RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In this part of the program we go to an historic uranium mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's officially closed now, but international interest in nuclear energy and uranium is surging and some miners in that Congo mine keep digging. The question is, what are they digging for? NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.
GWEN THOMPKINS: Moise Katumbi wants the world's most famous uranium mine off his hands. It's called Shinkolobwe, and as mines go, it's a honey. It has high quality ore and a fabled history of saving the allies during World War II. But commercial uranium mining is a delicate business. The ore is dangerously radioactive.
Katumbi is the governor of the province where Shinkolobwe is located. He says the government can't hand over the keys to just anybody.
Governor MOISE KATUMBI (Katanga Province, Africa): (Unintelligible) there is people, maybe American, French or British to come and apply and do the work.
THOMPKINS: So in other words, wanted: a concession holder from a nation in good standing with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Must have safe uranium extraction practices and secure methods of export. Apply inside.
Shinkolobwe is the same old mine but apparently a new Congo is in control of it. After years of civil war and political instability, the country is now more stable, more democratic, and more prudent in its relations with the rest of the world, particularly with regard to the mine.
Today's emphasis on safety is a far cry from the 1990s and an about-face from how the Congolese lived just a century ago when the wider world first learned there was radioactive ore at Shinkolobwe.
Mr. JOHN SKINNER (Mining Engineer): The warriors used to go into this pit and cover themselves with this white powder and attack their enemies at night and they glowed. Well, you can imagine the other fellows probably ran away.
THOMPKINS: John Skinner is a mining engineer in the province.
Mr. SKINNER: However, the original warriors wouldn't have lived for too long because that is straight radioactive material. That's what you've got on your watch. If the radium is stuck to your body, it is radiating outwards - you can see it - it's radiating inwards and giving you all kinds of radiation sickness. They die in months.
THOMPKINS: Shinkolobwe uranium is about as rich as uranium gets. The ore here has been reported to be 80 percent uranium, far exceeding the quality of ore at functioning mines in Australia and Canada. That's what made it so valuable to the U.S. Army in its race to beat the Germans to the atomic bomb. Almost all of the uranium in the bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from Shinkolobwe. And Congo, which is mineral rich but cash poor, is now paying dearly to guard the site. Again, Governor Katumbi.
Gov. KATUMBI: This is a strategic mine. It's a very dangerous mine, if I can say. It's costing us almost $200,000 every month to pay the police, the food for the police, transportation for them. So it's a lot of money.
THOMPKINS: Shinkolobwe has been officially closed for more than 40 years. The shafts are blocked with cement and the site is off limits to the public. But despite these precautions, United Nations observers say there's been illegal digging at Shinkolobwe.
During the 1990s, for instance, when civil wars and starvation racked the country, thousands of area residents were believed to be mining at or near Shinkolobwe and selling the ore to anyone who would buy. These were desperate people, using pick axes and their bare hands. Most of them left the uranium alone and were digging instead for cobalt. Again, John Skinner.
Mr. SKINNER: When you look at the deposit, it's like an onion. It has lots of layers around it, almost circular. And some of those onion ring layers are rich in cobalt, and I mean rich.
THOMPKINS: Congolese leaders now appear more serious about closing off the site, and in recent years fewer miners are known to have worked at Shinkolobwe. But for those who are tempted still, there is more risk than reward.
Mr. SKINNER: The trouble is that the cobalt that they mine is also contaminated with some uranium. Now, by anybody's stretch of imagination, that is not a security threat. However, it could be a health threat. The poor guys digging it and breathing the dust and dealing with it are actually have their health impaired by doing so.
THOMPKINS: To be fair, the most troubling security breaches happened before Moise Katumbi became governor of the province. Katumbi now insists that there is no illegal digging at the site.
Gov. KATUMBI: People are scared, Congolese are scared to die. They can't go and risk their life.
THOMPKINS: Katumbi even sent reporters there by helicopter to see for themselves. But looking at what was essentially a grayish-brown scar in the Earth didn't prove much. Most of the illegal digging at Shinkolobwe has been for cobalt, but some uranium has turned up elsewhere in Africa.
A cache apparently disappeared from a facility in Kinshasa last year and Congo's top commissioner for atomic energy was arrested. So far the International Atomic Energy Agency and U.S. investigators say that uranium from Shinkolobwe has not advanced nuclear proliferation abroad. But Governor Katumbi remains sensitive on the subject. He says that for him, Shinkolobwe is politically radioactive.
Gov. KATUMBI: You know, in politics you don't just have friends, sometimes you have enemies. You understand there is internal fight between us. Now, if the people want to damage the governor image outside the country - they're saying, you know, Shinkolobwe is open.
THOMPKINS: No wonder Katumbi wants the site off his hands. But any deal the Congolese government makes with a commercial mining company must adhere to the nation's preexisting agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. No matter who holds the concession, IAEA inspectors are supposed to have access to the mine at all times. Again, John Skinner.
Mr. SKINNER: In today's troubled world, if they were to allocate it to the wrong person, it puts what is probably the world's richest uranium deposit in the hands of the wrong people. So you've got to be very, very careful who gets that uranium mine. And there is a lot of interest in uranium right now.
THOMPKINS: But the fact is no one is lining up to take the Shinkolobwe concession. Yes, the price of uranium is climbing worldwide as China, the U.S., South Africa and other nations invest more in nuclear energy. But almost everyone in the mining industry knows that doing business in Congo isn't easy. The country still has a reputation for political corruption, and even the threat of unauthorized miners digging away at radioactive material is a legal nightmare.
Last year, a British company reportedly tried forging a deal for the concession that ultimately collapsed. As mines go, Shinkolobwe is a honey, but Congo is learning the hard way that even beekeepers get stung.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Shinkolobwe, Congo.
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