Raissa Malu

The first nuclear reactor in Africa

I am a physicist by training and my favourite field is nuclear physics. This month of June 2019 is special to me. Let me tell you why.

Sixty years ago, on 6th June 1959, the Regional Centre for Nuclear Studies of Kinshasa (CREN-K) was born on the hill of Mont-Amba, in the city of Kinshasa, in Belgian Congo at the time. This centre hosted Africa's first nuclear reactor dedicated to research. Let's go back in history!

The world was emerging from the Second World War, which had left its mark with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan by the Americans on 6th and 9th August 1945. These bombings had brought the war to an end, but at what cost! We had just discovered with horror our destructive power, the apocalypse, the "Manhattan Project".

The source of uranium

This experience was devastating for the scientists, technicians and aircraft pilots who participated and executed this project. And in this sad story, the Belgian Congo of the time was involved. Because, you see, the uranium used in these bombs came from the Shinkolobwe mine, a locality 25 kilometres west of the town of Likasi in the province of Haut-Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The world's political and scientific world was so shocked that they decided (to redeem themselves) to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes in parallel with military nuclear power, "Atoms for peace". On December 8, 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States, in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UN), proposed the creation of an international agency to control the use of nuclear materials. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would officially begin its operation on 29th July 1957.

Nuclear power for Africa

Monsignor Luc Gillon, builder of the Lovanium University of Leopoldville, which later became the University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN), decided, given the involvement of the Belgian Congo in the Manhattan project, that it would be the least for this country to benefit from the "Atoms for peace". Using his network and relationships, strengthened by his determination and commitment to the training of a Congolese scientific elite, he obtained (not without difficulty) from Belgium, the creation of the CREN-K on the site of the University of Lovanium with the first nuclear reactor in Africa. This reactor would be dedicated to research for the entire Central African region. Two years after the IAEA, on 6th June 1959, the CREN-K was born!

Why did I become interested in nuclear physics? Probably because my father, the late Prof. Dr. Ir. Félix Malu Wa Kalenga directed the CREN-K for nearly 30 years after Monsignor Luc Gillon. But also because I was interested in applications in medicine, nuclear medicine. I thought it was important that our knowledge (that of nuclear physicists) should now contribute to saving millions of lives after having tragically taken so many.

After physics, I moved on to education because my desire to improve people's living conditions has greatly expanded. It's more fun when you get together! 😊

A long-standing expertise

Nuclear techniques are not without danger, far from it. But peaceful applications, such as thermoelectric nuclear power, nuclear medicine and multiple applications in industry or agri-food, contribute to the development of modern nations. Shouldn't we be looking to develop other potentially less dangerous techniques? Certainly! But depending on the needs, situations and the solution envisaged, a mix with nuclear energy would be the most reasonable option. In addition, the IAEA is doing remarkable work with individual countries to develop peaceful applications and minimize the risks and dangers of nuclear power (zero risk does not exist).

As for CREN-K, it has contributed to the development of better, more resistant seeds. It continues to contribute to security in mining operations in Upper Katanga. In a future article, I will continue the story of this nuclear reactor, the first in Africa. For now, let us all be proud of the contribution of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Africa to the nuclear adventure. Our expertise in the DRC in nuclear matters is as old as that of the IAEA! It is now the responsibility of the new generation of scientists and politicians to use it wisely in the service of the Nation, the Continent and Humanity!

Science is fun, join us!

This post was first published on LinkedIn. It has been translated in English by Afriscitech.

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