October 14, 2004

That missing nuclear material in Iraq.

To read the stories in the US press and listen to the pronouncements coming from Dubya's administration (and its client regime in Baghdad), you'd think that the problems with bad security at former Iraqi nuclear sites was something new. And that it's only recently that anyone has been aware that nuclear material has been stolen and is most likely on the black market.

We were pretty sure we'd seen stories about this issue before, either here or at our other blog, and we were finally able to take some time away from preparing to move back to Portland to take a look.

Sure enough, we found this Magpie post from 10 April 2003, only a couple of days after the fall of Baghdad:

Deadly loot.

Not only did US forces in Iraq fail to stop the looting of the National Museum, but they also failed to prevent the looting of Iraq's nuclear sites. The UK Independent describes in great detail the what civilians have taken from the Tuwaitha nuclear plant.

The labels were clearly visible when the caretaker of the al-Wrdiya village school pulled from a storeroom at the back of the building two looted plastic drums and a translucent off-white crate.

No, he said rather sheepishly, he hadn't shown them to the Iraqi and US experts who visited earlier in the day. One of the blue drums, both of which were stamped "Made in West Germany", carried on its side the words "Radio Aktiv". On the crate, resembling a large toolbox, underneath the designation "Hardigg Ind, USA", was the word again, this time in English, "Radioactive". Another, much smaller, white label warned in English "Observe Prescribed Separation Distances for Film and Personnel." None of the labels was in Arabic. [...]

Told about the drums, a senior IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] official said yesterday: "Our concerns about this site grow every day." The IAEA has been desperate to visit the site and has warned the US since 11 April to take action to stop looting. It is concerned about radiation and also fears the material could fall into the hands of those seeking to create makeshift nuclear weapons. But Washington has consistently refused to allow the IAEA inspectors in. [bold emphasis added]

And this one from April 11 of this year:

Nuclear facilities in Iraq are ungaurded.

Not only that, but radioactive materials from those unguarded nuclear facilities are being taken out of Iraq. These are the conclusions reached by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after it studied satellite photos of Iraq and examined nuclear-related equipment that's turned up in Europe.

In letters to the UN Security Council and US officials, IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei said that satellite photos show 'extensive removal of equipment and in some instances, removal of entire buildings', and that 'large quanitities of scrap, some of it contaminated, have been transfered out of Iraq' from sites that the IAEA monitored before the Iraq war.

In January, the IAEA confirmed that Iraq was the likely source of radioactive material known as yellowcake that was found in a shipment of scrap metal at Rotterdam harbor.

Yellowcake, or uranium oxide, could be used to build a nuclear weapon, although it would take tons of the substance refined with sophisticated technology to harvest enough uranium for a single bomb. [...]

The yellowcake in the shipment was natural uranium ore which probably came from a known mine in Iraq that was active before the 1991 Gulf War.

A small number of Iraqi missile engines have also turned up in European ports, IAEA officials said.

''It is not clear whether the removal of these items has been the result of looting activities in the aftermath of the recent war in Iraq or as part of systematic efforts to rehabilitate some of their locations,'' ElBaradei wrote to the council.

The US has refused to allow IAEA inspectors to enter Iraq since it ousted Saddam Hussein last spring, by the way.

After reading the AP story about the IAEA's findings, we were certain that we'd heard about unguarded nuclear sites in Iraq before. Sure enough, a Google search on 'iraq nuclear site unguarded 2003' was really productive. Right at the top of the results, we found this Baltimore Sun story from April 11, 2003:

Three Iraqi warehouses filled with 2,500 barrels of uranium that could be enriched for nuclear weapons - plus 150 radioactive isotopes that could be used for "dirty bombs" - lay unguarded for several days this week as Iraqi mobs swirled around. [bold emphasis added]

The facility, known as Location C, was Iraq's only internationally sanctioned storage site for nuclear material. It thus was a potential prize for U.S. forces - or for anyone seeking to steal radioactive material for sale to other countries or to terrorists.

Iraqi Republican Guard troops abandoned the site late last week as U.S. forces approached the nearby Tuwaitha nuclear research center south of Baghdad....

We also found this Washington Post report from April 24, 2003:

Nearly three weeks after U.S. forces reached Iraq's most important nuclear facility, the Bush administration has yet to begin an assessment of whether tons of radioactive material there remain intact, according to military officials here and in Washington. [bold emphasis added]

Before the war began last month, the vast Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center held 3,896 pounds of partially enriched uranium, more than 94 tons of natural uranium and smaller quantities of cesium, cobalt and strontium, according to reports compiled through the 1990s by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Immensely valuable on the international black market, the uranium was in a form suitable for further enrichment to "weapons grade," the core of a nuclear device. The other substances, products of medical and industrial waste, emit intense radiation. They have been sought, officials said, by terrorists seeking to build a so-called dirty bomb, which uses conventional explosives to scatter dangerous radioactive particles.

Defense officials acknowledge that the U.S. government has no idea whether any of Tuwaitha's potentially deadly contents have been stolen, because it has not dispatched investigators to appraise the site. What it does know, according to officials at the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command, is that the sprawling campus, 11 miles south of Baghdad, lay unguarded for days and that looters made their way inside.

So it appears that while the US was busy looking for WMDs and granting lucrative business deals to companies run by Dubya's pals, nobody thought that keeping an eye on Iraq's nuclear facilities was a particularly high priority. We haven't heard any reaction from Washington yet, but we're sure that some administration spokesperson will blame the unguarded nuclear sites on President Clinton.

We think you can draw your own conclusions about how well the US acted to secure Iraqi nculear sites and materiel, and how well the US cooperated with international nuclear authorities.

Posted by Magpie at October 14, 2004 09:13 AM | Iraq | Technorati links |