Deadly waste returned to US forces

Feature story - 24 June, 2003
They claimed they were after weapons of mass destruction, but then allowed nuclear material to be carried off by the barrel. They said errant nuclear waste poses no health threat to the people in Iraq, but then denied access to experts. We delivered a dose of reality to the occupying forces: villages surrounding the Tuwaitha nuclear complex, just south of Baghdad, are contaminated with deadly radiation. Clean up must begin now.

Greenpeace radiation expert takes measurments outside the Al-Majidat school for girls (900 pupils) next to the Al-Tuwaitha nuclear facility.

A convoy of vehicles bearing Greenpeace banners that read "Al Tuwaitha - nuclear disaster - Act now!" with a single activist walking at its head, carrying a white flag, returned a large uranium "yellow cake" mixing canister to the US military guards stationed at the heart of the nuclear plant. The canister - the size of a small car - contained significant quantities of radioactive "yellowcake" and had been dumped on a busy section of open ground near the Tuwaitha plant. Despite the military being aware of its presence, locals say it has been left open and unattended for more than 20 days.

"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," said Mike Townsley of Greenpeace International.

Our radiation experts have found abandoned uranium "yellowcake" and radioactive sources scattered across the community. Much of the material was looted from the facility by villagers who used it for house building and water and food storage. They did not realise the potential danger. In a week long survey, as well as the "yellow cake" canister, Greenpeace uncovered:

  • 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
  • consistent and repeated stories of unusual sickness after coming into contact with material from the Tuwaitha plant
  • several objects carrying radioactive symbols discarded in the community
The preliminary survey and this morning's action in front of heavily armed US troops highlights the total failure of the occupying forces to address the urgent need for a full assessment, containment and clean up of missing nuclear material from the Tuwaitha Nuclear facility.

The occupying forces have so far refused to allow the UN nuclear experts, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to carry out proper documentation and decontamination in Iraq. The US authorities in Baghdad have insisted upon retaining responsibility for protecting human health but consistently deny there is a risk to the local population.

Our team has only been surveying for eight days and has discovered frightening levels of radioactive contamination. The IAEA must be allowed to return with a full mandate to monitor and decontaminate. They may believe they have accounted for most of the uranium, but what about the rest of the radioactive material? If the inspectors are allowed to come out from the shadow of the occupying forces and into the community, they can do the job properly.

Latest update:

The team went further inside the Tuwaitha nuclear facility with the US army to deliver the radioactive canister. They then accompanied the army to the house in the village where we found radiation up to 10,000 times normal levels.

The US army surveyed the area and confirmed the levels. They removed the radioactive source and took it back to the Tuwaitha plant. The head of the radiation unit for the US army there said that the WHO and the IAEA should get there as soon as possible.

At the same time, the IAEA tells us that their inspectors are due to leave today as their limited remit - to make an inventory of the uranium at Tuwaitha - is done.