Greenpeace Takes Hot Iraqi Canister to U.S. Forces

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 24, 2003 (ENS) - A convoy of vehicles bearing Greenpeace banners with a single activist walking in front carrying a white flag, today returned a uranium yellowcake mixing canister to U.S. military guards stationed at the Tuwaitha nuclear plant just south of Baghdad. The size of a small car and adorned with radiation symbols, the canister was brought into Tuwaitha on a flatbed truck.

The canister contains quantities of radioactive yellowcake uranium and had been dumped on a busy section of open ground near the Tuwaitha plant. Yellowcake, a fine powder, is the product of the uranium extraction process, and can be sent to a conversion plant that produces uranium hexafluoride as the next step in the manufacture of nuclear fuel.

The military was aware of the canister's presence, locals say, but it was left open and unattended for more than 20 days. Greenpeace is calling for a cleanup of radioactive contamination in villages surrounding the plant.

“If this had happened in the UK, the U.S. or any other country, the villages around Tuwaitha would be swarming with radiation experts and decontamination teams," said Mike Townsley of Greenpeace. "It would have been branded a nuclear disaster site and the people given immediate medical checkups."


Greenpeace worker examines the yellowcake mixing canister. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
"The people of Iraq deserve no less from the international community," Townsley said. "That they are being ignored is a scandal that must be rectified without delay.”

The nuclear material at Tuwaitha - 1.8 metric tons of low enriched uranium and 500 tons of natural uranium - had been under International Atomic Energy Agency seal since 1991. It was last visited by IAEA inspectors in February. The site also contains smaller amounts of highly radioactive caesium, cobalt and strontium.

The nuclear storage facility was left unsecured by occupying forces after the fall of Saddam Hussein this spring and was heavily looted.

None of the material stored at Tuwaitha can be used for conventional nuclear weapons as all such components were removed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after the first Gulf War, but plenty of highly radioactive items were discovered by the Greenpeace team.

In a week long survey Greenpeace radiation experts 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. Local people are still storing radioactive barrels and lids in their houses, as they do not realize the potential danger.


Greenpeace radiation expert takes measurments outside the Al-Majidat school for girls next to the Al-Tuwaitha nuclear facility. (Photo © Greenpeace/Reynaers)
The Greenpeace experts found radioactivity in a series of houses near Tuwaitha, including one source measuring 10,000 times above normal. Today Greenpeace took U.S. military personnel to the radioactive house where they verified the levels of contamination at 10,000 higher than normal, removed the source and took it back to the Tuwaitha complex for storage.

Another radioactive source outside a 900 pupil primary school measuring 3,000 times above normal was discovered by Greenpeace investigators.

They heard consistent and repeated stories of unusual sickness after coming into contact with material from the Tuwaitha plant and found several objects carrying radioactive symbols discarded in the community.

U.S. forces say they have recovered about 100 barrels and five radiological devices that may have been looted from the site.

On June 6, a team of seven United Nations nuclear safeguards inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Baghdad to begin taking an inventory and securing nuclear material at the Tuwaitha nuclear complex.

The inspectors arrived on air transport provided by Coalition Forces from Kuwait City. The mission was expected to take about two weeks, and inspectors are scheduled to leave today.

lab waste

Equipment that was removed from a laboratory at Iraq's Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre by IAEA inspectors before the current conflict. (Photo courtesy Action Team 1991-1998/IAEA)
The inspections are in accordance with Iraq's safeguards agreement with the IAEA pursuant to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and are separate from the IAEA's Security Council mandate.

The inspectors will report directly to IAEA headquarters in Vienna and will not make any public statements about their findings while in Iraq, the agency said.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said the mission is limited to verification of nuclear material under safeguards. "The occupying powers have informed the agency that they are taking responsibility themselves for nuclear and radiation safety and security in Iraq," he said.

"Once the inspection is complete, and the exact results are known," ElBaradei said, "I intend to report the findings to the occupying powers, as the authority in Iraq, and I will naturally keep the [IAEA] Board informed."

“The Greenpeace team has only been surveying for eight days and has discovered frightening levels of radioactive contamination,” said Townsley. “The IAEA must be allowed to return with a full mandate to monitor and decontaminate."