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Thursday, May 29, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Aging Nuclear Reactor Sits Amid Chaos -- Unrest, Aftermath In Congo Raise Fears About Forgotten Plant

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

KINSHASA, Congo - Just off a crumbling side street at the University of Kinshasa campus, Africa's first nuclear reactor quietly decays in a whitewashed concrete building.

It's not a big reactor: The research facility generates a fraction of the energy produced by a big commercial power reactor in industrial countries.

Still, when Laurent Kabila's rebels entered the capital this month, officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency silently held their breath, fearful that a stray mortar round might hit the containment building and cause a radioactive leak.

The Zairian government stopped funding the reactor nine years ago. It was shut down in 1992 after the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission blocked shipment of an essential replacement part, citing the "economic and political collapse in Zaire."

Nowadays researchers activate the reactor only at a low level when inspectors from the international atomic agency make their annual pilgrimage to count the fuel rods to ensure that no uranium has disappeared.

"They come here to make sure we are not making the bomb," said Professor Malu wa Kalenga, 60, who has run the reactor for 34 years.

The reactor had been largely forgotten until recently, when nearby residents expressed worries that outgoing President Mobutu Sese Seko would explode the reactor in an apocalyptic attempt to take the capital's 5 million residents down with him. Even the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa was unaware of the reactor's existence until a few months ago.

The university's first reactor was built in 1959, during the Eisenhower administration's Atoms-for-Peace Program.

Local legend says that Congo received the Triga I reactor as a reward for producing the uranium that went to the Manhattan Project, though officials in Vienna say the story is a myth.

Malu said the reactor was a metaphor for the country now renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo - a nation with enormous untapped human and natural resources, squandered by years of neglect.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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