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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Congo Special Weapons

The former Belgian Congo was renamed Zaire, and then renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo [Congo (Kinshasa)], to avoid confusion with Congo-Brazzaville, and entirely different country across the Congo River.


The OTRAG (Orbital Transport und Raketen Aktiengesellschaft) had some international impact by testing its modular rocket from the Shaba province in Congo. Three single lowcost rockets were tested in May 1977, May 1978 and June 1978 (the latter being a failure). Political pressure then obliged OTRAG to move to the Sahara desert in Libya.

Iran reportedly sold a small number of Scud missiles to the Democratic Republic of Congo [formerly known as Zaire] in October 1999. Iranian military officers were in Kinshasa, the capital, as part of a delegation of technicians that arrived in the country to assemble the missile systems. Iranian Scud B and Scud C missile systems were detected by US intelligence in early November 1999. This sale was the first Iranian export of the domestically produced version of the missile, and marked the first instance in which Iran exported complete missile systems. The Scud B is a Russian-design missile with a range of about 300 kilometers, and the Scud-C is a longer range version with a range of nearly 500 kilometers.


Historically, the mining industry accounted for 25% of the GDP and about three-quarters of total export revenues. Congo (Kinshasa) is richly endowed with such mineral resources as coal, cobalt, columbium (niobium)-tantalum (locally referred to as "coltan"), copper, diamond, germanium, gold, manganese, petroleum, tin, uranium, and zinc. Mining has been the cornerstone of Zaire's wealth since colonial times.

In 1960, when the mineral-rich area of Katanga in southern Congo was declared independent by Moise Tshombe, Katanga produced copper, 60% of the world's uranium and 80% of the world's industrial diamonds. In the late 1980s, Zaire was the world's largest producer of cobalt, second or third largest producer of industrial diamonds, and fifth largest producer of copper. The near collapse of the economy has made sustaining normal mining activities difficult; with some exceptions, most foreign exploration activity and development-oriented feasibility work came to a halt by the end of 1998.

Zaïre's Government maintained at least part ownership, and generally majority ownership, of nearly all the productive and service sectors of the economy. Gecamines, the principal parastatal company, produced essentially all of Zaïre's copper, cobalt, and coal. Throughout the early 1990s, the deterioration of Gécamines was both a symbol and a result of the country's economic chaos. Most skilled expatriates working for the company fled following military looting in 1991 and further unrest in 1992. Since then Gécamines's facilities have been systematically gutted, and the company went bankrupt.

During 2000, increasing international concern over the extent to which the country's mineral resources were being exploited by all factions to help finance the war or for personal gain led the United Nations Security Council to establish a panel of experts in June to investigate these allegations. The report discussed the illegal exploitation of resources through confiscation, extraction, forced monopoly, and price fixing. References are made to the illegal transfer of stockpiled ore owned by Société Minière et Industrielle du Kivu (SOMINKI), which included 2,000 to 3,000 metric tons (t) of cassiterite (tin ore) and 1,000 to 1,500 t of coltan from North Kivu Province to Rwanda between November 1998 and April 1999; illegal gold mining by civilians and military; tributes paid by artisanal miners to occupying soldiers to exit gold mining areas; the use of prison labor to mine coltan by Rwanda; and the organized export of exploited resources through Rwanda and Uganda.

Uranium, the radioactive element used to produce atomic bombs, was first mined in the western United States in 1871. In 1898 Marie Curie discovered radium in uranium, and another market for Utah's ore emerged. When a process for separating radium from uranium ore was perfected in 1913, uranium mining boomed. In 1923 immense pitchblende deposits rich in radium were discovered in the Belgian Congo, and the market for Utah's radium dried up. As a result of the atomic age and subsequent arms race of the Cold War, uranium came into demand as a key element for nuclear weaponry. In the beginning, almost 90 percent of the United States' uranium supply was imported from the Belgian Congo and Canada.

The Shinkolobwe mine [not Shinkolowbe] in the Katanga Province [11°10'S 26°40'E] is also known as the Kasolo Mine, Chinkolobwe, and Shainkolobwe. Shinkolobwe's urainium deposits were discovered in 1915. This mine, near the southern Congolese town of Likasi, produced uranium for the first atomic bombs. The Shinkolobwe uranium mine ceased was closed in 1960, when Belgium granted Congo independence. Belgian authorities filled the main uranium shaft with concrete.

Gecamines formerly produced cobalt as a coproduct of its copper operation. Annual production of cobalt had averaged about 10,000 t since the early 1980's. Rather than flood the market, Gecamines stockpiled refined cobalt and precipitated excess cobalt from its hydrometallurgical plants' cobalt leach circuits as hydrate, which was also stockpiled. By the end of 1995, most of the high-grade cobalt hydrates stocks on hand at Luilu and Shinkolowbe had been reprocessed into cathode. Processing the stockpiled cobalt hydrates reduced company expenses by allowing several mines and concentration plants to be shut down.

Commercial mining at the Shinkolobwe mine stopped some time ago, but artisanal mining activities continue. Since 1997 upwards of 6000 miners enter the former Shinkolobwe mine site each day, without official authorization. They have excavated a huge open pit next to the former uranium mine, which had been flooded after it was mined out. The miners are interested in cobalt rather than uranium. However, uranium could also be extracted from the ore. Mine tunnels and pits are closed by concrete and water, but residual ore from the site is mined for cobalt and copper, which are in increasingly high demand because of their use in electronics, cell phones and batteries. World cobalt prices are extremely volatile, and cobalt production in Zaire is entirely a byproduct of copper mining.

By all indications, none of the activities involves the mining of uranium. Reports have surfaced that have implicated North Korea and Iraq in schemes to re-open Shinkolobwe to obtain uranium, but these remain unconfirmed. In August 1999 it was reported that the DR Congo was suspected of trying to reopen the Shinkolobwe uranium mine with help from North Korea. Mining engineers from North Korea arrived in 1999. A inferred that North Korean had been paid for their advice by being awarded a mining concession around Shinkolobwe. " ... the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has made a deal with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which trains troops of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in exchange, it is believed, has received a mining concession around Shinkolobwe, very rich in uranium. The Americans in the past extracted uranium from this mine. Challenged on this issue, officials of the Democratic Republic of the Congo mentioned high radioactivity in the area, making it impossible for anyone to work there. According to some officials, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has asked the United States of America to consider addressing the problem of radioactivity in the area, given their historical presence in mining that particular area for uranium. The official denial of a deal between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was based on the fact that the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has sought United States assistance - which it cannot receive if the Koreans are mining the same area."

Given the possibility of uranium being extracted without any control, the United States demanded that the DR Congo government regain control of and interdict access to the mine site. In January 2004 president Joseph Kabila was reported to have agreed, but by late March 2004 decided to the mine site, but this decision had no effect as of late March 2004. On 07 February 2000, North Korea denied media reports that was importing uranium from Congo to make atomic bombs. This denial is credible, given North Korea's extensive uranium deposits. By July 2004 [when it was reported that there were 15,000 miners working the Shinkolobwe mine], there were conflicting reports as to the state presence, with some suggesting there was no effective presence, while others reported that about 20 state mining police officers were posted at Shinkolobwe to ensure that diggers pay taxes.

In March 2004 there were reports that there was evidence that uranium had been illegally extracted, from the Shinkolobwe mine. This was something the US Government had looked into over a period of years. People from the US embassy had been out to the site several times. The US Government came to the conclusion that there was no connection between the illegal mining activities in the Katanga Province, and the activities of nuclear proliferation concern, like the activities in the A.Q. Khan network.

The International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] is also aware of the issue, and they have been prepared to offer assistance to member states on the issues like radiation safety and security of nuclear materials and illicit trafficking. That is something the Democratic Republic of the Congo can do with the IAEA since they're a member of the Agency. But on 16 July 16, 2004, district authorities of Haut Katanga prevented an investigation initiated by the UN mission in the DR Congo (DRC), known by its French acronym MONUC, from accessing the Shinkolobwe uranium mine.

With respect to reports of nuclear smuggling in the region, there have been such reports over the years, but so far most have turned out to be unfounded rumors or, in some cases, scams. On 18 January 1996, German authorities charged a merchant and his lawyer with crimes stemming from their attempt to sell radioactive cesium-137 smuggled from Zaire to another merchant who was a police informant. The cesium reportedly was transported to Germany from Zaire on board a commercial airliner. In March 2004 DRC authorities siezed two cases containing uranium. The two cases, weighing over 100 kilograms (220 lb), contained uranium ore. In all, some 50 cases of radioactive uranium and highly radioactive caesium had been seized by Congolese authorities over the previous four years.

High Enriched Uranium

Since the 1950's, as part of the "Atoms for Peace" program, the United States has provided peaceful nuclear technology to foreign nations in exchange for their promise to forego development of nuclear weapons. A major element of this program was the provision of research reactor technology and the HEU necessary to fuel the research reactors. Research reactors play a vital role in important medical, agricultural, and industrial applications. For example, research reactors are a vital tool in cancer therapy and radioimmunoassay blood testing.

Africa's first nuclear reactor, made be General Atomic, is in a whitewashed concrete building at the University of Kinshasa campus. The first TRIGA reactor in the African Union -- TRICO I -- was built by the Belgians in 1958 in Kinshasa DRC, as part of American President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace Program. TRIGA stands for "Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics. In 1967 the Organization of African Unity decided establish a regional nuclear research center in Kinshasa, and the US agreed to provide a Triga Mark II reactor to the Regional Center for Nuclear Studies (CREN/K). The first 50-kilowatt Triga Mark I reactor was retired in 1970, and replaced with the more powerful TRICO II reactor in March 1972, said to have a capacity of one megawatt of thermal.

Zaire's government stopped funding the reactor in 1988, and it reportedly ceased operations in 1992 when the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission blocked export of an essential replacement part, citing the "economic and political collapse in Zaire." In March 1998, cracks caused a wall in the Regional Center for Nuclear Studies to collapse, as a result of torrential rain which had undermined the foundations. Some shoring up work has been done, but it will not be enough to permanently combat the erosion. As of 2001 the TRIGA-Mark I was used to store the spent fuel, and TRIGA-Mark II was said to be operational.

In May 1996, the US Department of Energy, in consultation with the US Department of State, initiated a program under which eligible spent nuclear fuel from research reactors containing US - enriched uranium could be shipped to the US for management and disposition. This program supports US nonproliferation objectives in that reactor operators still using HEU must commit to convert in order to participate in the program. The purpose of the proposed policy is to promote US nuclear weapons nonproliferation policy objectives, by seeking to reduce and eventually eliminate highly-enriched (weapons-grade) uranium from civilian commerce worldwide.

In March 1998 Italian authorities seized a TRIGA fuel element shipped to Zaire in 1971. The fuel element, seized in an anti-Mafia operation in Rome, was said to consist of 190 grams of uranium enriched to 19%, inside a 70 cm stainless steel tube. It was offered for sale for US$12.6 million to a supposed Middle Eastern buyer. The fuel element was apparently stolen in 1997 from Zaire, and seven more fuel elements are being sought. Italian investigators concluded that Mobutu Sese Seko absconded with the fuel elements, when the dictator escaped to France.

In its annual report for 2000, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said "Missions in 2000 to Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria found the situation (with regard to nuclear safety) in each case to be significantly improved." The Congo has been participating in the IAEA's Model Project "Upgrading Radiation Protection Infrastructure."

The fissile content in TRIGA fuel elements, which are typically enriched to 19.75-20% U-235, ranges from 51.4 grams up to 377 grams in the GE 2000 fuel element. Uranium enriched to 20 percent or more U-235 is called highly enriched (HEU). The prototype TRIGA Mark I reactor, commissioned on May 3, 1958. Known as the TRIGA Mark I reactor, it operate at a power level of 250 kilowatts. The 1958 patent application for the TRIGA [number 3,127,326] featured 91 fuel elements. A typical Triga Mark II would have an output of 250-kW with a core consisting of 45 fuel elements. The Texas A&M University Nuclear Science Center reactor has a power level similar to that at Kinshasa. The UT reactor has a mixed TRIGA core containing 35 FLIP elements [enriched to nominal 70% Uranium-235] and 63 Standard elements [enriched to a nominal 20% Uranium-235]. The Romanian TRIGA reactor, commissioned in 1980, has an output of 500kW from 146 fuel rods. The Kansas State University Triga Mark II operates in steady-state mode with a maximum (thermal) power of 25O kW. It has a core consisting of approximately 78 fuel elements made of a uranium alloy initially enriched to 2O% in the isotope U-235 [the enriched uranium is 8.5% of the fuel by weight).

The total inventory of uranium fuel elements at Kinshasa is not readily apparent from online sources. It might be estimated that the Kinshasa TRIGA II reactor has about 300 fuel elements, to provide a power of about 1 megawatt. In this case, these fuel assemblies would provide an aggregate of 57 kg of HEU in the 40 fuel elements. With the appropriate enrichment facilities, a country could extract 12.5 kg of 90% enriched bomb-grade uranium, a bit less than the 15 kg needed for a sophisticated bomb design, and not quite one-quarter the 56 kg needed for a less sophisticated bomb design.

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Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:38:06 ZULU