Regional Center for Nuclear Studies
The regional center for nuclear studies in Kinshasa (CREN-K, French: Centre Régional d'Études Nucléaires de Kinshasa), prior to 1970 known as the Trico Center (French: Centre Trico), houses the TRICO I and TRICO II nuclear research reactors. TRICO I was the first nuclear reactor on the African continent.
In 1956, prior to the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Belgium, Luc Gillon rector of the University of Lovanium launched the idea of establishing a research reactor at the university. In 1958, the government of Belgian Congo, with the approval of the Belgian minister of Congo and Ruanda-Urundi bought a TRIGA MARK I reactor from General Atomics. The Trico Center was constructed to house the reactor and opened in 1959. It was built on land belonging to the science and medical faculties of the University of Lovanium (later University of Kinshasa).
Post independence, at the 1967 Organisation of African Unity summit in Kinshasa African heads of state decided to transform Trico Center into a regional study center. Despite OAU recommendations, the center has only been operated by Congolese. From 1970 onwards it is known as CREN-K, Regional Center for Nuclear studies (French: Centre Régional d'Études Nucléaires de Kinshasa). CREN-K purchased a new reactor, TRICO II, with a larger capacity.
In 1968 the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Belgium signed general agreements on continued technological and scientific cooperation. Five years later in 1973 a specific agreement on cooperation of peaceful nuclear research was signed between Belgium and then Zaire. The agreements after several extensions lasted until 1987. In practise it meant that SCK•CEN assisted CREN-K in the construction and yearly maintenance of TRICO II. The Institute for Radioactive Elements (IRE) in Fleurus Belgium assisted CREN-K in the production of medical isotopes. In return CREN-K agreed to also run research programs proposed by mutually recognized Belgian institutions.
The TRICO II reactor is subject to yearly IAEA inspections. In 1988 IAEA started a project to deliver replacement parts and new nuclear fuel. Because the American company General Dynamics Corporation, which had been contracted to deliver these parts, was unable to fulfil its obligations due to an embargo imposed on the Mobutu government. In exchange for spare parts and training seminars from the IAEA the Democratic Republic of the Congo participates in RAF and AFRA projects.
The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo stopped adequately funding the project in the late 1980s. In 1998 it was reported that despite the lack of funds dedicated personnel kept the reactor in good shape. By this time the IAEA cooperation still had trouble locating replacement parts. Because spent fuel was not being replaced the reactor was only capable of operating at reduced capacity.
In 2004 the reactor was shutdown for a scheduled stop and has been in a state of extended shutdown since.
Since 2010 there have been renewed campaigns to gather more support among the public opinion for CREN-K and utilizing the national resource that is uranium.
The Commissariat Général à l’Energie Atomique (CGEA) is responsible for nuclear energy, CREN-K and its reactors. It was previously known as the Commissariat des Sciences Nucléaires. It is a state-owned company under the supervision of the scientific research department of MESU, the Ministry of Higher Education (French: Ministère de L'Énseignement Superieur et Universitaire). As foreseen by law CGEA's articles of association describe three structures. Namely a Board of directors, a management committee, and a committee of auditors. However currently only the management committee exists and it is identical to the management committee of CREN-K. The committee consists out of a Commissioner General, director of science, CFO and a staff representative.
A 50 kW TRIGA MARK I reactor. Initial criticality June 6, 1959. The reactor was shut down June 29, 1970. It has been dismantled but not fully decommissioned. The reactor was used for training, fundamental research and for the production of agricultural and medical isotopes.
A 1 MW TRIGA MARK II reactor. Initial criticality March 24, 1972. The reactor has been in extended shutdown since 2004. The reactor was used for training, fundamental research, isotope production and material characterization. TRICO II uses uranium fuel enriched to 20%. CGEA intends to restart the reactor in the future. However to do this replacement parts are needed among which a $3 million digital control bay.
Security and safety
International observers have long been concerned about the safety and security of the two nuclear reactors and the enriched uranium they contain.
In 1998, a wall in the Regional Center for Nuclear Studies collapsed when torrential rains undermined the building's foundation. International Atomic Energy Agency officials have voiced concerns that the ongoing issue with erosion could lead to an accident that might contaminate the city of Kinshasa's water supply. Further concerns about the site were raised when, in 1999, an object that might have been a missile, struck the building and caused light damage.
The program has also had an ongoing issue with the disappearance of nuclear material that could be used by terrorists or rogue states. Several rods of highly enriched uranium (HEU) have disappeared from the reactors since the late 1970s. In 1998, a sting operation led by the Italian police seized a rod of HEU that weighed 190 grams. It was built by General Atomics in the early 1970s and shipped to Zaire for use in the TRICO II reactor. The rod was in the possession of an Italian mafia group that was trying to sell it for $12.8 million, possibly to a Middle Eastern country.
In 2007, the research center's director Fortunat Lumu and an aide were arrested and questioned about the disappearance of a large quantity of nuclear material, which local media reported was as much as 100 bars of uranium.
In 2012, Vincent Lukanda (CGEA Commissar-General) declared that CREN-K was no longer threatened by erosion, and that the Congolese government was committed to protecting and modernizing the nuclear site, citing investments into a new perimeter fence.
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