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Web Extra Friday, July 30, 2004

Illegal uranium mining in Congo

In the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of miners are illegally working the Shinkolobwe mine in the southeastern province of Katanga. Under Congo's colonial ruler, Belgium, the mine produced high-grade uranium ore used in the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs. Last week, U.N. officials expressed fears that undocumented uranium ore leaving the mine could make its way into the hands of terrorists.

According to the Congolese Ministry of Mines, the Shinkolobwe mine is closed, although they admit some illegal mining may occur at night. In reality, "mining is going on 24 hours a day," says Patricia Tome, a spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC. Up to 20,000 miners enter the mine on a daily basis with little to no regulation, she says. Officials do not know exactly what is being mined or where the material could be going.

Much of the raw uranium used in the Nagasaki (shown here) and Hiroshima bombs came from the the Shinkolobwe uranium mine in the Congo. Up to 20,000 miners are now illegally working the min, and U.N. officials have expressed concerns that undocumented uranium ore leaving the mine could make its way to into terrorists' hands. Image courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a nuclear watchdog for the United Nations, visited the mine earlier this year to measure uranium levels in the ore. Under Congo's non-proliferation treaty, Congo is required to report any export of uranium, says Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson for IAEA. She adds that "the government may not be fully aware about activities in some parts of the country due to the prevailing political situation, and the insecurity in the region."

After Belgium relinquished control of Congo in 1960, the Shinkolobwe mine was guarded by Congolese troops until 1997, when civil war erupted. Today, "the mining area is under the control of local mafia," Tome says. Mafia and miners alike, wanting to prevent the closure of the mine, have stymied MONUC humanitarian efforts in the area. "For the miners, this is their only way to survive," she says.

The Shinkolobwe mine is located in the Katanga copper belt, a mineral-rich swath of rocks mined extensively for cobalt, copper, nickel, uranium and other minerals. Officials believe that the miners are actually looking for cobalt ore. The demand for cobalt (used in rechargeable batteries) has surged, particularly due to the popularity of cell phones.

The Shinkolobwe mine, part of the mineral-rich Katanga copper belt, is located about 15 miles west of Likasi in southeast Congo. The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) recently emerged from a civil war (1998-2002). The mine has remained unguarded since the breakout of fighting in 1997. Image courtesy of the CIA World Factbook

Even if miners are not targeting uranium ore, some uranium may inadvertently be removed. "We shouldn't be sanguine about any possibility that uranium is entering channels of trade without being documented," says Richard Lester, a professor of nuclear engineering at MIT. In a report earlier this month, BBC News interviewed a local miner who alleged that the ore is being processed at local smelters by Chinese and Indian businessmen and then smuggled out of the country via Zambia.

The U.N. mission to Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC, is shown here operating a nutrition center. MONUC is worried about miners' health due to possible radiation exposure. Image courtesy of MONUC.

"There is a long chain of things that have to happen between extracting ore from the ground and producing weapons-grade uranium," Lester says. Even though the possibility may be remote that a terrorist organization could obtain enough ore, build the infrastructure and acquire the technologies needed to enrich uranium without anybody noticing, he says, "better control over the material in the mine is needed."

At the moment, however, the most immediate concern is miners' health. "When [MONUC] visited, it appeared the radiation danger was high," Tome says. The majority of miners at Shinkolobwe work by hand without any type of protection. MONUC is concerned, Tome says, that the mafia members running the mine might not even know about the hazards posed by exposure to radiation.

Jay Chapman
Geotimes intern


CIA world factbook: Congo
BBC news story


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