April 30, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 497

Nuclear Scientists in Iraq: Citizens Stole Uranium and Other Dangerous Materials

April 30, 2003
Iraq | Special Dispatch No. 497

The Qatari television station Al-Jazeera recently interviewed two Iraqi scientists employed by Iraq's Nuclear Energy Authority - Dr. Hamid Al-Bahali, an expert in nuclear engineering and a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Nuclear Engineering, and Dr. Muhammad Zeidan, a biology expert and a graduate of Damascus and Baghdad Universities. The scientists discussed the looting of the Nuclear Authority after the war. The following are excerpts from the interview:

Dr. Al-Bahli: "I have been working at the Nuclear Authority since 1968, when the doors opened to the use of atomic [energy] for peaceful purposes in Iraq. We activated the first atomic reactor in Iraq in 1968, and within four days we transferred radioactive isotopes to hospitals to treat various illnesses. Since then, and up to 1990, we continued this type of work which was absolutely for peaceful and humanitarian purposes…"

"As for nuclear weapons, Al-Tawitha,the main area that we will be talking about, is free of weapons of mass destruction and as far as I know, nothing was done there in this respect…"

"What happened in Iraq did not happen before anywhere else in the whole world, and I hope will never happen again; there was anarchy. After hearing that radioactive components were stolen, the employees of the Nuclear Authority started informing people that the materials that were stolen were indeed radioactive and should be returned. A person who has dirty radioactive components is in danger. How is he going to behave? He may behave in a way that would harm Iraq's ecology and even [cause harm] outside Iraq…"

"Tons of uranium known as yellow cakes were stored in barrels. This was a phase in the production of uranium from crude components. There were also other by-products from processing these materials. There were tens of tons of radioactive waste. They were stored in barrels and their radioactivity was not high as long as they were under supervision."

"When order was disrupted, simple citizens – sorry to say – did not have containers to store drinking water, so they stole those barrels, each one containing 400 kilos of radioactive uranium. Some of them dumped the powder on the ground in very large quantities, and others took the contaminated barrels to their homes, and the barrels appeared in various areas. They stored water in them, and had every intention of drinking from them or [using] the barrels to sell milk."

"I visited some homes and measured radioactivity; I saw with my own eyes in one of the homes a contaminated barrel used to store tomatoes for eating. In other barrels they stored cooking utensils and other household utensils for everyday use, not knowing that some of them were contaminated. When they realized that these components were radioactive, they dumped some of them in the river or the sewer system. We found radioactive materials in homes, in beds, and in clothing. I saw a ten-year old girl, who had a yellow cake [disc] hanging from the button of her shirt."

"Every day I visited 4-5 houses and tested outdoor contamination. There are outdoor and indoor contamination tests, and I tested outdoor contamination because I did not have the means to check indoor contamination. The level of radioactivity on the walls of one of the houses was 30 billion/hour, while experts know that the allowed level is 0.2 which means that it was 500-600 times more than the allowed level."

"The U.S. and other countries in the world spend hundreds of millions of dollars to store and dispose of radioactive materials, now they are in the homes of simple poor people, and they are dumped in the river…"

"In another room [at the Nuclear Energy Authority] there was a large storage [area] for isotopes and radioactive materials, and there were more than 200 barrels of yellow cakes and uranium oxide. These materials spilled on the ground. It was obvious that they tried to steal [them], because they broke the windows and doors. This powdery substance can disperse in the air. If a strong wind blows, it can carry these quantities to great distances outside the region…"

"I entered the compound of the [Nuclear Energy] Authority with my colleague and saw that all the doors, except in four places, were opened by the invading forces. I understood that the invading forces knew what was [in store] at the Authority, and that was the reason why they did not open these doors, where there were insects [to be used as biological insecticides]."

"I was very concerned, so I went to the Iraqi police… I told them in so many words: I am not interested in the property of the Nuclear Energy Authority. The only thing that interests me is protecting those people from harmful insects, since there are four labs full of those insects. I want you to send four cars to protect the place."

"We contacted the Americans. They came and talked to us… they took us to the American base, they took information from us about these insects and we explained to them everything in details. After that they told us: 'We will do what is necessary…' Nothing was done. He said that he would take the necessary steps immediately… I cannot explain this [American] behavior…"

"I say to the head of the [International] Atomic Energy Agency, Muhammad Al-Barad'i, that the first step that should be taken is to remove the uranium. Why did they remove the radioactive fuel and leave these other materials?!! Second, there should be a coordinated international testing of radioactive levels in the region and the indoor levels in people who were exposed to radioactivity. Third, there should be treatment [for] people who were affected…"

"Dr. Zeidan talked about the expected ecological disaster from releasing thousands of flies known as chrysomya bezziana, nicknamed screw worm, which were bred by the Nuclear Authority to be used as biological farming insecticides. The flies were released by the looters and were expected to harm animals in Iraq and neighboring countries. These flies were to be released after being sterilized. However, the flies that were actually released in large quantities were not sterilized."

"Dr. Zeidan related his efforts to contact the American forces to warn them of the dangers at the Nuclear Energy Authority:"

"'I tried to reach the Authority in order to tell the American soldiers about the dangers. There was strong Marine protection. The tragedy occurred after the Marines retreated and were replaced with other soldiers; the Authority remained without protection. They were aware of the situation because Dr. Al-Barad'i, the director of the [International Atomic Energy Agency], called them to come and protect Al-Tawitha area… to avoid radioactive and biological contamination…'"

"'In every country there are weak people and thieves alongside good people. What happened was… that those insects were released before being sterilized, because when the war started, the employees fled and left the insects inside the building… the looters came in, removed the air conditioning units and the doors and released the insects…'"

"Dr. Zeidan said that the Marines, under the command of an officer named Mike, tried to protect the place, and he added: 'I saw a person using a barrel that used to contain radioactive materials to carry milk to the dairy. He bought the plastic barrels from citizens not knowing that they were contaminated, and started to use them to carry milk to the dairy. We told Mike, who escorted us, about that… [and] they brought instruments to measure radioactivity in the area. But on the following day, despite the fact that we set up a time for a meeting – they refused to meet with us…'"[1]

[1]Al-Jazeera, April 27, 2003.

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