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Congo Nurses an Old Nuclear Reactor

July 26, 2001

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KINSHASA, Congo (AP) _ A hand-held Geiger counter tapped out a steady beat as Patrick Kanyinda _ looking decidedly uneasy about having a visitor in his small, windowless workroom _ stood at the edge of a circular pool and pointed into the water.

Above him, fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered, casting a faded light onto moldy walls. Below, submerged in the brackish water, beneath a padlocked metal grate and splotches of floating scum, about two dozen metal rods were lined up in neat rows.

``It’s safe,″ insisted Kanyinda, chief technician in this all-but-forgotten facility on the fringes of the University of Kinshasa.

The water, he explains, cools the rods; heavy locks keep burglars at bay; armed guards keep watch outside, just in case.

He paused, then added: ``But I wouldn’t suggest staying here long.″

Few would disagree.

The rods, about 2 feet long and triangular, hold one of the most dangerous substances on the planet: uranium.

In a crumbling concrete building on the edge of one of the world’s most dysfunctional cities, in a program that traces its roots to a Belgian priest and America’s Cold War ``Atoms for Peace″ program, a few Congolese scientists nurse along Africa’s oldest nuclear reactor.

In Congo _ a nation savaged by decades of inept, deeply corrupt rule, poverty and a long stream of wars _ the reactor is a point of pride, proof that, for all its problems, this Central African nation can also harness the atom.

But elsewhere, the reactor is a concern. The reasons are evident.

The reactor sits on an erosion-prone hill, the electricity gives out regularly and the decades-old control panel looks as if it was stolen from the set of a 1950s Buck Rogers movie. Gardens are sprouting out back, right next to a garbage pit.

The front entrance is marked only by a poster taped to the door advising: ``How to Recognize and Quickly Treat Accidental Radioactive Burns.″

And all this is in Kinshasa, a city famed for its sprawling slums, car-swallowing potholes and paucity of regular services, from fire departments to telephone wiring. The past decade has seen the city engulfed twice by military pillaging.

The facility’s budget is confidential, but cannot be very large. The Congolese government is broke and ensnared, yet again, in war.

The reactor is small, capable of producing less than 1 percent of the energy of a nuclear power plant, and the uranium is not believed to be sufficiently refined for weapons manufacturing. But an accident could spray radioactivity across a good part of the university, or poison the water supply for much of the city.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. organization that monitors nuclear facilities, won’t discuss specifics, but makes clear the Kinshasa facility is in trouble.

``It’s in poor condition because of the economic conditions down there,″ said David Kyd, spokesman for the Vienna, Austria-based agency. ``It’s not a high priority,″ for the Congolese government.

American officials have repeatedly tried to get the fuel, both used and unused, shipped to the United States for storage.

The scientists who run it, though, have no intention of stopping their work. They insist they are doing important peaceful research: creating nuclear isotopes and looking at atomic uses tied to agriculture and mining.

``This isn’t just prestige,″ grumbled Felix Malu wa Kalenga, who has headed the facility for decades. ``It’s real work.″

But he and his staff seem to view that work with a surreal combination of hyperbole and despair.

At one moment Malu celebrates Congo _ incorrectly _ as ``the very first to have a nuclear reactor,″ then switches to a grim lecture on the state of the facility’s finances.

``Our means are very precarious,″ he said. ``We don’t have the means _ zero!″

But later he concludes: ``We’ll continue, despite the problems.″

The program took root in the late 1950s when Congo was a Belgian colony. Monsignor Luc Gillon, a Belgian priest and nuclear physicist based in Congo, devoted much of his energy to bringing a reactor here, according to Malu, his protege.

He succeeded just before Congo’s 1960 independence. TRIGA-Mark I was built in 1959, but is now used to store the spent fuel. TRIGA-Mark II has been operational, on and off, since 1972.

While stories differ on the facility’s history, both the reactors and the fuel apparently came from the United States, compliments of President Eisenhower’s ``Atoms for Peace″ plan. That program traded U.S. help for peaceful atomic research for agreements not to develop nuclear weapons.

Although Congo’s soil holds enormous uranium reserves, the country turned to the United States for the fuel in refined form.

These days, though, America wants the uranium back, and U.S. Department of Energy officials have been negotiating with the Congolese government for permission to remove the nuclear fuel.

The Congolese, though, have little interest in turning it over.

Fortunat Lumu, a nuclear chemist, hints that America might get back some of the fuel as long as it buys Congo another reactor.

If not, Lumu said there’s enough fuel for another 10 to 15 years of Congolese atom-splitting.

``They can’t take it,″ he said. ``It would be a loss for the country ... This program is known all over the world.″

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