US removes radioactive material from Iraq in secret airlift

Feature story - July 7, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq — What does the US have to hide about radioactive materials flown out of Iraq? Why has the international community not been allowed to monitor the secret airlift which the US has just confirmed? Where is the inventory accounting for nuclear materials that have been found to date?

Girl standing outside the Al-Majidat school for girls where Greenpeace identified and quarantined radioactive materials. The US government rushed to secure oil production facilities in Iraq, leaving an enriched uranium storage facility unguarded.

The US has removed "roughly 1000 highly radioactive sources" and enriched uranium from Iraq in a secret airlift, according to a statement by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. "It just ain't good enough to say 'roughly 1000' when talking about highly radioactive sources" said Greenpeace activist Mike Townsley. "The IAEA has been trying for over a year to get access to these materials and been denied."

Initial reports suggest that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was "informed," though it appears that the strict regulations requiring inspectors to be present and a full inventory of items be provided, have been ignored by the US. One of the reasons that the US went to war in the first place was the allegation that Saddam Hussein's was refusing to cooperate with IAEA inspectors or comply with international regulations regarding nuclear materials.

Greenpeace entered and inspected the main storage facility for these materials in Tuwaitha one year ago, and revealed that while US forces had immediately secured oil production facilities, Tuwaitha remained unguarded for more than six weeks. Local residents looted radioactive barrels and building materials for use in their homes. Greenpeace inspectors found one source kicking out 10,000 times background radiation in the home of one Tuwaitha resident, and a source of 3,000 times background outside a school where children were playing.

"We want a full inventory of the removed materials" said Townsley, who led the Greenpeace team in Tuwaitha, "and full authority over the materials given to the IAEA."

"The US government has lied, bullied, and bullshitted their way into this war, and I see no reason why anyone should trust them to do the right or safe thing with nuclear materials. The international community can have no confidence US government assurances that the inventory of radioactive industrial isotope is complete."

"This is a job for the IAEA and the US ought to be setting an example of compliance with the full international regulations concerning nuclear weapons proliferation."

The materials in question are not capable of creating a nuclear bomb, though some of the more highly radioactive sources could be packed around a conventional explosive to create a "dirty bomb."

The US is calling the operation a "major achievement" in keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. However, in failing to secure the material during the invasion hundreds of local residents were exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity. US military personell broke IAEA seals that had been securing some of the material for years.

In recent weeks, nuclear material from Iraq has been found in both the Netherlands and Turkey, showing that nuclear material can and does leave the country, leading to possible pathways to terror.

There are reasons that the world has drawn up strict regulations about handling and transporting nuclear materials. The US is not immune to those rules, and ought to be on the front line of ensuring that nuclear materials are fully accounted for, monitored, and controlled.

The Iraqi government needs to do what Paul Bremmer and Washington could not; rejoin the international non-proliferation community and allow the IAEA free access to all of its nuclear facilities.

Take action! Write to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to demand the IAEA be given full authority over the nuclear materials smuggled out of Iraq, and that a complete inventory be provided to them as soon as possible. Write to:

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