One year on, UN takes up Greenpeace Iraq warnings

IAEA has eye in the sky: Greenpeace had inspectors on the ground

Feature story - 12 October, 2004
Mohamed ElBaradei warned the world today that nuclear assets in Iraq have been looted and nuclear materials have disappeared. Greenpeace made that warning more than a year ago when we located radioactive materials and returned them to the nuclear facility at Tuwaitha. Due to US resistance to the UN nuclear watchdog's return to Iraq, it has to rely on satellite images. We saw evidence of the UN concerns on the ground.

Greenpeace documented looters in abandoned hangar at Tuwaitha nuclear centre in Iraq in June 2003.

When US troops rolled into Baghdad, they ensured that the oil ministry was immediately under guard. In the south, oil pipelines and wells were surrounded with armoured vehicles.

Yet in Tuwaitha, where Saddam Hussein's nuclear research was conducted, a site previously sealed by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and containing nuclear equipment and materials had not a single soldier outside its door. Local residents took what they could, including barrels to use for cooking and water storage that they simply emptied of their uranium yellowcake contents.

We sent a mission to Iraq in June of 2003 to evaluate the extent of contamination and to call for the US and the UN to take immediate action to secure and clean up the site. We brought new barrels for the local residents to swap for their contaminated ones. We took measurements in people's homes, in one case finding radiation levels 10,000 times above background.

We wrote to Kofi Annan in July 2003 about our concerns and submitted our findings to Mohamed ElBaradei in a ten-page report and video documentary in July of 2004, when the US allowed a limited inspection of the site by the IAEA. Nuclear expert John Large commented in the report that the evidence presented by us suggested to him "that a considerable amount of radioactive material and contamination has been removed from the secure areas of the Tuwaitha Nuclear Centre."

Nuclear disaster

Our letter to ElBaradei listed the materials we found, where we found them, and stated

"Greenpeace is 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. And these concerns have been considerably exacerbated in the last weeks following the revelation that the US has airlifted considerable quantities of nuclear material from the area without IAEA oversight."

"Nuclear material from Iraq has been found in both the Netherlands and Turkey, showing that nuclear material can and does leave the country."

Unfortunately, the contamination stays in Tuwaitha.

Greenpeace spokesperson Mike Townsley said at the time of our inspection "If this had happened in the UK, the US 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 check-ups. The people of Iraq deserve no less from the international community. That they are being ignored is a scandal that must be rectified without delay."

Nothing has been done to date. And in their response to our warning about vanishing inventories, the best the IAEA could say was this:

"The Agency has offered the Iraqi authorities advice on the safety and security of nuclear and other radioactive material. However, the Agency's assistance is based on requests, and, in line with the Agency's confidentiality regime, the Agency can only publish protected information with the consent of the concerned State or States. Some of your enquiries and suggestions may therefore more appropriately be directed to the Iraqi Interim Government [...] At this stage, it is important that IAEA inspectors return to Iraq..."

The interim government has also done nothing, the IAEA is still banned from Iraq by American fiat, and the only winners in this story are those who are looking to capitalise on security failures by scoring loose nukes.

What was it all for?

The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be about stopping weapons of mass destruction. It was supposed to be about stopping nuclear materials from getting out from under UN control. Was the failure to secure Tuwaitha a result of incompetence, or evidence of the real priority of securing Iraq's oil supply?

Either way, the world is a more dangerous place as a result.

For a would-be terrorist, the menu of options for securing nuclear material is getting longer and longer. If you don't feel like picking up some enriched Uranium to make a dirty bomb from Iraq, you can find a lightly guarded truck in France containing Plutonium, or a shipload of weapons-grade material on the high seas from the US.

The only way to ensure nuclear materials don't end up in the wrong hands is for everyone to give them up.

More information

You don't need a satellite monitoring system to witness the looting of nuclear materials and the disassembly of buildings in Iraq. We videotaped the incidents mentioned in ElBaradei's report, and you can see them yourself by clicking below:

Quick Time

Windows Media


Letter to Kofi Annan

Letter to Mohamed ElBaradei

Large Associates Analysis of Greenpeace findings

You can also read about Greenpeace's experience in Iraq in the blog of the inspection mission.