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Trip to Iraq

Background - April 10, 2006

Greenpeace activists mark a highly radioactive site outside a school with warnings in Arabic. The site registed 3000 times higher than background.

The Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility

Built in the1960s, the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility is a complex of more than 100 buildings spread over a 35 square mile site, located 18km SSE of Baghdad. It used to be the heart of Iraq's nuclear weapons programme. Past activities at the site included several research reactors, plutonium separation and waste processing, uranium metallurgy, neutroninitiator development and work on number of methods of uraniumenrichment.

Following the 1991 Gulf War, the IAEA removed all known Iraqi stocks of weapons useable nuclear material, in accordance with the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 687. All other radioactive material, including uranium was stored in sealed barrels at Tuwaitha and was checked once a year by the IAEA, under the terms ofthe Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The IAEA says that in December 2002, 500 tonnes of "yellowcake" and 1.8 tonnes of low-enriched uranium remained at Tuwaitha, and hundreds of other highly radioactive, industrial sources were still in the country.

The Problem

When Iraq fell under US control on 9 April 2003, the occupying powers failed to properly secure Tuwaitha and other nuclear sites. Occupying forces also failed to conduct an inventory of materials at any of the sites.

Justone day later, on 10 April, the door of one storage area at Tuwaitha was found breached. US forces were requested by the IAEA to secure the storage facility sometime after April 11 but, by May 3 when US forces conducted a site survey, they were still letting scores of "workers" enter and take whatever they liked. Seven sites associated with Iraq's nuclear program have been visited by the Pentagon's special nuclear programs' teams since the war ended, and all showed signs of "looting".

Residents living near Tuwaitha reportedly took barrels of nuclear material, known as "yellowcake", and other containers because they needed them to store food, water, milk and yoghurt. They were unaware that the barrels were radioactive and toxic and that they were exposing themselves to severe risk. Witnesses report seeing people carrying containers and emptying low-level radioactive contents into the soil or local water supplies. Warning signs to the local community were limited and only written in English. Some of the looted material is now being returned to the nearby mosque where it is being stored but has not been contained.

Local doctors are concerned that people are showing signs of radiation sickness, such as bleeding and vomiting. Dr. Jaafar Nasser Suhayb, who runs a nearby clinic, said that over a five-day period he treated about 20 patients from the neighborhood near Tuwaitha for similar symptoms: shortness of breath, nausea, severe nosebleeds and itchy rashes. Suhaybis worried that the residents are suffering from radiation poisoning because several of the symptoms are consistent with those of acute radiation syndrome.

The Greenpeace expedition

We went to Iraq in June 2003 to examine the local environment and to assess the extent of any nuclear contamination. The team took samplesof soil and water for laboratory analysis and conducted on-site monitoring with specialist radiation detection equipment. While the extent of the Greenpeace radiological survey was comprehensive, it did provide some idea of the true level of risk to the people of the area and to the environment.