Paris — Wikileaks cables have revealed a disturbing development in the African uranium mining industry: abysmal safety and security standards in the mines, nuclear research centres, and border customs are enabling international companies to exploit the mines and smuggle dangerous radioactive material across continents.
The Wikileaks cables reveal that U.S. diplomats posted in a number of African countries - the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Niger, and Burundi, among others - have had direct knowledge of the poor safety and security standards in these countries' uranium and nuclear facilities.
The cables also highlight the involvement of European, Chinese, Indian, and South Korean companies in the illegal extraction and smuggling of uranium from Africa. Most European nuclear reactors use uranium imported from African countries.
In one classified document, dated Sep. 8, 2006, the U.S. embassy in the DRC capital Kinshasa reported that several U.S. diplomats and security service personnel toured the Kinshasa Nuclear Research Centre (CREN-K) on Jul. 27 that year in order to assess the facility's security needs.
CREN-K houses the DRC's two nuclear reactors. Neither reactor is currently functioning, but staff conduct nuclear-related research and teaching at the facility.
Although inactive, CREN-K stores significant amounts of uranium and nuclear waste. This radioactive material includes 138 nuclear fuel rods, at least 15 kg of enriched and non-enriched uranium, and some 23 kg of nuclear waste.
At CREN-K, "external and internal security is poor, leaving the facility vulnerable to theft," Roger A. Meece, U.S. ambassador to DRC, reported in the 2006 document.
Meece's detailed description of the security measures at CREN-K suggests that security is not just "poor," but non-existent. According to the report, the fence surrounding CREN-K "is not lit at night, has no razor-wire across the top, and is not monitored by video surveillance.
"There are numerous holes in the fence, and large gaps where the fence was missing altogether," Meece wrote.
"University of Kinshasa students frequently walk through the fence to cut across CREN-K, and subsistence farmers grow manioc on the facility next to the nuclear waste storage building," he added.
In March 2006, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) contractor using a Geiger counter detected elevated levels of radiation in this manioc plot.
According to the cable, none of CREN-K buildings have sophisticated locks, intrusion alarms, motion detectors, or video surveillance systems.
"Once inside the facility, no one controls the entrance to the nuclear reactor, although a key is required to enter the room," Meece wrote.
"The fuel rod storage room, where the nine unused fuel rods are stored, was not locked, and the fuel rods are not kept in a separate locked container."
But security gaps in nuclear and radioactive facilities in the DRC go beyond CREN-K. In a separate cable, dated Jul. 11, 2007, Meece reported that several sources "recently stated that the Malta Forest Company is (illegally) mining and exporting uranium from the DRC."
According to the report, the company is "mining the uranified rock while mining copper and cobalt, then exporting the uranified ore and circumventing radiation testing by using an established system of corrupt government officials."
Meece explained that foreign companies purchase the uranified ore and refine it abroad to separate the uranium, copper, and cobalt.
"In this way, foreign companies purchase uranium from Malta Forest, while Malta Forest appears to be exporting copper and cobalt," he wrote.
In 2006, for example, two Finish companies, Opolo Chemicals and Konkola Chemicals, reportedly told the IAEA that they imported one ton of uranium from the DRC. The DRC, however, claimed that it did not export any uranium in 2006.
In addition, the cable warns that high levels of radioactivity have been measured in numerous regions of the DRC.
"All of Katanga Province could be said to be somewhat radioactive," Meece reported.
Katanga is the country's southernmost province. With an area of 518,000 square kilometres, Katanga is 16 times larger than Belgium, and holds a population of more than four million people.
In the cable, Meece refers to research carried out in May 2007 in the Luiswishi mine, located approximately 20 km northwest of Lubumbashi, the region's capital city. After analysing 100 kg of rock samples from the mine, a scientific commission from Kinshasa found "dangerously high levels of radiation existed at Luiswishi mine, and that the mine operator ...was suppressing this fact to continue mining operations."
The mine operator is the Mining Company of South Katanga (CMSK), predominantly owned by the Malta Forest Company.
The cable also refers to several other findings of high radioactivity and corruption in other Congolese uranium mines, operated by Chinese and South Korean companies. These mines are staffed by "artisanal diggers" - a euphemism for local workers extracting uranium and other radioactive material without enjoying any health protection.
Other U.S. classified cables revealed by Wikileaks report cases of smuggling uranium and other radioactive material in Tanzania, Burundi, Niger, Portugal, and Georgia.
Meece continues to serve in the DRC, as head of the U.N. mission.