Skip to comments.Niger's low security for uranium, radioactive materials under scrutiny
Posted on 09/21/2003 9:26:50 PM PDT by piasa
NIAMEY, Niger (AP) - Two or three times each week, a convoy of flatbed trucks loaded with drums of mined uranium heads south from the Sahara Desert in Niger on a 10-day journey to the port of Cotonou in neighbouring Benin.
Two lightly armed Nigerien gendarmes accompany the tarp-covered trucks on their 1,995-kilometre trip. They have no satellite phones or other ways to communicate in case of trouble. On their prearranged stops for the night the drivers must notify the mining companies, but they take no special precautions to secure the drums against theft.
This low-grade security for the powder that can be processed into high-grade uranium for nuclear bombs provides a snapshot of how the world's second-poorest country manages radioactive materials - management under closer scrutiny since the U.S. administration accused Iraq of trying to buy uranium here.
A UN nuclear agency team plans to visit Niger in the coming months, hoping to speed government approval of an agreement that would permit in-depth monitoring of uranium exports, The Associated Press learned while investigating the country's uranium trade.
Without this safeguards agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency can't require Niger to tighten security and has no authority to inspect production or shipments.
Niger produces lightly processed uranium, or yellowcake - the raw material for enriched uranium used as fuel for nuclear reactors, or the guts of an atomic bomb. Despite global fears that terrorists or so-called rogue nations could acquire ingredients of a bomb, the UN agency doesn't see Niger as a major risk.
Its yellowcake "would require considerable conversion and processing to be usable for nuclear weapons," agency spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said. "We don't start tracking this stuff until it's in a form suitable for reactor fuel."
Instead, the Vienna, Austria-based IAEA relies on the governments of countries that import uranium shipments from Niger to report them as obligated under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Some experts believe this isn't enough.
"There are loopholes," said Larry Scheinman, former assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Clinton administration. "It's important to be able to know the transaction flows with respect to yellowcake."
Companies trading in yellowcake should be required to report all significant shipments so that the IAEA can track where the material is going, said Tom Cochrane, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defence Council, a Washington-based advocacy group. The French company Cogema, the biggest shareholder in Niger's uranium mines, says it reports its shipments "systematically," but this notification is voluntary under current regulation.
Even the skeptics acknowledge that UN watchdogs lack the money to monitor yellowcake as rigorously as they track more highly radioactive materials.
Niger has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but of the 22 countries that reported producing uranium in 2000, Niger and Kazakhstan are the only ones without a safeguards agreement.
"The pressure has to be put on them to do it quickly," said Scheinman, who now works at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington.
Niger's parliament must ratify the agreement and enact any corresponding laws, and the experts and lawyers who will travel to Niger aim "to break any legal logjam," said Gwozdecky of the IAEA. Their trip is part of a planned IAEA mission to five West African countries and six in Latin America.
Leading into the war against Iraq, the United States and Britain caused diplomatic uproar by claiming that Iraq's then-president Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake here to build a nuclear arsenal.
An Iraq-Niger connection already existed. Iraq is known to have bought 305 tonnes of Nigerien yellowcake for its nuclear weapons program about 1981-82, and just five tonnes can yield enough enriched uranium to build a bomb using basic Chinese technology.
But that was 20 years ago. This year's controversy related to recent alleged sales, but Washington backed off its allegations after incriminating documents proved to be forgeries. Yet Britain, citing undisclosed intelligence, maintains Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger.
Niger denies the accusations, and AP interviews with independent analysts and businessmen who mine and export yellowcake here add weight to the denial.
Except for authorized shipments from the country's two mines, "We haven't sold a single gram of uranium to anyone," said Oumarou Hamadou, secretary general of Niger's Ministry of Mines and Energy. "We are tired, tired, tired," he said. "When someone accuses us of something that's not true, it hurts."
Neino Inoua, head of the Nigerien National Union of Mine Workers, is among Nigeriens still angered by the allegations. "Niger is innocent of these accusations," he said, slamming his hands down on his desk.
In 1985, Niger stopped selling uranium except through the mining companies after cheaper production from Canada made its ore less competitive.
Yellowcake is low in radioactivity. Some authorities say it poses a health risk only if ingested, in which case its toxicity is little different from that of lead, mercury or zinc.
So yellowcake probably wouldn't be a suitable component of a "dirty bomb" that uses a conventional explosive to spread radiation, experts say.
"It's not going to kill large numbers of people if it goes off in a device like that, but dirty bombs are more about inflicting terror," said Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Chicago-based nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Some analysts suggest that any thief - or country - considering hijacking large quantities of uranium in Niger would face a Herculean task, given the rudimentary transportation links and the sheer weight and bulk of yellowcake.
Each loaded drum weighs about a half tonne on average. It would take nine barrels of Nigerien yellowcake to yield enough enriched uranium for a bomb. The IAEA acknowledges that such a small amount could go missing but insists it keeps close tabs on countries capable of converting yellowcake into weapons-grade uranium. Still, the transportation of yellowcake in Niger appears somewhat less secure than in at least two other countries that produce uranium.
Canada's Cameco Corp. trucks yellowcake 3,500 kilometres, from its mines in northern Saskatchewan to processing plants in Blind River, Ont. The trailers are fully enclosed and sealed, and drivers maintain constant radio contact.
In Namibia in southern Africa, London-based Rio Tinto PLC loads yellowcake drums into freight containers at the mine, fastens the containers with tamperproof seals and loads them on rail cars for a six-hour trip to Walvis Bay, where they are stacked door against door to prevent theft.
Somair, the joint venture operating the older of Niger's two uranium mines, is considering using freight containers as well, but faces "cost and logistics problems," said a senior company manager, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In Niger, trucks of yellowcake lumber along one of the country's few paved roads at a top speed of about 65 km/h, their cargoes of blue barrels drawing little attention in the dusty towns where their drivers stop at night.
Two Nigerien gendarmes accompany the cargoes to the border with Benin, whose police then escort them to the Atlantic. Sometimes the drums are transferred to trains at the Benin city of Parakou to complete the journey. Niger is a former French colony and its uranium industry is tightly controlled by the French government-owned Cogema and two other foreign firms. They and the Niger government own the two ventures that run the mines - Somair and a sister firm, Cominak.
Neither Somair nor Cominak has reported a threat or security incident involving a uranium shipment, but their officials acknowledge there is room for improvement.
"If some terrorist group wants to get a drum, they're going to get it. There's no way you can defend against it," the senior Somair manager said. Still, with each loaded drum weighing about a half tonne, "It's nothing you can just take away under your coat."
The Nigerien government refused to let an AP reporter travel to uranium mines near the desert towns of Arlit and Akokan, 850 kilometres northeast of the capital, Niamey. However, officials at Somair and Cominak in Niamey insist security of their mines and uranium shipments is a high priority.
Nigerien soldiers and private guards protect the mining compounds, and the surrounding desert is so flat that intruders would be visible for several kilometres, the officials said.
The trucks and drums are painted with identification numbers and have labels identifying their contents as radioactive.
Hamadou, the secretary general of Niger's Ministry of Mines and Energy, said the companies and government are taking adequate precautions. "I don't know of any weaknesses," he said.
Anyway, for your amusement:
"Commercial uranium production in tightly controlled Niger began in 1960s,"
ASSOCIATED PRES, http://famulus.msnbc.com/FamulusIntl/ap09-18-110953.asp?reg=AFRICA
NIAMEY, Niger, Sept. 18 Niger started commercial production of uranium in the 1960s at an open pit mine in the southern Sahara developed largely with help from France, the former colonial power.
The Nigerien uranium industry is tightly controlled by Cogema, a company owned by France's government, and two other foreign firms. Together with the Nigerien government, these companies own the only two uranium mining ventures Somair and a sister firm, Cominak.
Niger's first mine opened in 1968 under the control of Somair, while Cominak began operating an underground mine nearby in 1974.
Together the mines produce all the 3,000 tons of yellowcake that generate two-thirds of impoverished Niger's export earnings.
''We don't have oil. We don't have gold. Uranium is our main source of revenue,'' said Amadou Salah, director of the prime minister's cabinet. ''If Cogema stopped buying uranium from Niger, it would strangle us.''
Cogema, part of France's Areva nuclear energy group, owns 63 percent of Somair and the Nigerien government controls the rest. Cogema also has the biggest stake in Cominak 34 percent while the government shares the balance with a state-owned Spanish company and a private Japanese consortium.
The owners are the mines' only customers. They decide early each year how much uranium they'll need, and they place their orders with Somair and Cominak. The two companies then apply to the government for an ''arrete,'' or export permit, to ship the specified quantities. The government announces each permit in a published gazette.
Miners dig Niger's uranium from sedimentary rock, and processing plants crush and mix it with sulfuric acid to extract the metal. After several chemical baths, the uranium emerges as powdery yellowcake, ready to be shipped to France, Britain, the United States or Canada for high-tech processing.
If Niger wanted to sell yellowcake independently, experts say, the government would almost certainly need its foreign partners' consent.
What's more, any clandestine sale probably wouldn't generate a financial windfall for the government. World uranium prices have fallen continuously for years, and Niger's mining companies are struggling to break even, given their relatively high production costs.
By the way, Mr. Wilson seems to have disappeared from the public eye. How curious.
No sooner than you mention this, he pops back up again via Novak and associates.
The Iraqi official who visited the African state in 1999 was Wissam al-Zahawie, who at the time was Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican. It has since emerged that, during the same visit, al-Zahawie also visited three other African countries: Burkina Faso, Benin and Congo-Brazzaville. He has claimed that the sole purpose of these visits was to extend an invitation from Saddam Hussein for their heads of state to visit Baghdad. He said: 'My only mission was to meet the President of Niger and invite him to visit Iraq. The invitation, and the situation in Iraq resulting from the genocidal UN sanctions, were all we talked about. I had no other instructions, and certainly none concerning the purchase of uranium.'
Former US diplomat Joseph Wilson, who visited Niger in 2002 on behalf of the CIA to probe a possible uranium link with Iraq, said al-Zahawie's visit was common knowledge.
'It's perfectly reasonable to assume that the Iraqis weren't interested in Niger's millet or sorghum, but it's a real leap of faith to say that, through this visit, Iraq was seeking to purchase significant quantities of uranium from Niger,' Wilson said. 'It's not even circumstantial evidence.'
Al-Zahawie's name also appears as a signatory of documents addressed to Niger diplomats in Rome, confirming a deal whereby Iraq would purchase 500 tons of uranium 'yellow cake' ore. These documents have proved to be forgeries and accepted as fakes by Washington and the IAEA.
-- Source: -- "Butler inquiry targets Niger uranium claim," Antony Barnett, public affairs editor, Sunday June 27, 2004 The Observer