Greenpeace Warns of Iraq Nuclear Contamination

The environmental group Greenpeace has echoed a call by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to permit the UN watchdog to return in force to Iraq to track nuclear-related materials looted after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion there and help protect and treat the population from exposure to deadly radiation

The group’s appeal followed a report released by the IAEA Tuesday that found that significant quantities of specialized equipment and material in Iraq that could be used to build a nuclear or radioactive bomb had disappeared from sites monitored by the agency before the invasion.

In a letter to the UN Security Council, IAEA director Mohamed el-Baradei said his agency was concerned both with the "widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement of sites linked to Iraq’s nuclear program and with the health of Iraqis living around the main nuclear facility at Tuwaitha."

Greenpeace, whose mission to Tuwaitha in June 2003, alerted the world to the extent of postwar looting of nuclear-related material and the possible health threats that may have resulted from it, charged that the response of both the U.S. occupation authorities and the new interim Iraqi government to the problem of looting and possible radiation exposure has been inadequate to date.

"Nothing has been done to date," the group said about providing medical help to the surrounding communities. It also stressed that that the new regime in Baghdad has apparently failed to follow up on repeated offers by the IAEA to advise the authorities in Iraq on the safety and security of nuclear and other radioactive materials, although it has reportedly asked the agency to facilitate the sale of equipment it has recovered.

Greenpeace’s mission to Tuwaitha 16 months ago was among the first by an independent organization investigating Iraq’s nuclear infrastructure. The mission actually collected radioactive materials that had been looted from the site and returned them to the nuclear facility there.

In addition to the obvious absence of certain kinds of equipment, Greenpeace found the site unguarded by U.S. soldiers or local security forces and that local residents had taken much of the materials, including barrels containing uranium yellowcake to use for cooking and water storage in their homes.

Among other things, the Greenpeace mission took measurements in people’s homes, finding in one case radiation levels 10,000 times greater than the surrounding area. It also secured the contaminated barrels by exchanging them with new ones it brought to the area.

At the time, Greenpeace said it was "seriously concerned that the looting of the Tuwaitha facility had been so extensive by the time our team arrived that it will be virtually impossible for a team of inspectors to reconstruct the radioactive inventory prior to the invasion."

It also expressed alarm about the failure of the authorities at the time to take any action to protect the residents of Tuwaitha.

"If this had happened in the [United Kingdom}, the U.S. or any other country, the villages around Tuwaitha would be swarming with radiation experts and decontamination teams. It would have been branded a nuclear disaster site and the people given immediate medical checkups. That they are being ignored is a scandal that must be rectified without delay."

The group submitted its findings to el-Baradei who has been pressing with only limited success the U.S. and, more recently, the interim Iraqi government, to permit nuclear inspectors and specialists to return to Iraq to conduct comprehensive inspections in order both to track the missing material and determine the health impact on residents exposed to radioactive items.

The IAEA was permitted to send missions with a very limited mandate to Iraq in June 2003 and again in August 2004.

"The interim government has done nothing," said the Amsterdam-based group. "The IAEA is still banned from Iraq by American fiat, and the only winners in this story are those are looking to capitalize on security failures by scoring loose nukes."

That is the great fear expressed in the IAEA’s latest report, which was based primarily on commercial satellite photos that it had obtained, as well as published reports by media and other sources as to what nuclear-related materials have been found and what remains missing.

In some cases, according to the IAEA’s report, entire buildings related to Iraq’s nuclear program, which was suspended after the Gulf War in 1991, according to the latest report of the U.S. Iraq Survey Group, have simply disappeared, as has the sophisticated, high-precision equipment that was once stored inside them.

During the period of UN inspections, the IAEA kept tabs on this equipment, but, in the wake of the U.S. invasion, it now has little or no idea where it went.

"What has caught everybody’s attention in his [el-Baradei’s] report is that the satellite imagery that we’ve been monitoring because we can’t be on the ground has shown a widespread and systematic dismantlement of sites that previously were relevant to Iraq’s nuclear program and sites that were subject to IAEA inspections," said the agency’s spokesperson, Melissa Fleming.

"Contained in these buildings are the things that we’re worried about. There was equipment of a ‘dual-use’ nature that is, they could be used in industry, but as well they could, if they fell into the wrong hands, be used in a nuclear-weapons program."

The U.S. State Department, however, said Tuesday the situation was under control.

"The Iraqi Interim Government is working to ensure that weapons materials don’t fall into the wrong hands," said spokesman Richard Boucher.

"I think we share the general concern that some material might have gotten out into the market immediately after the war, but to the extent that all of us have been able to bring it under control, we have done that [and] I think the Iraqis have been able to put in place the kind of monitoring, the safeguards and control systems that are necessary to prevent any further leakage," he added.

Greenpeace, however, demurred. "The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be about stopping weapons of mass destruction [and] stopping nuclear materials from getting out from under UN control," it noted, adding that the world is a more dangerous place with so many materials now unaccounted for.


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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.