Iraqi looters spark alert over radiation risk

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Wednesday, May 21, 2003 at 5:02PM :

Nature 423, 370 (22 May 2003)
Iraqi looters spark alert over radiation risks


Widespread looting in Iraq has raised fears about the fate of some 1,100 radioactive sources at sites across the country.

The sources, which were used in hospitals and industrial facilities, were catalogued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the mid-1990s, but their fate in the weeks since the war ended is uncertain.

"There are some large and dangerous sources among them," says Melissa Flemming, a spokeswoman for the IAEA in Vienna. "We are deeply concerned about the possibility that some of this material has been broken into."

At Iraq's largest nuclear facility, the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre near Baghdad, civilians have emptied containers of concentrated uranium oxide and used the metal drums to store food and water. The theft has been followed by reports of illness, but many scientists question whether uranium is the cause. Most of the metal was only slightly radioactive and would not have induced immediate radiation sickness in those handling it, says Michael Levi, a physicist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Civilians would also have to ingest large amounts to feel the toxic effects of the heavy metal, he adds.

But uranium was not the only source of radiation at Tuwaitha. A 1993 IAEA inspection listed a partial inventory of 177 sources stored there, including 52 sources of cobalt-60 and 32 sources of caesium-137, as well as stores of other potentially dangerous isotopes such as iridium-192, strontium-90 and radium-226. Some of those sources are "very powerful" and pose a threat to anyone who might come across them, says David Albright, a former nuclear inspector who has visited Tuwaitha and who now directs the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "My understanding is that some of them could be fatal," he says.

According to Flemming, 950 similar sources of varying size and power are scattered throughout the country. They were used in applications such as radiotherapy, X-rays, welding and oil surveying, she says. Such loose sources are dangerous because they can be mistaken for scrap metal and spread throughout the community. The most notorious incident occurred in 1987 in Goi‚nia, Brazil, when more than 200 people, several of whom later died, were exposed to a caesium-137 source scavenged from an abandoned hospital.

Because of their potential toxicity, these sources could also be valuable material for terrorists, says Joseph Cirincione, head of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "I'm less worried about the uranium that seems to have disappeared than the highly radioactive elements that would be perfect for enhancing an al-Qaeda truck bomb," he says. So far, there is no evidence that any material has found its way into the hands of terrorists.

The looting has increased the pressure on the United States to allow IAEA inspectors back into the country. The US army has deployed its nuclear-disablement team to assess Iraq's nuclear holdings, but Albright and others believe that the true condition of Iraq's nuclear sources will not be learned until the IAEA resumes inspections. "The United States is not on top of this," he says.

Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Sadie
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