agreed.

Pre-enriched, “it’s not very good dirty-bomb material,” he said.

Levi, however, argued that even small quantities should be tracked.

“The assumption in the past was always that you’d have to divert a huge amount of uranium to make a bomb,” Levi said from Washington. “But you can do most of the research leading to a bomb with small amounts of uranium. So you can get very far without being detected.”

Saddam Hussein’s intelligence archives show a middleman in Nairobi, Kenya, offered to supply Iraq with Congo uranium in 2000, Newsweek reported in its May 17 issue. A note in the intelligence service’s file suggested Iraq was then under too much international scrutiny to pursue the deal but recommended Iraq “maintain contact” with the middleman.

The Shinkolobwe mine is not Congo’s only nuclear worry. In the capital, an aging, low-power research reactor still operates on an erosion-prone hill at the university.

It has been criticized for lax security, and two of its nuclear fuel rods were stolen in the late 1980s. One was later found in Italy. The other remains missing.

As for Shinkolobwe, “if there was really a political will to close it, it could be closed in a day,” Skinner said. “But everybody is making money out of it, and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”