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30 March 2004 | 09:24 Code : 3680 Geoscience events
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By Dino Mahtani, Reuters


SHINKOLOBWE, Congo — A mine in Congo that provided uranium for the first atomic bombs is being illegally quarried and the potentially dangerous raw material exported without control, industry experts say.

That rang alarm bells with the United Nations Thursday, and the U.N. nuclear watchdog said it had asked the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo for more information.

"If there is the possibility that large quantities of uranium are being mined and exported, it is disturbing," said a spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency. "The DRC has an additional protocol with the IAEA which puts it under an obligation to report its uranium mining activities as well as its exports of uranium," Melissa Fleming added.

Thousands of self-employed miners are pounding away at rocks and descending into makeshift shafts at Shinkolobwe, one of mineral-rich Congo's largest and oldest mines in the southeastern province of Katanga.

"Our union manages several thousand miners at Shinkolobwe. Our role is to manage the future training of these miners for whatever they end up doing," said Jean Marie Mujinga, site head at Shinkolobwe for the Union for Artisanal Miners in Katanga.

Mujinga said there were around 6,000 miners at the site.

Discovered in the early 1900s and developed by Congo's then colonial master Belgium, Shinkolobwe provided the uranium for the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States at the end of the World War II.

Its principal mine shaft was filled with concrete and its uranium concentrator abandoned by the Belgians after the war, under pressure from the U.S. government to remove a potential security threat once Congo gained independence in 1960.

Refined and Enriched

The miners are digging up cobalt and copper compounds, in high demand on the world market, but the amalgamates contain significant traces of uranium, which can be processed into nuclear material in the hands of expert scientists.

"They are inadvertently exporting raw uranium, which could find its way into the hands of countries that are capable of using it," said John Skinner, general manager of Swanepoel Enterprises, a South African farming and contract mining company that has been based in nearby Likasi since the 1930s.

Demand for cobalt — used in paints, batteries, and newer generations of mobile phones — continues to suck compounds containing uranium out of Shinkolobwe. But scientists say that the threat of it ending up in a nuclear bomb is minimal.

Only uranium which has been through several stages of refining and enrichment is usable in the core of an atomic bomb, and experts say obtaining highly enriched uranium is the biggest obstacle to developing nuclear weapons.

"The uranium from Shinkolobwe is mostly uranium-238, and therefore not immediately fissionable," said Professor Fortunat Lumu, atomic energy general officer at Congo's Ministry of Scientific Research in the capital Kinshasa. "It could only be dangerous in the hands of those countries that have, or are trying to develop, expensive nuclear reactors and laser technologies that can process uranium-238 into highly radioactive materials," he said.

Shinkolobwe was once prospected by North Korea, which sent a team of engineers to the site in 1999, only to be thrown out after Washington put pressure on Congo's government.

Nowadays, local residents say, it is Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and South Korean smelter operators who are buying up the amalgamate compounds for smelting in Likasi — an industrial town not far from Shinkolobwe — or for direct export.

(Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna)

Source: Reuters


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