Raissa Malu

The 25 glorious years

In my previous post, I told you how Africa's first nuclear reactor was installed on 6th June 1959, on the site of the University of Lovanium in Leopoldville. Let's continue this fabulous story and explore the period from 1960 to 1985, the 25 glorious years! Our second episode.

One year after the commissioning of Africa's first nuclear reactor, the Democratic Republic of Congo gained its independence. It was 30th June 1960. We then took the name of the Republic of Congo or "Congo-Léopoldville" to distinguish us from our neighbours across the river 😉, the "Congo-Brazzaville" which gained its independence on 15th August 1960. The great adventure of nuclear research in Africa began even as the young country was about to experience tragic events.

Let's come back 20 days early. 10th June 1960, in Brussels. King Baudouin of Belgium signs the decree creating the "Commissariat des Sciences Nucléaires" whose headquarters will be in Leopoldville. It has three objectives, one of which is to "promote and sustain research in the nuclear sciences with a view to its application to techniques relevant to the development of the Congo and the health and well-being of its populations".

[A parenthesis. I find the usual introductory sentence of this decree very sympathetic: "BAUDOUIN, King of the Belgians, To all, present and future, Salute." To all of you, present and future, I greet you... 😊. Let's close the parenthesis.]

Mine closure

Two years after independence, in 1962, the Shinkolobwe mine in Upper Katanga province, from which the uranium used for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had been extracted, was permanently closed. Several reasons, including technical ones, justified this closure. Nevertheless, it marked the end of the pivotal role played by the Democratic Republic of Congo in the world history of nuclear energy.

Fortunately, the peaceful nuclear adventure was only just beginning, but against a backdrop of political unrest.

A 29-year-old president

On 1st August 1964, "Congo-Léopoldville" became the "Democratic Republic of Congo". A year later, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, then President of the Republic, signed Ordinance No. 232 of 5th July 1965 appointing members of the Commissariat des Sciences Nucléaires.

Félix Malu, Professor at Lovanium University, was appointed Commissioner of Nuclear Sciences. He was 29 years old! Monsignore Luc Gillon, Rector of Lovanium University, was appointed Permanent Secretary at the Office of the Commissioner of Nuclear Sciences. That year was chosen to launch the program to replace the first reactor, the TRIGA MARK I, with a second, more powerful one, the TRIGA MARK II.

Training and research reactors

A word about the reactor. TRIGA for "Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics" is a type of reactors developed by General Atomics, based in San Diego, California, USA. As their name suggests, TRIGA reactors are used for teaching, research or isotope production in scientific and academic organizations.

The first reactor installed on the Lovanium University site in 1959 was a TRIGA MARK I reactor that operated at low power (50 kilowatts). In the euphoria of independence, the country's ambitions were such that it was necessary to move to a more powerful reactor. As they say: "Not even afraid!" 😉

Regional reactor

Only on 24th November 1965, four months after the order appointing the members of the Nuclear Science Commission had been signed, General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu overthrew Joseph Kasa-Vubu and seized power. A period of war followed until 1966.

On 11th September 1967, the fifth "summit" of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was held in Kinshasa. 36 countries were represented and 15 heads of state had traveled to Kinshasa. In particular, they decided to transform the Kinshasa nuclear centre into a regional nuclear centre, called the Centre Régional d'Études Nucléaires de Kinshasa (C.R.E.N.-K.), in order to provide research facilities and radioisotopes to all O.U.A. members.

Founding stone in 1969

This transformation accelerated the reactor modernization programme. The founding stone of the building to house the new reactor, TRIGA MARK II, was laid in 1969 at the first African conference on nuclear research organized in Kinshasa jointly by the Commissariat des Sciences Nucléaires, the OAU and the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.). By the way, 1969 was also the year the first man walked on the Moon (21st July 1969). The Democratic Republic of Congo had two reasons to celebrate that year 😊

In 1971, the Democratic Republic of Congo changed its name again. It became the "Republic of Zaire" (with this one, there was no longer any possible confusion with our dear brother neighbours across the river 😉). To mark the occasion and show the power of the new Zaire, President Mobutu Sese Seko inaugurated the new TRIGA MARK II reactor with its research facilities on 30th March 1972.

The most powerful on the continent

Two years later, on 20th November 1974, President Mobutu returned to the C.R.E.N.-K. to witness (actively) the full power drive of the new TRIGA MARK II reactor (1 600 megawatts), making it the most powerful nuclear reactor in Africa in pulse mode. In 1985, it was still the most powerful on the continent!

The Commissariat des Sciences Nucléaires was restructured in 1978 to become the Commissariat général de l'Énergie Atomique (C.G.E.A.). Félix Malu Wa Kalenga will be placed at its head as Commissioner General for Atomic Energy. A period rich in research and results began.

Contribution to traditional medicine

To the great displeasure of some (I know), I choose not to go yet into the details of the results of the research carried out at C.R.E.N.-K. because they are preparing activities for the 60th anniversary celebrations in this regard. I would just like to point out that by 1985, research had diversified to include all traditional areas of research, from nuclear engineering to nuclear chemistry, agriculture, nuclear medicine, radiobiology, etc.

Nevertheless, there is one area worth noting here. This field is considered as the African contribution to modern science. This is traditional medicine, specifically the use of African medicinal plants in modern pharmacopoeia. The Scientific Council of the OAU, which had studied the issue at length in 1972, had recommended that a systemic taxonomy (classification) be undertaken throughout Africa in this field as a prerequisite for any effort to develop and market drugs based on African medicinal plants. The C.R.E.N.-K. team considered that this field of research could prove to be the most promising. They have therefore invested resources and made a series of significant contributions.

26 years without any incident

The life of Africa's first and most powerful nuclear reactor was not a long, peaceful river. I do not have to rely on technical considerations, but the staff have encountered unavoidable problems in the operation of a reactor of such power. Nevertheless, no accident of any kind has ever been recorded in so many years of operation, neither with the TRIGA MARK I nor with the TRIGA MARK II, making this machine probably the safest available on the market. These are very good results are to the credit of the excellent team of the C.R.E.N.-K. And I'm not the one saying it!

In June 1985, the C.R.E.N.-K. had accumulated 26 years of experience in the peaceful applications of nuclear energy. This experience remains at the service of the African continent. It is up to us, students, researchers, scientists and politicians, to make good use of it in the service of our country, our continent and humanity.

In a future article, I will discuss the following years, which were also the most difficult years in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the meantime, "science is fun, join us!"

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

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