Secret messages published by WikiLeaks show great concern on the part of US diplomats with alleged smuggling of uranium from poorly secured mines and nuclear facilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In one leaked cable from September 2006, the US embassy in Dar es Salaam suggests that uranium from the DRC may be passing through Tanzania en route to Iran.
Such trafficking is “common knowledge to two Swiss shipping companies,” this message states, citing “a senior Swiss diplomat” as the source of the allegation.
In addition to its worries about Iran’s nuclear programme, the United States fears that raw uranium and processed nuclear material could make its way from Central and East Africa into the hands of terrorist networks.
A United Nations report in November revealed that a Rwandan gang operating in the eastern DRC tried unsuccessfully in 2008 to sell six containers of what was claimed to be uranium mined during the Belgian colonial era.
American concern was highlighted last week by the signing of an agreement with the DRC aimed at preventing trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials. The DRC and Tanzania are both rich in uranium resources.
Congo was the source of the uranium used in the US nuclear weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
And a July 2007 message from the US embassy in Kinshasa notes that “all of Katanga Province could be said to be somewhat radioactive.”
Tanzania, meanwhile, was reported by Reuters in May last year to have at least 54 million pounds (108 million kilos) of uranium oxide deposits.
Tanzania expects to begin mining this motherlode in the coming year, Reuters added, reporting that the French energy group Areva is interested in exploiting the country’s uranium deposits.
Uranium is a valuable commodity. The July 2007 cable from the US Kinshasa embassy notes that the price for a pound of the mineral increased from $15 in 2004 to $135 in 2007.
(Uranium currently sells on spot markets for about $62 per pound.) The DRC also maintains a nuclear research centre known as CREN-K at which “external and internal security is poor, leaving the facility vulnerable to theft,” a September 2006 cable warns.
Reporting on a tour of the Kinshasa centre by US embassy officials, this message notes there are “numerous holes” in a fence around the facility as well as “large gaps where the fence was missing altogether.”
Farmers grow manioc in a field next to the centre’s nuclear waste storage building, the cable adds, observing parenthetically that elevated levels of radiation had been detected in this manioc plot.
“It is relatively easy for someone to break into the nuclear reactor building or the nuclear waste storage building and steal rods or nuclear waste, with no greater tool than a lock cutter,” the cable continues. “It would also be feasible to pay a CREN-K employee to steal nuclear material.”
In fact, this cable reports, one of two nuclear fuel rods stolen from CREN-K in 1998 was later recovered from the Italian Mafia in Rome. Mafia members were allegedly trying to sell it to unidentified customers in the Middle East, the cable adds.
“The second fuel rod has never been found,” the US message states.
Leaked US diplomatic communications from the DRC and Burundi also show that embassy officials closely scrutinised information related to uranium smuggling.
The Americans posted in East Africa responded at times with outright scepticism or were careful to point out that some claims could not be substantiated.
A secret cable from the US embassy in Bujumbura dated June 27, 2007 relates that two Congolese were claiming to have found a cache of uranium and chemical items on a former Belgian colonial property 107 miles (171km) west of Bukavu in the DRC.
The Congolese said they had approached the US embassy, the cable indicates, because “they did not want these items to fall into the wrong hands, specifically mentioning that they did not want Muslims to possess the items.”
But the Americans suggested that the Congolese men’s story should not be considered trustworthy.
“This case fits the profile of typical scams involving nuclear smuggling originating from the eastern DRC,” the cable states, citing an assessment of it as “a non-credible case of nuclear smuggling.”
Similarly, the July 2007 cable from the US embassy in Kinshasa was careful to assess contentions that Malta Forest, a Congolese mining company, is illegally mining and exporting uranium from the DRC.
“A body of circumstantial evidence exists” in support of the allegations, the cable notes, “but specific hard evidence does not.”
Mines in the DRC operated by Malta Forest probably contain profitable quantities of uranium, the message says.
“It would be easy to export it within raw, semi-processed rock as copper, especially if an illegal export system in an unregulated environment already existed to do so,” the cable continues.
“The fact that the Embassy has received several reports in the past two months from approximately six different sources that Malta Forest is trafficking uranium, lends support to the circumstantial case against them.”
“On the other hand,” the cable points out, “Malta Forest is an easy target; it is a large company that has been working in the Congo since 1915, and it has been involved in business deals with various Congolese Government officials. Statistics are also intentionally muddied and manipulated by DRC officials to push various economic and political agendas.”