- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2003

NIAMEY, Niger — A convoy of flatbed trucks loaded with drums of mined uranium heads south two or three times each week from the Sahara Desert in Niger on a 10-day journey to the port of Cotonou in neighboring Benin.

Two lightly armed Nigerien gendarmes accompany the tarp-covered trucks on their 1,240-mile 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 Bush administration accused Iraq of trying to buy uranium here.

A U.N. 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 an atomic bomb.

Few safeguards

Despite global fears that terrorists or so-called rogue nations could acquire ingredients for a bomb, the U.N. 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.”

The IAEA, based in Vienna, Austria, instead relies on the governments of countries that import uranium shipments from Niger to report to the agency as obligated under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Some analysts say this isn’t enough.

“There are loopholes,” said Larry Scheinman, who was 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 Defense 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 rules.

Even the skeptics acknowledge that U.N. 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 reporting production of 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 Mr. 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 specialists and lawyers who will travel to Niger aim “to break any legal logjam,” said Mr. Gwozdecky, the IAEA spokesman. Their trip is part of a planned IAEA mission to five West African countries and six in Latin America.

Iraq connection

Before starting the war against Iraq, the United States and Britain caused a diplomatic uproar by claiming that Iraqi 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 tons of Nigerien yellowcake for its nuclear weapons program around 1981 and 1982, and 5 tons can yield enough enriched uranium to build a bomb using basic Chinese technology.

But that was 20 years ago.

This year’s claims related to recent reported sales, but Washington backed off its accusations after incriminating documents proved to be forgeries. Yet Britain, citing undisclosed intelligence, maintained that 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 accusations. “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.

Low toxicity

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, analysts 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 half a ton on average. It would take nine barrels of Nigerien yellowcake to yield enough enriched uranium for a bomb. The IAEA acknowledges that such an 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 2,175 miles from its mines in northern Saskatchewan to processing plants at Blind River, Ontario. 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 tamper-proof seals and loads them onto 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.

Room for improvement

In Niger, trucks of yellowcake lumber along one of the country’s few paved roads at a top speed of about 40 miles an hour, 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 controlled tightly by the French government-owned Cogema and two other foreign firms. They and the Nigerien 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 half a ton, “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, 530 miles 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 miles, the officials said.

The trucks and drums are painted with identification numbers and have labels identifying their contents as radioactive.

Mr. 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.

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