Thursday, May 22, 2003

BAGHDAD — U.S. military inspection teams have concluded that material looted from Iraq’s main nuclear facility at Tuwaitha poses little or no danger to the people who stole it and cannot be converted into an effective “dirty bomb.”

After cleaning up two small areas of spillage outside the facility, the Washington-based Nuclear Disablement Team determined that the radiation level was no more than double the dosage every human absorbs daily, officials said.

The group even camped and slept for three nights less than 100 feet from one of two main storehouses for yellow-cake uranium, team members said.

U.S. and British newspaper reports have suggested that residents of the area were suffering from severe ill health after tipping out yellow-cake powder from barrels and using them to store food.

Other reports said the missing material could be used by terrorists to produce a powerful radiological weapon.

But Col. Tim Madere, the 5th Corps officer in charge of coalition forces’ chemical, biological, radiation and nuclear weapons search teams, rejected both contentions yesterday.

Looters had broken open the doors of the yellow-cake facility by the time Marines arrived, Col. Madere said in an interview.

Elevated radiation readings “kept soldiers outside the facility, but they still continued to guard it without going inside,” he said, noting that the facility had no perimeter wall and eased entry for looters when its Iraqi guards fled.

He said a huge troop deployment would have been needed to avoid plunder in other parts of the Tuwaitha complex, which sprawls over almost 6 square miles.

Col. Madere said some isotopes of cesium or cobalt or similar substances apparently used for industrial processes had gone missing from one part of the complex, and that these were “much more suitable than yellow cake” for use in any dirty bomb, in which a conventional explosion is used to spread radioactive material.

He said, however, that the radiation from the material stolen is likely to do less damage to life than the conventional explosives used in the blast.

Yellow cake — a raw form of thick radioactive powder that can be processed into plutonium — is too heavy to spread in the air and is, therefore, a poor ingredient for a dirty bomb, he said.

In one of the two yellow-cake storage areas, only one of 280 barrels had been opened, he said. He showed a reporter photographs of rows of apparently undamaged 55-gallon drums. The opened drum revealed transparent plastic sacks of the yellow material.

Workers had replaced the barrels periodically, and it was the empty drums stacked outside the facility that were easier for looters to carry away.

The storage of foodstuffs inside these barrels — while strongly inadvisable — would be dangerous to health only if continued for an extended period, a health official with one of the investigating teams concluded.

U.S. officials have been buying back the looted metal containers at $3 a barrel. Tests on these recovered barrels showed “very low radiation — so low people could drink out of them many times and not get sick,” Col. Madere said.

Statistical findings by the U.S. teams showed one radioactive “blip” from a small spillage near the facility’s door, which registered less than twice the level of radiation humans get from day-to-day living and “far less than you get from an X-ray,” the colonel said.

A much stronger blip was the result of a radioactive substance that was out of its container, he said. It was then collected into a new container.

Col. Madere said the U.S. research teams had not been given comprehensive lists prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency of what the Tuwaitha complex had housed. He would not speculate on whether that was the fault of U.S. authorities or the nuclear agency, which operates under the aegis of the United Nations.

The agency has requested access to the facility, which it regularly inspected after the 1991 war that led to the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld says he will allow IAEA inspectors access to the site.

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