Uranium Security in the DRC

January 2, 2024
Daniel Allen

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The Shinkolobwe mine is located in the southeastern province of Haut-Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was a former uranium mine used by the Americans to procure fissile material for the Manhattan Project, with 2/3 of the fissile material in the Manhattan Project originating from Shinkolobwe. Before the Manhattan Project, the Germans had attempted to use an intercepted shipment of uranium for their (failed) nuclear program. Eventually, the Americans abandoned the mine during the 1960s when domestic uranium production made imports unnecessary; the Belgian company Union Minière subsequently sealed the mine with concrete.

Even though the mine had been sealed following the DRC’s independence in 1960, artisanal mining continued throughout the region due to abundant alternative ores including cobalt, silver, and copper. Lack of access to materials, coupled with few means for alternative sources of income, meant that the mining at Shinkolobwe occurred under increasingly hazardous conditions. In 2004, an old section of the mining shaft collapsed killing eight people and injuring a further thirteen. Even though the Shinkolobwe had officially been closed off by presidential decree some months earlier, illegal mining continued in the area.

In 2006, a DRC sanctions committee report found that the “smuggling of radioactive materials […] are far more frequent than previously assumed.” These included the confiscation of over 50 containers containing uranium or cesium in or around Kinshasa, as well as the securement of 100 kilograms of uranium ore. While international organizations such as Interpol have attempted closer collaboration with Tanzanian and Congolese authorities, government officials have been reluctant to provide more information. A French documentary in 2017 on the illegal shipments of uranium from the Congo through Tanzania also alleged that government officials had been conspiring with artisanal miners in the smuggling of uranium from Shinkolobwe. Their investigation further highlighted the near-inexistent security infrastructure surrounding the mine, raising doubts about how inactive Shinkolobwe truly was. While these claims have yet to be substantiated by third parties, they ultimately raise more questions than answers.

Most recently, the current governor of Haut-Katanga Jacques Kyabula implemented a project aimed at improving the security of the Shinkolobwe mine in 2019. These included a double-trench perimeter, as well as checkpoints in the larger area. The governor heralded this project by announcing that once it was complete, “no one may say that uranium is mined at Shinkolobwe”. Unfortunately, this claim is most likely false. In fact, open-source intelligence techniques paint an alarming picture.

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Daniel Allen is a fourth-year student at Middlebury College, pursuing two bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and Anthropology, respectively. His work has focused primarily on arms control using open-source intelligence techniques with a focus on North Korea and Iran. Having grown up abroad, Allen wishes to use his international perspective and trilingual fluency to help bridge the gap between local and international nonproliferation efforts. The research for this article was conducted during his time at CNS in 2023 as a Summer Undergraduate Fellow.

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