Nuclear-contaminated sites in Africa: Shinkolobwe: Katanga
16 December 2011 Leave a comment
The old Shinkolobwe uranium/cobalt mine in the Congo is not on the map as a ‘nuclear-accident’ site. However due to extensive illegal mining, an IAEA team already concluded in 2004 that the entire site was severely contaminated and should be collapsed.
The 2004 IAEA report above, recommended that the entire mining site should have been deliberately collapsed years ago to prevent more illegal mining for uranium: the mine’s extremely high-level uranium makes it keenly sought-after internationally, and it is being smuggled by the tons through Tanzanian harbours to Kazahkstan for processing into nuclear-weapons grade, stable U235. Around 15,000 people live and work in the town. They are exposed to excessively high levels of radiation night and day.
French expose on the illegal mining at Shinkolobwe:
- 5,000 kg of uranium or cesium and 100kg of stable U238 and U235 confiscated in and around Kinshasa since 2004:
- The UN warned in 2009 that ‘during an investigation into alleged smuggling of radioactive materials, the Group of Expert 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. On August 9, 2006 the Sunday Times published a poorly-sourced report claiming that Iran was seeking to import “bomb-making uranium” from the Shinkolobwe mine. , quoting the UN report of July 18, 2006. This report gives “Tanzanian customs officials” as its sole source for their claim that the uranium was destined for processing in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan via the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
- After recording dangerous levels of uranium- and cobalt-radiation after the collapse of the historic Shinkolobwe cobalt/uranium mine in Katanga in 2004, when 8 people died and 13 were injured, the IAEA test team which was sent in to examine whether it could be construed as a ‘nuclear accident’ where urgent intervention was need, concluded that it wasn’t. However the team also found that the entire mine-workings site “should be deliberately collapsed to stop the illegal mining.”
The IAEA warning was ignored: the mine merely was ‘sealed off’…
This wasn’t done: instead the mine entrances were merely sealed off with cement lids. And right up to the present, the illegal mining continues with shipments smuggled through Zambia to Tanzania and the – and then on to the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan via the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas…
Shinkolobwe is the name of a town and a mine in the Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), near the larger town of Likasi and about 120 miles northwest of Lubumbashi. The former mine was located in the centre of a 400 kilometre long belt of uranified minerals, stretching from south of Lubumbashi to Kalongwe, west of Kolwezi. Around 15,000 people live in the town. The mine was officially closed on January 28, 2004, by presidential decree. However eight people died and a further thirteen people were injured in July 2004 when part of the old mine collapsed.
While the team which was sent by the IAEA from Geneva in 2004 to establish whether it had been a nuclear accident, could find no illegal miners nor illegal smelters to carry out radiation tests on — and also experienced problems with failing batteries in their personal radiation meters, they did conclude that while this collapse of the old WWII-uranium mine could not be construed as a nuclear accident requiring immediate intervention – it should be collapsed in its entirety to protect the local population.
Shinkolobwe mine is historic in the sense that this was the Belgian-owned mine in Katanga province which were the United States of America’s second source of nuclear materials for its bomb-manufacturing industry came from: uranium from Shinkolobwe was used to manufacture the devastating bombs on Japan which ended World War II. * The mine was closed in 1939 when Belgium was occupied by the nazis – and flooded. However when the importance of uranium was discovered and explored in project Manhattan, the US Army sent teams from its Corps of Engineers to restore the mine, expand the aerodromes in Léopoldville and Lubumbashi (formally Elizabethville), and built a port in Matadi, on the Congo River. Between 1942 and 1944, about 30,000 tons of uranium ore were sold to the US Army.
It was not a nuclear accident – but it’s a badly contaminated site: 2004 conclusion
After the 2004 collapse of old mine-workings at Shinkolobwe, fears were expressed by the UN staffers at a nearby office that workers and residents might have been exposed to excessive radiation. However after several days of testing by a small team sent from Geneva, Switserland, it was reported back to the international atomic energy agency that there was ‘no nuclear incident or radiological accident at Shinkolobwe either leading to, or as a result of, the collapse at the mine. ”
It was found however that the site was contaminated with naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) over a considerable area to varying degrees, which is, the inspectors said, ‘consistent with improperly controlled mining remediation”. They however found no dangerous sudden peaks in radiation levels which could be described as a nuclear accident requiring immediate intervention.
The inspectors carrying out the readings — independent environmental expert Mr Alain Pasche and IAEC investigator Peter Waggitt — did not however venture into the underground mine-workings because it was too dangerous. And despite having heard local rumours of illegal smelters in the vicinity, they found none where tests could be carried out. And the larger dealers/smelters/processors they encountered during the mission all said they were “not prepared to accept any radioactive material from any site “due to potential problems with end user customers, especially with the EU and OECD countries”. They found that the dealers had systems in place to check dose rates of all incoming materials. Some dealers/processors advised they use a cut off value of 2 µSv/h; radiological measuring equipment was shown to, and demonstrated for, the mission team. One smaller depot was found to have a small stockpile of ore (~2t) that gave gamma readings of 5-6 µSv/h. This was reputedly from the area of Kolwezi. However, during discussion it was suggested by the merchant that ‘….perhaps this was a place where
there had earlier been storage of ore from Shinkolobwe……’ and later “…….we will take this back to where it came from, to Shinkolobwe…….”. The gamma dose rate alone for a worker standing adjacent to this stockpile for 12 hours per day (e.g. a night watchman), would be in excess of the 20mSv/y limit for designated radiation workers, they noted.
The team concluded that the annual public dose limit for radiation exposure relating to a practice (1mSv/y) “could have been exceeded by visitors to the site who stayed longer than 100 days. ”
“ The site is contaminated with radioactive material and all the workings should be collapsed to prevent illegal mining ”
However, they also concluded that the site did present a ‘severe risk which prevented them from going into the underground workings”. The tailings from the formal uranium mining operations also simply lay about exposed and were being ‘mined’ from a few locations, and waste rocks found all over the site ‘could represent a radiological safety hazard. “Some waste rock stockpiles have been extensively reworked, presumably for cobalt. However, there was no firm evidence of mining for uranium as a specific separate activity.” They concluded that the site was “clearly contaminated with radioactive material.” They recommended a comprehensive risk assessment to try and make the site safer: proposing that among the strategies could be to collapse all the workings to prevent further access by artisanal miners.” They also recommended that the tailings and mineralised waste rocks be relocated to the former mine pit and to collapse these within the old workings ‘to the greatest extent possible’. They believed that ‘containment of all remaining contaminated residues” should be undertaken “ in accordance with current best practice principles of (nuclear) waste safety and waste management. “ This was never done: the entrances were merely sealed off with cement caps.
Measurements by 2004 team:
Level 50 µSv/h were recorded at an Africom company and a military depot’s store-sheds and at the Congo Minerals Company yard. They found no high levels of dangerous radiation at public meeting places such as underneath a popular mango tree. They recorded low-level radiation contamination on copper smelter-slag at the Africom site. They tested the Monuc yard at Lubumbashi over a two day period and found the readings to range from 0.13 to 0.22µSv/h which is considered ‘safe background radiation; that was in 2004. Recordings shown on the French investigation show considerably higher levels recorded 6 years later.
In 2004, inspector Peter Waggitt’s personal dosage meter’s accumulated totals ranged from 29 µSv/h on 27 Oct in Lubumbashi to 54µSv/h on 2 Nov 2004 in Kinshasa. His colleague Pasche’s ranged from 26µSv/h in Shinko on 27 October to 49µSv/h on 30 Oct in Lukasi.
Rene Nijenhuis, the team leader of the environmental emergencies sector of the joint UNEP/OCHA group from Genève, Switzerland, who also took the photographs in the public-domain report, was not mentioned as having worn a personal radiation monitor. Readings were taken at the mine and the transport routes of the looted uranium and cobalt; at the Likasi Hotel, throughout a plantation planted with beans and maize; at the police station, old sacks of ore material, two shop sites near the police station, they tested tailings and mineralised debris at the mill area and also along the pathway of old workings. They also tested other public exposure sites such as a popular meeting place under a mango tree, some burned houses in the vicinity, and mineralised rocks. They used two hand-held meters: namely gamma dose rate measurements with Eberline Model FH40 Fs radiameter serial numbers 3986 and 7810; and for surface contamination measurements they used the Mini Instruments ‘mini-con’ model 1000C serial number 2937.
*1200 tons uranium (then a waste product from cobalt-mining) Shinkolobwe mine in then Belgian-Congo, were stored by Pres Roosevelt at Long Island 1940 after the nazi-occupation of Belgium. This uranium was used to manufacture the nuclear bombs thrown on Japan: as per Thomas Borstelmann, ‘Apartheid’s reluctant uncle The US and southern Africa: the early cold war’ Oxford 1993 pp 43/45/46/191/164; key words: Katanga Congo, Union Miniere, King Leopold Belgium, nazi occupation, 2004 mine collapse, illegal uranium mining, Congo, inspection IAEC, Rene Nijenhuis, Joint UNEP/OCHA ,UN Lubumbashi, radioactive waste safety team, artisanal miners, illegal mining of uranium, cobalt, nuclear contamination, Likasi, Congo, Africom military depot Uranium was discovered as early as 1915 in Shinkolobwe, and extraction began in 1921. Uranium ore from Shinkolobwe was very rich (it contained up to 65% of uranium); in comparison, Canadian ore contained only 0.02%. However it was merely a byproduct for cobalt-mining back then and was discarded. In 1938, Edgar Sengier, then director of both the Société Générale and the UMHK, learned about the potential of uranium from European scientists. British scientists had warned him that should the material he possessed fall into the enemy’s hands, the consequences would be catastrophic. Sengier understood that uranium, a by-product that had until then been stored without being used, could become a crucial resource in times of war. In 1939, he ordered that half of the uranium stock available in Africa (about a thousand tons) be secretly dispatched to New York. At the start of the war, Sengier himself travelled to New York to conduct the Union Minière ‘s worldwide operations from there. At first, the UMHK’s uranium stockpile remained in a Staten Island depot. The American government wanted exclusivity on the Shinkolobwe uranium ore, but Sengier initially refused. With support from the British government, the United States obtained exclusive rights on the Shinkolobwe ore in negotiations with the Belgian government (which was then in exile in London). However, it seems that Sengier alone was at least partially aware of the Manhattan Project, as he got an assurance from Nichols that the ore would be used for war purposes, saying You don’t need to tell me how you’ll use it. I think I know.  In 1948, a radioactive mineral discovered in Congo, sengierite, was named in his honor. The agreement between the United States, Great Britain, and Belgium lasted 10 years and continued after the war. The uranium agreements in part explain Belgium’s relative ease in rebuilding its economy after the war, as the country had no debt with the major financial powers.
Public Domain pictures: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Uranophane-Malachite-131737.jpg