TCS Daily

Rumble in the Jungle

By Russell Seitz - October 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Newsweek, like The New York Times, seems bent on elevating our man in Bujumbura, Conakry, and the Bight of Biafra -- The Hon. Joseph Wilson IV -- to the status of Proconsul emeritus.


Last year he spent a week downstream from Timbuktu sipping mint tea and listening to Francophone assurances that no respectable Nigerian slave trader, gun runner, hashish merchant or blood diamond smuggler in the adjacent million square miles of howling sandstorm would stoop to dealing in uranium.


And what of malefactors from Mali, Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, and Nigeria? Never fear: Niger's vigilant border patrol awaits them. None shall escape special visa fees stiff enough to leave impecunious Chads hanging.


Well satisfied, the intrepid Ambassador returned to Foggy Bottom, but Newsweek says that his verbal trip report "vanished into the bureaucratic maw."


But what of the oft-repeated report that "In his January '03 State of the Union address, President Bush, citing British intelligence reports, repeated the charge that the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium from Niger"? It's just not true -- President Bush said Africa, not Niger -- the Ambassador has another ten million square miles to check out.


A continent is a terrible thing for an accredited diplomat to misplace. Especially one with five major and dozens of minor uranium-mining operations in 11 nations. South Africa's fulfilled nuclear ambition speaks to the point, as does Namibia's economic geology -- it rivals Niger's. The Congo, with 13 mines, has been a cornucopia of concentrated pitchblende since the days of Madame Curie. This is hardly news to the French intelligence community. Long before Wilson's tenure in Gabon, the French had a nightmarish run-in with disappearing African uranium exports.


French Follies


For decades France shipped uranium home to Marseilles for enrichment into reactor fuel and weapons grade uranium. It was easy to monitor this strategic trade, for the natural isotopic abundance of fissionable U-235 was the scientific equivalent of Holy Writ. It was exactly 0.7204%; so one tonne of mined uranium could be relied upon to yield 7,204 grams of U-235. And 992,960 of depleted uranium-238 -- an ultradense by-product that America uses for tank armor and ammunition, and the French for racing yacht ballast.


For many uneventful years, the ore coming in was checked against the enrichment plant's output. The running total tallied exactly until one fateful day in 1971, when it fell hair-raisingly short. Somehow, enough U-235 to build a dozen A-bombs had gone missing. French security forces went into overdrive: not just the usual suspects, but the whole Marseilles underworld was rounded up. The interrogations produced nothing, and a gimlet eyed review of all the paperwork in the plant found it flawless.


Cold fear displaced disbelief when the next inventory revealed an even greater loss. Around the world, yet more villains were hauled in by spooks of every ilk and nationality, but again no leads materialized. Things were looking very ugly indeed, because ample time had passed to turn the missing uranium into bombs, and true rumors were flying about Israel's clandestine efforts to acquire uranium.


Into the growing panic stepped a junior French geochemist with a really dumb idea: could nature be the culprit? He was shown the door by Directorate of Internal Security, but managed to procure a few crumbs of old and new ore from Oklo. He ran them through a mass spectrometer, and sure enough, the most recent samples held less U235 than the older ones. Weirder still, all of the rare earth elements in the sample had equally un-natural isotope ratios. There was only one possible explanation -- when the Earth was younger, the Oklo deposit was host to natural nuclear reactions, and the missing U-235 was the fuel they had consumed.


Oklo was soon staked out by Legionnaires as a cadre of Ecole Polytechnique alumni excavated the 15 natural reactors within the mine that had gone critical and fissioned away the U-235 1.8 billion years before. Once they had been dug up, analyzed and entered into the annals of science, the last of the usual suspects were put back on the street, and the miners of Oklo returned to excavating the still rich ore.


A Little Humility


The plutonium produced in nuclear reactions, natural or man made, is popularly regarded as the most dangerous substance in existence. It is an object of widespread faith that mere grams of it could kill millions. But what of the seven tons of plutonium created in the natural reactors? Its fate in the environment has done more than literally billions of dollars of research to illuminate the modern problem of high-level radioactive waste disposal.


Rocks being rocks, their behavioral repertoire is somewhat limited. With the coming of each ancient rainy season, neutron moderating water percolated into the ore, and the natural reactors rumbled to life. But beneath the surface of this radioactive Yellowstone, the resulting fission products and plutonium just did what comes naturally to heavy metals in a mud bath. They sank to the bottom and stayed put, diffusing outwards at a rate slower than continental drift.


Plutonium's 16,000 year half life is but a geological instant, and the last atom of it gave up the ghost a billion years ago literally a stone's throw from where it started. All that's left of it is the dead end of its chain of nuclear decay: lead.


Most of the world's uranium mines now lie idle. Disarmament and a stagnant nuclear power industry have made uranium too cheap to merit the level of vigilance and security afforded more valuable commodities, like lamb chops or aspirin.


George Kennan remarked that error is so integral a part of evaluating intelligence that complete intolerance of it would banish every analyst from the corridors of power. When certain knowledge of imports, exports, and inventories eludes a nation, humility should attend its estimates of what others may, or may not, have acquired.

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