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March 10, 2007

Uranium in the DRC

Via Instapundit this at the BBC.

There's two entirely different stories being mixed and matched here.

1) The mining of uranium. Yes, the Congo has vast reserves. Yes, it's where the materials for the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs came from. However, what is mined in the DRC (and I'm not at all sure that any of the mines are currently open, in fact I'm reasonably certain that they are not open at all) is uranium ore. It might be that they have a capability to produce yellowcake, the next stage, but even if there are mines open and producing that would be it. This is the same stuff that Joe Wilson was sent to Niger to report on. It's also the same stuff that turned up in a shipment at Rotterdam.

It's a concentrate of uranium oxide(s). This is the raw material and it contains about 0.7% U 235, which is the material you want to run a reactor or to make a bomb. For a reactor you concentrate it up to 3-4 % (or sometimes 20% for a research or isotope producing reactor) and for a bomb you want much higher numbers, like 80%.

Now, the thing about this is that the factory needed to do this is extremely expensive, massively so. $10 billion is a reasonable estimate. It's actually what we're worried about with Iran and North Korea. Sure, have a nuclear power plant all you want, use as much 3% enriched uranium as you want, but we'll take the fuel rods back so you can't get the plutonium....and please, don't go building that $10 billion factory because we're not sure you'll stop enrichment at 3%.

But the connection between all of this and the DRC? As above, I'm pretty sure that there is no uranium mining currently going on in the DRC.

2) However, there was a research reactor in the DRC. A visit to it is ably described by Michaela Wong in In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. This was (from memory) a research reactor and used the 20% enriched uranium. This again isn't good enough to use in a bomb (although it could make the basis of a pretty nasty dirty bomb).

There's no particular reason to think that people building a uranium enrichment plant would be interested in the small amounts of this material that could be taken from a research reactor. It's not a large amount, and while it would aid a bomb making program, it wouldn't aid it very much.

However, those (unlike Iran and North Korea) that did not have such capabilities might well be interested in the material. They wouldn't be able to make an atomic bomb but they could a dirty one.

As to sales of this material on the black market? Sure, could happen. But it's worth noting that many if not most of the buyers out there are actually people from the various agencies trying to soak up exactly this type of material. They pay top dollar for it too

  In 1992, Kazakhstan rebuffed efforts by Iran to buy beryllium from a storage site that also contained more than 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, enough to make dozens of nuclear bombs. Two years later, Washington secretly flew the fuel out of the country to prevent Iran and other would-be nuclear powers from acquiring it.

The gossip is that $30 million changed hands for that 600 kg.

Story 1 I really don't think is a problem, Story 2, well, certainly there's nothing new there and I would be amazed if the actual buyer of that material (if anyone has indeed bought it) didn't have a desk somewhere in or around Langley.

March 10, 2007 in Nuclear | Permalink


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Please,protect people in DRC congo,and give to them enough security.and freedom

Rev Iragi Samson.

Posted by: iragi | Oct 6, 2008 6:35:29 PM