Terror fears at mine that fuelled Hiroshima

The United Nations nuclear watchdog has highlighted the illegal extraction of uranium

Michael Dynes reports
September 21, 2004

A man enters an illicitly dug tunnel at the Shinkolobwe mine that has raised fears of nuclear materials reaching terrorists

Black-Market nuclear material being extracted from an abandoned mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo could fall into the hands of terrorists, the United Nations has said.

More than 15,000 self-employed miners are illegally quarrying the Shinkolobwe mine, which supplied uranium used in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Large quantities of cobalt, copper, platinum and uranium are being sold to local furnaces operated mainly by Pakistani, Indian and Chinese businessmen, then illegally exported to world markets via Zambia.

The miners, who include an increasing number of children, work with basic tools in dangerous makeshift shafts at the mine in the southeastern province of Katanga.

They risk cancer and other health problems because of the high radiation levels recorded at the site, said the UN team investigating the illegal mining and exportation of uranium ore.

Allegations of illegal mining became public in March. The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, started an investigation into the risks of nuclear material getting into terrorists' hands and called on Kinshasa to clamp down on the miners.

Alexandre Essome, spokesman for the investigation team, said the UN recommends that "this mine be secured and put in charge of a private operation for more disciplined operations with the aim of avoiding risks, including the high rate of radioactivity, and uranium-trafficking among those who shouldn't get their hands on it".

Investigators are understood to have been shocked at the scale of the illegal operations and the failure of Kinshasa to take action to stop them.

A South African mining engineer working in the region, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Times that the miners had been able to work with impunity.

"They are digging shafts with crowbars, picks and shovels in extremely unsafe conditions," he said. "They are digging in cobalt and nickel-rich veins. But there's a danger that small quantities of radioactive material are finding their way to the cobalt market. Where that is ending up is anyone's guess.

"The miners are working in 50 ft trenches. The ore is being hauled out in buckets and sacks. It is sold to middlemen for between $ 2 (sterling pound 1.10) and $ 3 a 50 kg (110 lb) sack, then exported by merchants.

"A good miner could probably produce 20 sacks a day, so there is a lot of money being made. I estimate something like 6,000 tonnes of ore are being exported every month.

"Most of the miners are adults, but more and more children are coming to the mine. They are living in shacks, and a whole micro-economy has sprung up to service them. Furnaces at Likasi, 25 miles from the Shinkolobwe mine, smelt some of the ore. But there are no safeguards".

President Kabila ordered mining to be stopped after pressure from Washington, which feared that terrorists could use it as a source of uranium. But seven years of civil war have meant that the Government's remit does not travel far beyond the capital.

Forty shiploads of uranium ore were shipped from Shinkolobwe to the US to help to construct the atomic weapons which helped to defeat Japan in the Second World War. The mine was shut in 1960 by Belgium, the former colonial power, and filled with concrete, but has attracted small-scale miners ever since.

Henri Boshoff, at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said: "The Congo has virtually no border or airspace security. If anyone had enough determination and money, I think they could get uranium."

Uranium Facts

* Discovered in 1789 by Martin Klaproth, a German chemist, and named after the planet Uranus

* A very dense, silvery-white metal that bursts into flames when finely divided

* Chemical symbol is U, melting point 1,132C

* As common as mercury, silver or arsenic, it is found in various minerals, phosphate, lignite and monazite sands

* 1lb yields as much energy as 3,000,000 lb of coal

* In 1939 the German scientists Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner discovered that it could release energy by nuclear fission

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Copyright 2003 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.
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