Radioactive barrel swap

Feature story - 28 June, 2003
For many local people, the need for water storage overrides the unseen threat of radioactivity. We took clean water containers into the communities around the Tuwaitha nuclear facility near Baghdad and encouraged people to swap them for their radioactive ones, contaminated with uranium "yellowcake".

A resident of Al Wadiyah carries home a clean water barrel which Greenpeace activists exchanged for radioactive ones.

Despite a US$3 a barrel offer from the US Army, many in the community have retained the contaminated containers. Of the 500 barrels looted from the nuclear site since the war, about 150 are still unaccounted for. A new barrel costs US$15.

The affected people are not organised criminals but the poorest of the poor, living in chronic poverty after years of neglect and abuse at the hands of Saddam's regime and a decade of crippling sanctions. We hope that by offering new barrels specifically designed for water storage that we can return the last of the contaminated barrels to the US military for safe-keeping inside the Tuwaitha site.

A small Greenpeace radiation sampling team has been working in the community living near the Tuwaitha nuclear facility for only two weeks and has already uncovered frightening levels of radioactivity there, including:

  • a huge "yellow cake" mixing canister, with approximately 4- 5 kilos of uranium inside, abandoned on open ground near a village, which the team returned to the US radiation experts inside Tuwaitha plant
  • radioactivity in a series of houses, including one source measuring 10,000 times above normal
  • another source outside a 900 pupil primary school measuring 3,000 times above normal
  • locals who are still storing radioactive barrels and lids in their houses
  • another smaller radioactive source abandoned in a nearby field
  • several objects carrying radioactive symbols discarded in the community
  • consistent and repeated stories of unusual sickness after coming into contact with material from the Tuwaitha plant
None of the material found can be used for conventional nuclear weapons.

The occupying forces claim responsibility for public health but have refused to allow the experts - the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - to carry out a public health and environmental assessment around Tuwaitha and in other parts of the country. They insist there is no threat to public health, which is clearly not the case.

The evidence we gathered in a very short time shows that radioactive contamination could be spread throughout the Tuwaitha environment, affecting a large number of people. This threat must be taken seriously and a serious investment made into assessing the true extent of the radioactive contamination and impact on public health.

The IAEA should be given a full mandate to search, survey and decontaminate towns and villages around the Tuwaitha as quickly as possible.

On 24th June, Lt. Col. Melanson of the US military stationed at the Tuwaitha nuclear site accepted our delivery of radioactive waste and said: "I would recommend the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organisation get involved and do an assessment. They've got involved in other instances, like in Brazil, where sources have ended up being distributed in the community and they actually assess the risks from that. The faster it happens the better."

The Tuwaitha nuclear storage facility, south of Baghdad, was left unsecured by occupying forces after the fall of Saddam Hussein and was heavily looted. In contrast, oil pipelines and the oil ministry were immediately secured. Just days after the cease-fire, British Museum officials were brought in to reclaim stolen artifacts. It was nearly two months before IAEA inspectors were allowed to return.