Sorry, couldn’t resist.
By now, most of you have probably heard that the London Sunday Times reports that a shipment of smuggled uranium from Congo was intercepted on its way to Iran:
IRAN is seeking to import large consignments of bomb-making uranium from the African mining area that produced the Hiroshima bomb, an investigation has revealed.
A United Nations report, dated July 18, said there was “no doubt” that a huge shipment of smuggled uranium 238, uncovered by customs officials in Tanzania, was transported from the Lubumbashi mines in the Congo.
This is a frighteningly inaccurate version of events.
The United Nations Security Council Committee Established Pursuant to Resolutipon 1533 (2004) Concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC Sanctions Committee, for short) releases periodic reports by a group of experts about the effectiveness of sanctions on Congo. In a report dated 18 June 2006, the group of experts reiterated the well-known fact that artisanal mining for a variety of minerals continues at the Shinkolobwe mine, an environmental and human catastrophe.
But, you know, Congolese people eking out a living from artisanal mining in a shockingly dangerous and polluted environment hardly registers for the Sunday Times editors.
The plight of poor Africans, apparently, doesn’t sell papers.
(The Sunday Times could take a lesson from Sir Bob.)
So, how might one sex up this story, to borrow a British phrase?
Now, the 18 July sanctions report does mention that Congo has a real physical protection with regard to radioactive materials.
This isn’t suprising given what we know about conditions in Congo these days. In fact, a couple of years ago, the BBC ran a story about illegal uranium mining in Congo, allegations that are confirmed in the 18 June 2006 report:
149. During an investigation into alleged smuggling of radioactive materials, the Group of Experts has learned that such incidents are far more frequent than assumed. According to Congolese experts on radioactive materials, organs of State security have, during the past six years, confiscated over 50 cases containing uranium or cesium in and around Kinshasa. The last significant incident occurred in March 2004 when two containers with over 100 kilograms of stable uranium-238 and uranium-235 were secured.
150. In response to a request for information by the Group of Experts the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania has provided limited data on four shipments that were seized over the past 10 years. Unfortunately the Government chose not to provide information about the quantities of the seized consignments nor
the specific method of smuggling. At least in reference to the last shipment from October 2005, the Tanzanian Government left no doubt that the uranium was transported from Lubumbashi by road through Zambia to the United Republic of Tanzania. Attempts via Interpol to learn the precise origin within the Democratic
Republic of the Congo have remained inconclusive.
Specifications of radioactive material Place where confiscated Date when confiscated Uranium ore standard (U-238) Dar-es-Salaam 24 August 1996 Cesium-137 Dar-es-Salaam 24 April 1997 Uranium-238 and radium 226 (Ra 226) Dar-es-Salaam 26 October 2002 Uranium-238 Dar-es-Salaam 22 October 2005
The UN report, as you may note, does not mention Iran or Kazakhstan, details that the Sunday Times claims to have obtained from anonymous Tanzanian customs officials.
A couple of things worth keeping in mind.
First, said Tanzanian customs officials told the Sunday Times the shipment was bound for land-locked Kazakhstan via the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas:
The shipment was destined for smelting in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, delivered via Bandar Abbas, Iran’s biggest port.
This fact, which flatly contradicts the headline (“Iran’s plot to mine uranium in Africa”), is safely buried in the seventh paragraph, by which point the average Sunday Times reader will be too worked up to realize he’s reading utter trash.
Second, this is not a large consignment in the sense of the “Saddam Hussein sought significant quantities of uranium.”
The shipment was 100 kilograms of uranium ore—which contains about 70 grams of fissile U-235. A bomb would require 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent U-235 —well more than 3 metric tons of uranium ore. Fueling a clandestine uranium enrichment program with 100 kilogram increments of ore would be a huge pain in the ass.
The point is this: The story in the UN Report is not about Iran building a bomb, but rather the desperate conditions near the Shinkolobwe mine and DR Congo in general.
After a portion of the Shinkolobwe mine collapsed in 2004, killing eight people, a UN inter-agency mission, led by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), through their Joint Environment Unit, visited the site. The UNEP/OCHA conclusion is notable:
Shinkolobwe is representative of similar situations in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. A strong link exists between rural poverty, environmental protection and this type of livelihood activity. Alternative income opportunities must be developed and integrated in parallel to artisanal exploitation if new livelihood options are to be found for these rural poor. A holistic, multidisciplinary approach within the context of poverty alleviation is essential to address this problem and avoid further human and environmental catastrophes.
Not that the Sunday Times would tell you that.