Friday, March 23, 2012

Africa, Nuclear Security and the 2012 Summit

by Scott Firsing

Many hold a view that the terms Africa and nuclear security have no correlation. This is a false and dangerous perception.

South Africa’s Energy Minister Dipuo Peters announced on Tuesday 28 February 2012 that the country plans to use nuclear energy as part of diversified mix to help cure South Africa’s energy crisis and to take a step closer to cleaner energy. The plan – called the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP2010) – places specific emphasis on various technologies including gas, imports, nuclear, biomass, renewables (wind, solar and hydro).

As it stands, about 90% of South Africa’s energy, like most African countries, is produced from burning coal, which in turn has a negative impact on the world’s climate. And like South Africa, most African countries are looking towards nuclear power as a potential alternative to fossil fuels. South Africa’s Koeberg nuclear power station, located 30km north of Cape Town, is the only nuclear power station in South Africa and the entire African continent. However, this will change in the coming years/decades.

Many African countries have publicly expressed their interest in developing nuclear energy for both economic and environmental reasons. In total, there are around 22 African states considering the introduction of nuclear power: Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, and eight others.

In addition, eight countries on the continent, including South Africa, currently possess nuclear research reactors: Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.

Africa’s nuclear resources and the associated risks
I had the privilege of participating in the Institute for Security Studies (ISS)-Monash experts workshop on ‘Progress on Securing Africa’s Nuclear Resources’ held in early February in Johannesburg. This event brought together individuals from around the continent and the world to address the challenges and needs in Africa in the field of nuclear security.

Africa’s anticipated movement towards nuclear energy was one of many issues discussed. And with developments such as these come obvious risks. One is a Fukushima type incident. However, one of the most immediate threats to the national security of most countries including the United States of America is a terrorist organization acquiring nuclear weapons or materials.

US President Barack Obama presented a three-part strategy in April 2009 to generally address international nuclear threats and in particular the increase in the risk of nuclear material diversion and illicit trafficking by: 1) proposing measures to reduce and eventually eliminate existing nuclear weapon arsenals; 2) strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and, 3) preventing ‘terrorists’ from acquiring nuclear weapons or materials.

Number three is the real concern in Africa due to the large amounts of uranium ore found on the continent. According to, uranium exploration is being carried out in 30 African countries with Malawi, Namibia, Niger and South Africa possessing the ‘legal’ operational mines. Others in the advanced development stage are the Central African Republic, Tanzania and Zambia.

The ISS points out the locations of some of these mines often make them vulnerable to other national insecurities, such as intrastate conflict, bringing into question the security of these materials. But has uranium been smuggled before?

There are a number of both confirmed and unconfirmed incidents of natural uranium smuggling. According to the IAEA, 12 such incidents occurred between 1994 and 2005. These took place in Tanzania (four incidents), and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa (two incidents each). One area of main concern, according to the ISS, is the illegal uranium and cobalt mining at the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga Province, where the source material for the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 originated.

There has only been one known theft of nuclear fuel from an African research reactor, when eight fuel rods of uranium were stolen from a Kinshasa research reactor in 1997. One of the rods was recovered. The other seven are still missing.

This is extremely frightening considering one ‘dirty nuclear bomb’ by a terrorist organization could lead to a number of deaths and potentially hundreds more due to radiation poisoning. A ‘dirty nuclear bomb’ combines conventional explosives with radioactive materials such as uranium. However, the real concern is the uranium ending up in proliferation networks (ie AQ Khan) and the material eventually becoming enriched.

America obviously doesn’t want any of these scenarios to play out. According to Wikileaks, the US diplomatic corps are hard at work trying to thwart a terrorist nuclear attack in what the US government calls its “second line of defense.”

A report by Julian Borger and Karen McVeigh of the Guardian (UK) shows that the leaked cables reveal some mind-blowing tales taking place in Africa:

In June 2007, the US embassy in Burundi reported an approach by a local elder alerting the Americans to a cache of uranium in a concrete bunker over the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was concerned that it would fall into the hands of “the wrong people”, specifically the Arabs who will “destroy” people with it. At the request of the sceptical Americans, he returned a few weeks later with a Congolese smuggler who said he found the material hidden at an old Belgian colonial building. He had pictures of a wicker basket with a uranium cask inside, apparently the property of the country’s Atomic Energy Commission.

Each time an incident like this occurs, it means the “first line of defense” has already been breached. The fissile material (the fuel for a nuclear warhead) or radioactive isotopes (which emit harmful radiation), have already been stolen from their source.

The UK journalists are exactly right when they say the ‘Burundi/DRC type’ incidents are only the tip of an iceberg.

The upcoming 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in the Republic of Korea (ROK)

The 2010 Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington DC brought together 47 world leaders to discuss concrete measures to prevent nuclear terrorism and secure vulnerable nuclear materials. Five from Africa attended: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa. No African state made national commitments at the summit.

One of the key elements of nuclear security barely touched on this article and discussed at the 2010 Summit is that of transportation. And despite South Africa not making any national commitments in Washington in 2010, South Africa delivered the first shipment of Molybdenum 99 (Mo-99), a highly radioactive material used in medical procedures, to the US in December that same year.

This isn’t completely bad news when it comes to nuclear security. Most of the Mo-99 used to be produced from highly enriched uranium from a limited few number of nuclear reactors around the world. However, when the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) announced the December 2010 shipment in question, the public was informed that this particular batch of Mo-99 was produced with Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) and approved for patient use. In fact, this makes South Africa the world’s first large-scale producer to supply Mo-99 using LEU.

In June 2011, after a well-known global shortage of Mo-99, NNSA publicly recognized the efforts of Lantheus Medical Imaging (LMI), NTP Radioisotopes Ltd. (NTP) – a subsidiary of Necsa – and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO) for delivering record amounts of LEU-based Mo-99 to the US.

In case you were wondering, Mo-99, iodine 131, xenon 133, and other radioactive materials are used to produce small amounts of radioactive materials known as radiopharmaceuticals for diagnostic and therapeutic procedures or for research and development. This falls under what is known as nuclear medicine, a discipline where radiopharmaceuticals are used to diagnose or treat disease on a very individual basis, usually in cardiology, oncology and neurology. Nuclear medicine is able to measure the biological function of cells.

A September 2011 report by Duyeon Kim stipulates that the issue of securing radioactive materials, whether it be uranium or Mo-99, will be a high priority at the March 26-27, 2012 Summit in South Korea. The event will include top heads of state including Barack Obama and others.

Kim argues that South Korea could also capitalize on its renowned technology for tracing and tracking radioactive sources by setting an example and sharing its know-how with summit participants. A great suggestion.


One of the concluding thoughts of the ISS-Monash workshop, and of various experts around the world for that matter is about finding a balance between security and development. This is the most challenging aspect of the international nuclear security regime. Therefore, it is imperative that African states play a key role in determining the nuclear security agenda in future. And they can start to do this in South Korea.

Amelia Broodryk of the ISS is most definitely right when she argues that more substantial participation and constructive engagement by the five African countries is needed at the 2012 Summit, especially if the continent intends to further develop its peaceful nuclear programs without endangering its citizens. Lets wait and see what unfolds.

This article first appeared Foreign Policy Association on 29 February 2012

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