The Scary Case of Africa's Missing Nuclear Fuel Rods

Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.
padlock
Security was not much better than this at the Kinshasa nuclear research center. (Photo: Getty Images).

True or false: Nuclear proliferation, loose nukes and stolen nuclear material are only a problem for the U.S., Russia, and the other members of the nuclear club? We don't really need to answer that one for you....

Lost in the hullabaloo surrounding the Wikileaks releases last month was this bit of scary news: A nuclear facility in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo—one of the most troubled countries on earth—is basically secured by padlock.

Two nuclear reactors were built near the campus of the University of Kinshasa in the late 1950s and early '70s. By 1992, both ceased functioning.

But the site housed 140 nuclear fuel rods. Or at least it used to.

These days, according to a leaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa describing the frightening lack of security at the facility, only 138 nuclear fuel rods remain at Kinshasa's CREN-K nuclear research center.

To underscore how lax security is at the facility, students at the university cut through CREN-K's grounds to save time on the way to class, and area farmers use empty land at CREN-K to grow manioc. So no one should be surprised that a padlocked, breach-ridden, six-foot fence topped by random razor wire proved no match for thieves who were on the hunt for nuclear fuel rods in 1998.

One nuclear rod turned up in Rome. Italian authorities say a broker was trying to sell the radioactive material to unidentified buyers in the Middle East (some speculate the buyer was Saddam Hussein, according to Foreign Policy Magazine).

And the other stolen nuclear fuel rod? It's never been found.

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