Seven Nuclear Sites Looted

Saturday, 10 May 2003 21:23 by: Anonymous
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post

Saturday 10 May 2003

Iraqi Scientific Files, Some Containers Missing

BAGHDAD -- Seven nuclear facilities in Iraq have been damaged or effectively destroyed by the looting that began in the first days of April, when U.S. ground forces thrust into Baghdad, according to U.S. investigators and others with detailed knowledge of their work. The Bush administration fears that technical documents, sensitive equipment and possibly radiation sources have been scattered.

If so, there are potentially significant consequences for public health and the spread of materials to build a nuclear or radiological bomb. President Bush had said the war was fought to prevent the spread of "the world's most dangerous weapons."

It is still not clear what has been lost in the sacking of Iraq's nuclear establishment. But it is well documented that looters roamed unrestrained among stores of chemical elements and scientific files that would speed development, in the wrong hands, of a nuclear or radiological bomb. Many of the files, and some of the containers that held radioactive sources, are missing.

Previous reports have described damage at two of the facilities, the Tuwaitha Yellowcake Storage Facility and the adjacent Baghdad Nuclear Research Center. Now, the identity of three more damaged sites has been learned: the Ash Shaykhili Nuclear Facility, the Baghdad New Nuclear Design Center and the Tahadi Nuclear Establishment. All of them have attracted close scrutiny from the International Atomic Energy Agency and from U.S. analysts who suspected that Iraq, despite IAEA inspections, was working to develop a bomb.

The identities of two other sites, also said to have been looted, could not be learned.

Army Lt. Col. Charles Allison, who led the U.S. survey team at Ash Shaykhili, said in an interview that its "warehouses were completely destroyed" by ransacking and fire. A Special Forces soldier, part of another team that reached Ash Shaykhili before Allison, said "they were supposed to store all their enrichment processing machinery there, but it was all gone or badly burned."

Alarmed by similar reports about the two Tuwaitha-area sites, IAEA's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, sent a letter Monday pressing earlier demands that the United States grant the agency access to Iraq's nuclear sites. He has previously asserted that the IAEA has sole legal authority over the sites under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and U.N. resolutions. But an adviser to ElBaradei said late Thursday that "we have got no official reply" from the United States.

Ash Shaykhili, 10 miles southeast of Baghdad, was the legally designated repository of heavy equipment used in Iraq's former nuclear weapons program. Some of the equipment was destroyed when Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981 and when the United States bombed a Russian research reactor there 10 years later. Other gear had been seized and rendered useless by IAEA inspectors between 1991 and 1998.

Subject to regular inspection by the nuclear watchdog agency, Ash Shaykhili held destroyed centrifuges once used to enrich uranium, disks and machinery used in an alternate enrichment process called electromagnetic isotope separation, key components of the bomb-damaged reactors, vacuum pumps and valves. Experts said it may have held small radiation sources, but not in significant quantities.

Allison's U.S. survey team sought evidence that the site concealed other, forbidden activities, particularly in an underground space that U.S. intelligence thought suspicious. But when Allison arrived on April 24, he found it "so looted that it was just basically warehouses with all kinds of crap all over the floor," he said. "If there was something there it's long since gone."

Another site known to have been damaged is the Baghdad New Nuclear Design Center. A prominent yellow building, the center housed the key personnel responsible for the crash program that nearly succeeded in building a nuclear bomb in 1991.

That program, known by the code name Petrochemical Three, or PC-3, demonstrated Iraqi mastery of three different nuclear enrichment technologies: fabrication of finely milled uranium or plutonium spheres for the core of a fission bomb and the makings of a sophisticated implosion device to detonate the weapon.

Many of the principal scientists and technicians of PC-3 moved to jobs at the new nuclear design center. They formed an umbrella organization for electrical, mechanical and chemical engineering research, all potentially useful for a nuclear weapon. But IAEA inspectors watched the work carefully, and an expert with detailed knowledge of the results said the agency "didn't find anything that indicated ongoing prohibited activities regarding nuclear weapons."

Last month U.S. Central Command sent the Pentagon's Direct Support Team to survey the site. Sources said they found it looted and collected little that would help resolve U.S. suspicions about what was being done there. They declined to detail the damage.

The third site that was badly damaged is the Tahadi Nuclear Establishment.

Jacques Baute, who heads the IAEA's Iraq Action Team, made that site his first stop when IAEA inspections resumed Nov. 27, according to press accounts. Tahadi was thought to be a potential location of renewed weapons activity because, like the Baghdad center, it employed some of Iraq's leading weapons scientists. Unlike the Baghdad center, it housed substantial dual-use equipment, capable of both permitted and prohibited work.

Tahadi hosted magnetic research and development of high-voltage power supplies. Those can be used as components of a program to enrich uranium to weapons grade. An expert on Iraq's weapons program with close ties to the IAEA said in an interview that the site was "at the top of the list" of sites that might be involved in prohibited centrifuge work. The Bush administration accused Iraq of attempting to import specialized aluminum tubes for such a centrifuge cascade, but the IAEA said they were not suitable.

The administration sought evidence at Tahadi, but the Direct Support Team found little left.

At the Baghdad site and Tahadi, experts said there might have been small radiation sources to calibrate instruments, but nothing in quantity. At two other looted sites, Tuwaitha's Location C and the Baghdad Nuclear Research Center nearby, there were significant quantities of partially enriched uranium, cesium, strontium and cobalt. U.S. survey teams have been unable to say whether any of those radiation sources were stolen.

According to witnesses, Allison's survey team reached both of these sites on April 10, the same day that ElBaradei cited them as the two most important for U.S. forces to protect. But because of continuing debate within the Bush administration over whether to enter without IAEA inspectors present, Allison received a hasty order to withdraw. When Allison was told to evacuate all U.S. personnel, including troops providing security at the perimeter, he grew agitated, witnesses said.

"Whoever gave that order better check his retirement plan, because if we leave this place open somebody is going to lose their job," he told an officer at the ground forces operations center of Central Command, according to two witnesses. Allison confirmed the gist of the conversation.

Eventually Central Command relented and ordered a company of the 3rd Infantry Division to guard both Tuwaitha-area sites. But the twin complexes, about a square mile each and half a mile apart, were far too big for the force left in place. Soldiers posted there permitted Iraqi civilians who said they were employees to enter freely. Looting at both places continued last Saturday, when a Washington Post reporter spent four hours at the site.

Daoud Awad, who ran the electrical design department at Tuwaitha, said in a brief interview that he "saw with my own eyes people carrying the containers we used to put radioactive materials in." The containers slightly resemble jugs commonly used for milk, he said, "and they didn't know what was inside."

"I saw some papers on an experiment, and the people threw the papers on the floor and took the table," he said. "If they knew how valuable the papers were, they would have kept the papers, not the table."

"How could they leave a place like this without protection?" he asked. "It's not an ordinary place. It's too dangerous."

Staff researcher Robert Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.


Go to Original

Looting included Nuclear Material
By Donald Macintyre in Tuwaitha
Independent UK

Saturday 10 May 2003

In the wreckage of Saddam's nuclear research centre, villagers take their pick of lethal spoils

The labels were clearly visible when the caretaker of the al-Wrdiya village school pulled from a storeroom at the back of the building two looted plastic drums and a translucent off-white crate.

No, he said rather sheepishly, he hadn't shown them to the Iraqi and US experts who visited earlier in the day. One of the blue drums, both of which were stamped "Made in West Germany", carried on its side the words "Radio Aktiv". On the crate, resembling a large toolbox, underneath the designation "Hardigg Ind, USA", was the word again, this time in English, "Radioactive". Another, much smaller, white label warned in English "Observe Prescribed Separation Distances for Film and Personnel." None of the labels was in Arabic.

It was the clearest evidence yet that potentially deadly materials had been among the loot taken from the Tuwaitha nuclear research plant, where inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had supervised the storage in a locked and guarded facility of tons of partly enriched uranium and natural and depleted uranium, metals that could be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The Tuwaitha complex is also the site of the Osirak reactor bombed by the Israelis in 1981.

Told about the drums, a senior IAEA official said yesterday: "Our concerns about this site grow every day." The IAEA has been desperate to visit the site and has warned the US since 11 April to take action to stop looting. It is concerned about radiation and also fears the material could fall into the hands of those seeking to create makeshift nuclear weapons. But Washington has consistently refused to allow the IAEA inspectors in.

It was well known that Iraqi civilians had stripped much of the Tuwaitha plant and indeed were still stripping it this week first of computers, furniture, refrigerators, and then of timber and sheets of metal. What wasn't known was whether anything more sinister had been taken from the compound and its nuclear storage facility. The drums, which had been brought in with their lids on, made clear that it had.

The drums had been found, probably discarded by looters who belatedly realised the dangers of what they were carrying, and taken into the Omar al-Mukthar school by an 11-year-old pupil, Hanan Nabil. Hanan said he had been given a medical check by the experts who had visited the school earlier in the day. It was demanded by his father who found out he had handled the drums.

The caretaker, Mohasin Hanja, 42, said he had washed out the empty containers with water, first pouring away the residue of yellow liquid that had been in one of the barrels. Yesterday a senior IAEA official said this was likely to be a residue of "yellow cake", the basic concentrated form of uranium oxide, from which uranium products are refined in the nuclear industry.

These villagers, at least, are about as far removed from terrorists looking for the material for dirty bombs as it is possible to be. Indeed they had been recklessly uninterested in the contents of the vessels, simply pouring out whatever liquid was left in them. It was the containers themselves they wanted, to keep or sell, for storage. Mr Hanja said, pointing to one old barrel in his storeroom: "That was all we had before. I thought we would use these to keep oil in." Other villages have reportedly used them to store drinking water.

Less than a mile away, Muhanad Karam, 27, told of what he now recognised was his "very big mistake" in looting several of the blue drums from Tuwaitha three weeks ago. Most were similar to the ones at Omar al-Mukhtar school, but one especially concerned the US/Iraqi scientific team which, he said, had now visited him twice. It was made of metal and was marked with a skull and crossbones.

He confessed that he, too, had poured out of the barrel a "little yellow liquid". He did not have to break any seal, he said, he had merely taken off the lid. He said he dumped the plastic drums deep inside the nuclear research compound.

The second team, he said, had suggested he should do the same with the first drum but he preferred to stick with the advice of the first which was to bury the metal drum under the mud on waste land just outside his home and then lay not only mud but cement over where he had poured the yellow liquid close to the wall of his smallholding a few hundred yards from where the barrels were originally stored.

"They said if I carried out their instructions carefully everything would be all right, so I did," he said, adding that he had been told to have a urine and blood test at the local hospital. Brandishing the notes containing his results, he added: "I feel fine." He claimed that tests done by the second team showed the radiation level had greatly fallen since the first visit.

Mr Karam said: "I made a very big mistake. I can't believe Saddam Hussein let such dangerous things be put so near where people lived. All I am doing now is warning people not to go in there."

According to the IAEA official, "burying drums is not the right way to get rid of a problem which could be a serious danger to human health".

There was not much sign that his advice was being followed. The looting was continuing this week though mainly of wood and sheets of metal needed for building repairs from the storage section of the huge compound unguarded by American troops.

According to a man on a road inside the main gateway to the outer compound some of the material was being taken from a storage area where there were drums filled with an evil-smelling liquid.

By contrast, the gates through the four-mile perimeter wire of the inner compound what remains of the nuclear reactors bombed by the Israelis in 1981 and by the US a decade later are guarded by soldiers of the US 3rd Infantry. Visitors are told peremptorily to leave the area.But the semblance of security even in the inner compounds is seriously undermined by more than one hole in the fence through which looters possibly including some much less na ve about what they were looking for than the villagers of al-Wrdiya have almost certainly passed.

The term "looting" in postwar Iraq covers many activities from organised crime to casual trophy hunting. But what strikes you at Tuwaitha is the level of risk impoverished Iraqis are prepared to discount to acquire the most basic necessities. A 15-year-old boy, Imad Shakr, dragging a 10ft strip of fibreglass and two sheets of metal, said he needed it to repair his family's roof. "I don't know if the area is polluted," he said. "I do know we have a leaking roof at home."

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Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 13:39