_ “I feel impelled to speak today in a language that in a sense is new—one which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would preferred never to use. That new language is the language of atomic warfare.”_
— President Dwight D. Eisenhower
8 December 1953
In December 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and addressed the world leaders, as well as the global public. The atomic sciences in this era were still defined by classified information, espionage, and top secret military installations in remote, secret regions. It was less than ten years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only six months before, two Americans, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, had been convicted of espionage and executed for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Public fears of an atomic attack ran high, McCarthyism was on the rise, and the new Cold War was strangulating American popular ideologies.
In his address, President Eisenhower urged humanity to move “out of fear and into peace” and advocated destruction of worldwide atomic weapon stockpiles to help “find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”
This address also proposed the formation of an Atomic Energy Agency—the precursor of today’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—which “could be made responsible for the impounding, storage, and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials.” Eisenhower appealed for cooperation between global powers, regardless of state ideologies, and stated that “experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities [with] a special purpose to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.”
His address and proposal for international cooperation in the realm of atomic sciences did not meet with unanimous favor, but mostly with grudging acceptance. Nevertheless, Eisenhower’s efforts prevailed and the subsequent Atoms for Peace program saw the eventual dissemination of fissile materials to developing states as part of a peaceful development agenda.
Yet in the following decades, several recipient countries collapsed. Fissile materials went missing during these instabilities, and some still have not re-appeared.
Here I’ll parse out the longer term implications for global peace and security of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program through a case study of the Kinshasa (Congo) reactor and nuclear research installation.
The Atoms for Peace program disseminated fissile materials and atomic technologies to 26 developing—or in President Eisenhower’s words “power-starved”—nations between 1956 and 1962. Such recipient states included: Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, South Korea, Sweden, and Taiwan among others. However, the most disastrous of these recipient states was the Belgian Congo.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the atomic sciences have a complicated history. The DRC is the richest country in the world in resources, with an estimated 24 trillion dollars in minerals and ores buried below its forests and fertile soils. Of particular note are extensive uranium reserves located in its southern province. Uranium was extracted and processed extensively in the mid-twentieth century to produce highly- enriched uranium for research and weapons applications. Gabrielle Hecht speculates that the uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb was predominantly from the Belgian Congo and estimates that 20 to 50 percent of all uranium used in the Cold War originated from mines in this region.1
The Atoms for Peace program established an atomic research centre and reactor in 1958/1959 at the University of Kinshasa on the fringes of Kinshasa, the nation’s capital. Within a year, the Belgian Congo was granted independence in response to increasing anti-colonial sentiments and violence against colonial forces. The year 1960 marked the start of the Congo Crisis, a series of civil wars, and Cold War proxy wars that upheaved the region with violent conflicts for much of the decade. This instability has defined the DRC for much of the twentieth and well into the twenty-first century.
However, a pivotal event pertaining to the fissile materials provided by Atoms for Peace occurred in 1997 when the President Mobutu Sese Seko’s authoritarian regime collapsed. This marked the DRC’s initial attempts at transitioning to democracy.
But 1997 also saw between two and eight fuel-grade uranium rods stolen out of the research reactor in Kinshasa. The official statement from the current research director on the rod’s disappearance is that his “predecessor lent out his keys.” However, it is possible that President Mobutu, infamous for nepotism and theft from national coffers, ordered these rods stolen so that he could sell them on global black markets for significant money during his planned exile. Mobutu died of cancer in exile in Morocco a few months later, and one of these rods later appeared on the Italian black market and was seized by authorities from the regional mafia in 1998. The others have never re- emerged globally and are still unaccounted for.
This theft should have raised extreme regional and global alarms as to the security of the research and reactor facility, yet it was barely covered by media. In 1999, a high-power metal projectile was fired at the reactor and research centre from unknown parties outside the facility. It luckily missed the reactor, but damaged nearby buildings. While the research reactor is currently and has been in shutdown mode for years, fuel-grade fissile materials are still on-site. The IAEA voiced concerns in a classified 2006/2007 report—recently leaked by WikiLeaks—that the insecure conditions of this reactor and research centre could result in either radiation contaminating large swaths of the city or fissile materials falling into the hands of terrorists. This report urged immediate decommissioning of the reactor and research facility by trained international agencies.
Nevertheless, regional media sources report that in recent years, the research centre with its reactor is still conspicuous for its lax security, broken fences, and a single padlock on the door to the reactor room.
An amateur filmmaker even uploaded a video in 2011 to YouTube  showing his unscheduled visit to the reactor and research centre, where he walked through the front door and, despite having no security clearance, was offered a full tour of the facility by staff members, as the police and security teams were absent.
Furthermore, Congolese media sources report that in March 2007, an additional 100 bars of fuel- grade uranium and various other uranium derivatives were stolen from the Kinshasa reactor and research facility by unknown parties. The leading theory is that Iran coordinated the theft. Ironically, this theft coincided with an IAEA conference on unsafe conditions in Iran that was then underway in Vienna.
After examining the history of this reactor and research centre, it is no wonder that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists_ described the Kinshasa installation as a “frightening nuclear legacy” in 2008.
Leonard Weiss, a researcher at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a national advisory board member for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington D.C. analyzed President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. He commented on the program in a statement to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
“It is legitimate to ask whether Atoms for Peace accelerated proliferation by helping some nations achieve more advanced arsenals than would have otherwise been the case.
“The jury has been in for some time on this question, and the answer is yes.”
It is obvious from the example of the Kinshasa reactor and research centre that Weiss’s statement is correct. President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program did facilitate increased proliferation of fissile materials into unstable and unsecure regions of the world.
The Atoms for Peace program should remind us why decisions around atomic energy and safety and security should take into consideration potential future challenges and scenarios. It was obvious that anti-colonial sentiments and sociopolitical instability were on the rise for years before the facility was established. Despite this, the Atoms for Peace program still opted to set it up, hoping to demonstrate the peaceful uses of atomic technologies. Needless to say, international powers and atomic authorities have a duty to track down the relics of the Atoms for Peace program and ensure that they are secured.
Adam Wynne is a student at the University of Toronto.
1 Hecht, Gabrielle. 2012. “An elemental force: Uranium production in Africa, and what it means to be nuclear.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 68 (2): 22-33.
2 The video is called “Nuclear Powerplant in Kinshasa, Congo … scary stuff !” youtube.com/watch?v=wvkyjD9cCck