Dispatch

Hot Rods

Poking around for uranium inside the world's least secure nuclear reactor.

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — The razor wire looked too new to be real. Spiraling tightly above a crumbling 4-foot-high concrete wall that more authentically typified the lazy decay of buildings situated within the Earth's high-humidity equatorial belt, the shiny rhombus-shaped shards of sheet metal were a desperate Band-Aid for decades of inept management. A single armed guard watched a cleaning crew sweep the premises of discarded cigarette butts and single-serve chip bags as they prepared for the arriving VIPs. The security looked appropriate for a neighborhood lumberyard -- not quite up to the task of protecting a nuclear reactor.

One of the world's odder colonial legacies, nuclear proliferation came to the Democratic Republic of the Congo not from a rogue scientist's pen drive, but a Belgian priest's whimsy. Monseigneur Luc Gillon headed what became the University of Kinshasa throughout the 1950s, and as Michela Wrong mused in her book about the last days of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's Congo, "Like a colonial administrator who uses his years in the tropics as a chance to build up his butterfly collection, Mgr Gillon seized the opportunity to indulge in his hobby: nuclear research." His efforts paid off: Le Centre Régional d'Etudes Nucléaires de Kinshasa (CREN-K) was commissioned by Belgium and supported by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program in 1958, two years before Congo's independence.

As Africa's first nuclear plant, it came to symbolize Congo's self-reliance and optimism, providing essential research tools to secure limitless energy independence. Operational before the term "Third World" became a pejorative synonym for poverty and corruption, Congo remained in scientific exchange with its nuclear-powered former patriarch, using the good relations to negotiate in 1972 for a second U.S.-built reactor 20 times more powerful that was parked alongside the decommissioned original.

But paralleling the slow decline of the country after it was rebranded as Zaire by Mobutu in 1971, the new reactor fell into disrepair by 1988 when the government became too broke to buy the U.S.- and French-made parts to keep it running. By the mid-1990s, as wars ravaged the country's east and cancer ravaged the man, Mobutu's control slipped. Rumors even circulated that he had booby-trapped the reactor to annihilate the capital should rebel troops come for him. They did; he fled to Switzerland. The reactor languished. Despite local efforts to revive the program, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission refused to send CREN-K needed parts due to Congo's continued instability.

Today, the reactors are housed in an indistinct administrative building of the sort ubiquitous across the global south. It's a crumbling, Z-grade, concrete-and-rebar brutalist homage of about 40 rooms perched on the University of Kinshasa's campus, about an hour's drive up the hill from downtown Kinshasa. The diminutive reactors are barely three stories high, similar to ones decommissioned in 2010 at the University of Arizona and still running at Kansas State University. Officially shut down in 2004, the CREN-K reactor lords over new student dorms being built across the street and the money-changers up the road bundling million-franc stacks atop blue plastic tables, itching to trade them for more stable U.S. dollars.

Still technically a functioning research facility, CREN-K's offices now host just a few poorly paid scientists. Some are busy playing God with radiation to grow freakazoid plants, nobly seeking a malaria cure. Others analyze endless concrete samples for radiation with dingy computers running Microsoft Windows 2000. Caked beakers, vintage centrifuges, and dented aluminum sterilizers shipped all the way from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, are strewn about the shoebox-sized labs.

But this mothballed dream still has thousands of years of fuel, concentrated in what used to be 140 indigenously mined enriched-uranium fuel rods scattered around the compound in a few barely fortified buildings. Congolese uranium, the very kind that once filled the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has been shopped around the world, enriched and raw, in burlap sacks and suitcases weighing up to 200 pounds, destined for undesirables like Saddam Hussein and North Korea. CREN-K's own U-235 rods -- utterly enticing dirty-bomb material -- have developed a nasty habit of vanishing without a trace.

After two decades of war (which still rages in other parts of the country), Congo is attempting to return to normalcy, and that means restoring former glories. May's CREN-K "open house" attempted to do both, showcasing indigenous technical achievement while making as many improvements as the anemic, stretched state coffers allowed. A 36-hour-old paint job gave the whole place that "new reactor smell"; a vinyl banner was strewn from the razor wire; and a buddy finally materialized for the machine gun-toting guard who until now passed lonely days in solitary. A perfunctory gate check (I got in by depositing an expired frequent-flier card) marked the first and last of the day's security.

An artificial turf mat complete with a sassy cursive "Welcome!" greeting was haphazardly tossed in front of the main doors. Once inside, crossing a hallway led to another set of tinted glass and steel doors, where in any other nuclear facility, a visitor would surely expect to encounter a labyrinth of elevators, stairs, and security card-swiped checkpoints before the main event. I clandestinely turned on the Russian Soeks brand Geiger counter in my bag for signs of invisible negligence. Nothing amiss yet.

And just like that, there it was: the TRIGA Mark II nuclear reactor, a barbell-shaped octagonal silo decorated in the cheerful national colors of sky blue and yellow. A slightly unfriendlier pale orange on top marked the ominous reactor zone. A couple of laminated signs with the universal symbol for radioactivity were taped up here and there. Despite the warnings, as well as my misgivings, neither "danger" nor "melting" flashed red on my detector.

Seeing something so dangerous, so provocative, as six dozen enriched-uranium fuel rods a mere stone's throw away sends the brain tumbling into cloak-and-dagger mode pretty quickly. I tried to imagine what it would take to steal a rod or two. Clearly, a CREN-K heist would be like watching Mission: Possible.

Cue the music. In front of me lies a grated bridge, the first step to the booty. But wait, my egress is blocked by a steel chain wrapped in white plastic tubing strung just above knee level. Were I able to navigate that hurdle, then comes a waist-high orange gate. Jumping over it could be possible … but maybe I'd be better off just walking around. Once atop the beast, the next obstacle would be more steel grating above the reactor. That would mean clipping a couple of cheap locks. Then, clearly, come the laser sensors, humidity alarms, and so on.

Wait, what? That's it? I'm in?

Indeed. Even Guy Ritchie's biggest bumblers (NSFW) wouldn't need more than five minutes to get to the fuel rods -- there's also a helpful pulley operated remotely with which to extract them, if needed. The 2-foot-long rods look like miniature brass javelins and are composed of a uranium-zirconium hydride chemical blend that can reach 1,200 degrees Celsius before any real damage is done.

Plan B -- busting into the original reactor that now is little more than a spent-fuel warehouse and simply carrying them out -- was the method of choice the last time that two rods were stolen, in 1997. One was recovered a year later after the Italian mafia tried to pawn it off to a Middle Eastern buyer; the other is still on tour somewhere in the black market underground.

I asked Sebastian Luindula, head of scientific affairs at CREN-K, about this horrific lapse of security. Don't worry, he said. The spent fuel was moved "far far away from here. All the way to the other side of the compound." Luindula also said that they installed motion detectors similar to what you might find at any suburban house in the United States. Like most of Congo's elite institutions, the reactor and surrounding surveillance rely on a DIY power hodgepodge of unreliable state supplies combined with diesel generator backups to stay operational, and uninterrupted coverage is always elusive.

Plant officials have been dreaming of restoring the reactor's functionality for a decade, but international watchdogs like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are terrified of the prospect. The IAEA and Interpol have been desperately worried about security lapses and the deteriorating scene here since at least 2006, but little has changed. The average CREN-K employee still earns less than $100 a month. And like many government servants with access to international funds here, they reportedly siphon off most of the meager IAEA improvement funds to supplement their non-livable wage.

While much more dangerous than its surprisingly pedestrian U-238 cousin (available for about $40 a pound on the open market or direct from the U.S. Department of Energy), CREN-K's U-235 still needs to be twinned with a large conventional explosive to cause mass casualties. Once again, it's not hard to come by here. With Congo's epic mining and farming booms bringing thousands of tons of material -- from dynamite to fertilizer -- monthly through the capital, Kinshasa, with little to no oversight, it is increasingly becoming a one-stop dirty bomb shop.

In the meantime, the sticky coat of fresh paint does little to conceal the global danger. Despite ominous WikiLeaked warnings from the U.S. State Department and others, the IAEA only sends inspectors here once a year due to its own budget limitations. In a world still awash with decaying post-Soviet nuclear facilities, little reactors like this can easily fall through the cracks.

Thus lies the wrenching predicament. A country brimming with some of the world's most desirable raw resources is magnanimously gifted their technical fruits, but then refused the trust needed to keep them operational. Post-colonial pride gets stymied, which turns into a languorous apathy, then a dangerous disregard.

A small crowd had gathered at the gates of the reactor, waiting in turn for their own tour. As I left the compound, an argument broke out at the stagnant entrance queue. The line wasn't moving quickly enough; the new security guards were flustered and outmatched. I checked my Geiger counter one last time, looked back at this crumbling, newly painted monument to a future unfulfilled, and boarded the VIP bus back to Kinshasa.

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