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.


Six Years That Shook the World

One of the best foreign reporters in China says goodbye.

BEIJING — My mind was clear, despite the wine and the wistful mood of a farewell dinner, my reflexes honed by six years on the China beat. So when a cadre friend handed me a gift of a leather satchel, I immediately reached inside and pulled out a hidden envelope. 

It was red and thin, and addressed to my youngest son. "How can it be a bribe when we know you are leaving China?" he protested, as I tried to force him to take it back, on the footpath of a busy tree-lined street outside my hotel in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. When that didn't work, I ran to his black Audi sedan and tossed the envelope inside. I headed back to the hotel as a colleague of my friend dived into the car and sprinted after me, red envelope in hand.

I bowled through a set of revolving doors, careered around a corner, and slid across the polished marble floor into an open elevator. He was fast, however, and his aim was good. He lunged towards me -- sending hotel guests scurrying -- and hurled the envelope through the closing elevator doors.

I banged the open button, just in time, and threw it back after him. It skidded Frisbee-style along the marble, directly through his legs. Success! I slumped against the wall of the elevator as it rose to the 18th floor. 

But then I thought of my two other children, and reached back into the bag. Sure enough, there were two more red envelopes. When I returned to the ground floor, the Audi was gone. But the original red envelope was still there, its ten crisp $100 bills untouched in the middle of the hotel lobby -- a silent, red memento of how much I still had left to learn.



I came to China thinking I knew something about the place. I had spent two years here as a child, during my father's tenure as Australian ambassador from 1985 to 1987. After working as an economics reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald in the mid-2000s, I told my editor I was going to join Bloomberg in China, the world's great untold story. He responded by doubling the size of the paper's Beijing bureau to two.

Before moving, I warmed up by reviewing The Writing on the Wall, by economics writer Will Hutton, which argued that China would face more difficulties as the contradictions between dictatorship and market economics grew more acute. I dismissed his thesis -- that the China model could not survive without the values and institutions of the European enlightenment -- with the kind of certainty that comes from being young and not in China.  

I was 31-years-old when my wife Tara, my children, and I touched down at the Beijing airport in July 2007. I was struck by how the air had changed. The fragrance of cooking oil and coal-fired kitchen stoves had been supplanted by a photochemical pall. We sped down the 10-lane airport expressway that had replaced the bumpy concrete road, on which old men in faded Mao jackets had once brought watermelon-laden donkeys to market. The wheat fields around my childhood apartment at the Lido Hotel in northeast Beijing, where my brother and I had caught frogs and tadpoles in the ditches after the summer rains, was sprouting high-rise apartments as far as the smog enabled us to see.

I tried to stick to my Chinese lessons in those early weeks, but there was too much to explore. Beneath Beijing's shiny new façade, it seemed the idealism, spirit of inquiry, and sense of inexorable progress of the 1980s had been overshadowed by something bigger, heavier, and more cynical.

My notebook contained the names of several terrific Chinese scholars who had worked closely with my economist father since the 1980s. One had been quietly uncovering an unchartered universe of bribery and inequality, which he politely termed "the grey economy." Another was researching how the labor market was tightening, wages were rising, and, for the first time in 5,000 years ordinary citizens were in the process of "making themselves rich."

To chronicle the story of China's rise in the months leading up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, I began looking for a news assistant. These young men and women are the unsung heroes of the foreign press corps: they find stories, fix meetings, conduct interviews, and organize our lives -- while being harassed by Chinese national security officers and banned by law from receiving bylines crediting them as reporters.

I met Maya Li (the pen name she later settled on), in August 2007 at the Stone Boat Café, on the edge of a pond at Ritan Park in central Beijing. In a pork-loving patriarchal world where connections reign supreme, an overweight Muslim woman from a poor family in western China faces significant disadvantages. And she had no facility for numbers, business, not even the names of high-ranking officials. But, by the age of 29, she had already fought harder for our profession than any other journalist I knew.

Li worked for a magazine in the Southern Media Group, which was owned by the Communist Party but based in Guangzhou, one of China's most open cities. Their popular formula was both simple and subversive: to portray people as individuals, not props on a political stage. Li said her hero was the U.S. World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, who cared not for generals and their strategies, or facts and names, but for the souls of the people he sketched beside him in the trenches.

And that's what Li did. She sketched the people in the trenches of China's industrial revolution, along with those who were left behind. When I met her, she had just published an astonishingly gutsy story about parents who roamed the countryside in search of their children who had been kidnapped and sold to work as slaves in brick kilns. (She survived in the industry as long as she did by focusing on individuals, rather than on how poor governance led to their predicaments.) Why would she leave that noble project to work anonymously for a newspaper she had never heard of, I asked her? She mimed a vacuum pump sucking oxygen out of a room. Some of her editors had been sidelined, sacked, and even jailed. She would be my eyes, she said, as I navigated the new terrain.

In those days, I had a simple aspiration: to tell Chinese stories through Chinese voices. I thought Western media focused on the negative, ignoring the progress being made. When Li spotted a small story about two cousins who had survived a coal mine collapse in September 2007, I thought it was just the kind of uplifting adventure story I was seeking. Instead, it proved to be my first lesson in the brutality of power without accountability.  

The Meng cousins worked for a small illegal offshoot of a state-owned mine, in the hills outside of Beijing. I learned that the miners had spent six days underground because the local Party chiefs had imprisoned their fellow workers in order to prevent them from rescuing the Mengs. The Meng's survival would mean the illegal mine would need to be reported, which would benefit no one. Just a few dead miners, on the other hand, would be easier to cover up. The cousins dug through 40 feet of collapsed tunnel and emerged, half dead -- only to have officials chase them out of town.

Li was determined to restore them some dignity. She jumped on an overnight train to the miners' hometown in Inner Mongolia, in north China. What had been a wake had morphed into a week-long homecoming celebration. Readers of my newspaper sent a considerable sum of money after learning that one of the miners named his son Tsinghua, to symbolize his dream of affording the kind of education that might gain his offspring entry to one of China's most prestigious universities.

Meanwhile, in our cozy diplomatic compound near the center of Beijing, a Pakistani neighbor, Shahid, introduced us to a warm and bright lady from the province of Shandong to help look after our kids. Our three-year old boy entered a bilingual pre-school, developed asthma from the smog and fell in love with Shahid's daughter. Our one-year-old daughter modeled herself on Dora the Explorer and followed her brother into his new school and refused to leave. Tara immersed herself in the world of Chinese film, writing scripts and studying what makes Chinese audiences laugh. When the kids got home she would take them to catch frogs and tadpoles at the beautiful lotus ponds of Ritan Park, a short walk up the road from our apartment. Our bathtub filled with amphibians and our balcony with assorted mammals, just as my parent's Beijing apartment had 20 years before.

I closed out 2007 getting detained while reporting on a land dispute on the frozen black-soil plains near the Russian border. The local city government had appropriated nearly 100,000 hectares of land belonging to more than 15,000 farmers -- for a phantom investment project. Over time the officials had transferred the land titles into their own names and rented it straight back to the peasants, effectively recreating the feudal arrangements that the communist revolution was dedicated to destroying. To make matters worse, the officials had brought in armed mafia-like groups from southern China to pacify the angry peasants and to prevent them from filing their complaints with higher levels of government. I hadn't yet learned how to communicate secretly, or to meet in safe houses under the cover of darkness. I'd hardly opened my notebook when six police cars pulled up.

My heart beat like a sparrow's until I learned to follow the lead of my colleague Mary-Anne Toy's news assistant Sanghee Liu. Squashed in the back of the police car, Liu sat serenely beside me. An island of integrity and good judgment in a nation traveling at hyperspeed, Liu had been in this position many times before.


Chinese history is often seen to move in 30- and 60-year cycles, in line with the contours of the zodiac calendar. After the communist revolution of 1949 and the post-Mao decisions to reform in 1978-1979, the year 2008 arrived with momentous expectations and a tinge of dread. My focus began to shift from economic progress and grassroots struggle to the mysterious workings of the Party machine. 

In March, deadly riots exploded in urban centers of the Tibetan plateau. The Party-state's immediate response was restrained, but at a deeper, more primordial level, it kicked into a more unforgiving mode of self-preservation. The Propaganda Department helped transform the ethnic catastrophe into a nationalistic triumph for the Communist Party, defending ethnic Han pride and national honor against "hostile forces" conspiring with the Dalai Lama to dismember China. The Beijing Olympics, just months away, morphed from a celebration of China's arrival on the global stage to something harder and more defiant.

On May 12, the hanging lights at our Beijing office began to tremble. After turning on the TV news, we bolted toward the southwest province of Sichuan, where the carnage had struck. In the town of Beichuan, near the epicenter of the 8.0 magnitude earthquake, we learned to tread carefully over bodies camouflaged by dust. Some were well-dressed and still intact. Others were torn and smashed like insects. One man was hanging upside down; his pelvis squashed between two boulders. Yet he was alive and had the strength to speak. I told him that if he was brave enough to hang on, the rescue team would come for him. That proved to be a lie. On the highway above, battalions of People's Liberation Army soldiers sat in trucks, eating watermelons and occasionally staging mock-rescues for the benefit of the camera teams that were beaming propaganda footage across the country.

A week later, I returned back home to Tara, who was pregnant with our third child; she took me that same day to a resort at Yalong Bay, in south China's Hanian Island. I couldn't bring myself to talk, or look at the kids, but I could swim -- and I did, as far out as I could physically go. I cried like I've never cried before, or since.

In August 2008, as world leaders arrived to applaud the Beijing Olympics, the price of iron ore collapsed and financial crisis struck. I paused, as Tara gave birth to our third child.

Australia felt the force of China's rise earlier and harder than most other rich nations, thanks to high levels of Chinese immigration, geographical proximity and China's voracious appetite for its resources. In 2009, the Communist Party awed the world by reflating the Chinese economy, and Australia's too. China's top aluminum producer Chinalco made a $19 billion bid to invest in the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, while Canberra infuriated Beijing by calling on it to be more transparent about its military. The investment deal failed, a Chinese admiral blasted Australia's Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and relations plunged to their lowest point since the Tiananmen massacres of 1989.

In July, I found myself in the northwest region of Xinjiang, covering an even bloodier round of race riots than Tibet, when a contact rang to ask what had happened to a friend of mine, the Australian-Chinese Rio Tinto iron ore executive Stern Hu. I learned he had been arrested, and that disagreements over iron ore had been elevated to a matter of Chinese national security. Each night my head reeled with the implications of information absorbed, but not fully digested. Where was China going? Was I doing justice to the story and getting the balance right? Gray hairs appeared, the skin under my eyes grew darker, and I would often find myself jolted wide awake, bathed in sweat, in the pre-dawn hours. With every road trip and each deep interview, I discovered afresh how little I'd known before.

I had seriously underestimated how much the Communist Party had inoculated itself against the values and institutions of the European Enlightenment that underpin capitalism in the West. Webs of patronage, bribery, and thuggery extended deep into the political machine. The tools of coercion, cooption, and censorship -- so effective in revolution and keeping the Party in power -- were being deployed for the benefit of individuals within the elite.  

Following the money in just the coal sector led to the mistress of China's minister of labor, a provincial governor, and relatives of more senior officials, including the son of a former vice president. From 2010, I was drawn to the Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing, whose maverick party boss Bo Xilai was using mafia-like tactics to clear the mafia from the streets and consolidate his power. "Is China Becoming a Mafia State?" I asked in a mini-lecture tour in the United States, which triggered some feisty banter at the Beijing Public Security Bureau when it came time to discuss my annual visa renewal at the end of 2011.  

When Chinese-Australians had their assets stripped and were imprisoned, I did my best to make it harder for Canberra to pretend these were mere "consular matters." Yang Hengjun, a former Chinese diplomat whose charisma and flair for words had earned him millions of fans on the Chinese Internet, told me that if foreign governments could not protect their own citizens in China, then what hope could Chinese citizens have?

Yang lived with his family in Sydney but worked at the center of a vast Chinese network of extraordinary journalists, intellectuals, and activists, who were challenging the Party's monopoly on truth by broadcasting the reality of events and highlighting the absurdity of official pronouncements. He was renowned for having powerful government protectors which enabled him to work and publish in China when others were banned, harassed or worse.

I experienced my own mini-earthquake in March 2011, at the height of Beijing's fears that the struggle of the Arab Spring would spread to China, when Yang himself "was disappeared" -- to use the passive phrasing that has evolved to evade censors on the Chinese Internet. I worked furiously, desperately, and found it difficult to look my own children in the eye. Tara was relieved, for our family's sake, when he re-emerged a few days later.

China had arrived in the age of Sina Weibo. Despite severe restrictions, a virtual civil society was constructing itself where physical networks could not. My earlier grassroots explorations were now being made by hundreds of capable Chinese including Maya Li, who had rejoined the Southern Media Group. I moved my tools to the virgin country of elite politics, where a foreign passport gave me cover to investigate. The battle for China's future was rapidly spreading from the industrial trenches to the founding families of Chinese communism. For me, the venues shifted from frozen black-soil fields and coal-mines to tea houses, cadre apartments, and, occasionally, the grand, imperial courtyard houses of inner Beijing. It took years, but gradually the princelings -- a term that refers to the sons and daughters of high ranking leaders -- shared their histories, aspirations and, increasingly, their anger. Individually, they shared a sense of crisis and a conviction that the system needed to change. Collectively, however, they were trapped in a cage of money, brutality, privilege, and insecurity that offered no clear way out. Could they reform the regime their parents had founded without causing its collapse?

Bo Xilai was the first powerful princeling to publically articulate the growing sense of crisis, but his Mao-flavored cure was deemed more dangerous than the disease. In early 2012, the great challenger was vanquished, in sordid and sensational style; Beijing later jailed his police chief for attempting to defect to the United States, and convicted his wife of murder. Bo's family rival Xi Jinping emerged victorious, united the princelings, and took his place as president of China in November. And the stakes kept growing higher.


These past six years have been a privilege, but this year it felt like time to go. The kids were getting older, the contradictions were getting harder to explain, and the smog was getting worse. In May, I stopped in Guangzhou to thank my cadre friend for sharing his knowledge and being a potential backstop if anything went wrong. The dinner was long and wine flowed freely. We were genuinely close -- red envelopes notwithstanding -- and his princeling status gave him license to speak freely, but his particular official position meant we were actors in a bigger game. 

After losing the battle of the red envelopes, I carefully documented to headquarters the 30 crisp $100 bills. But Tara laughed when she saw the black leather satchel I had unthinkingly accepted was actually a Swiss beauty, worth perhaps a thousand dollars.

The cash went to charity. And the Bally bag, courtesy of the Chinese Communist Party, went up for auction at an illegal and lightly persecuted organization: the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.

Feng Li/Getty Images