(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 neighboring Benin. Two lightly armed gendarmes accompany the tarp-covered trucks on their 1,240-mile trip. They have no satellite telephones 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.
The low-grade security for the powder that can be processed into high-grade uranium for nuclear bombs gives 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.
Without this safeguards agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency can’t require Niger to tighten security and has no authority to inspect 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 terrorists or rogue nations could get ingredients of 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,” spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said.
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, an ex-assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Clinton administration. “It’s important to be able to know the transaction flows with respect to yellowcake.”
Firms trading in yellowcake should be required to report significant shipments so the IAEA can track where the material is going, said Tom Cochrane, a director 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 regulation.
Even the skeptics acknowledge that U.N. watchdogs lack the money to monitor yellowcake rigorously.
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.
Leading into the war against Iraq, the United States and Britain created a 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 tons of Nigerian yellowcake for its nuclear weapons program about 1981-82, and just five tons 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 allegations of sales, but Washington backed off its allegations after incriminating documents proved to be forgeries. Yet Britain, citing undisclosed intelligence, maintains Iraq sought Niger uranium.
Niger denies the accusations.