Students in Iraq, whose school was made radioactive by waste from the Tuwaitha nuclear research facility.
Nuclear weapons are a part of this problem with two countries in the Middle East either having a nuclear weapons programme: Israel, or suspected of pursuing one via its nuclear energy programme: Iran.
A Middle East Nuclear Free Zone would verify that all the weapons are dismantled as safely as possible, and that no further programmes are developed. Iran and Israel's security concerns would be addressed as part of any negotiations. In particular it would include security guarantees from nuclear weapon states outside the region, not to use nuclear weapons against states that have signed.
A Middle East Nuclear Free Zone will also include the elimination of nuclear energy programmes that have the potential to hide nuclear weapons programs. With numerous sources of clean energy available at a much cheaper environmental, economic and human cost than nuclear energy, renewable energy is a more sustainable and peaceful alternative.
The United Nations General Assembly, the Security Council and numerous other international bodies have affirmed the objective of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, which the Council put in the context of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in 1991 (resolution 687). It is time to put momentum into this stalled process. The people in the region, with help from their friends outside can lead where governments have failed.
Israel has the oldest and largest nuclear weapons programme in the Middle East, started in the 1950's. Analysts estimate that it has built between 75 and 200 nuclear weapons. Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or any other arms control treaty and refuses UN inspections of its nuclear facilities. Its official position is ambiguous: it claims it "will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region." Israel is believed to have missiles with a range of at least 3,500km, and the only anti-ballistic missile system in the world. Its delivery systems include three submarines that can be armed with nuclear tipped cruise missiles.
Iran was accused by the US, in December 2002, of "across-the-board pursuit of weapons of mass destruction" based on satellite images of nuclear reactor sites. However, inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have not found a nuclear weapons programme in Iran, and Iran regularly asserts it has not made a political decision to have nuclear weapons. The projects Iran is conducting however, and the rationales, scope, resources, sequence of building, and timing of construction do give it the potential to achieve nuclear weapons in the future. Intelligence estimates indicate that technologically Iran is probably between five and 10 years away from actually developing weapons if it chooses to do so.
Iraq's Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility near Baghdad used to be the heart of its nuclear weapons programme. The IAEA removed all known Iraqi stocks of weapons-useable nuclear material in 1991, but other radioactive material, including uranium was stored in sealed barrels at Tuwaitha. Following the Iraq war, residents living near Tuwaitha reportedly took these barrels 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. Greenpeace went to Iraq in June 2003 with a small, specialist team to examine the local environment and to assess the extent of any nuclear contamination.