Two Iraqi nuclear scientists warn of an impending ecological disaster in Iraq and neighboring countries due to the theft of barrels of radioactive uranium and release of thousands of flies purportedly bred for use as biological farming insecticides.
In an interview with the Qatari television station Al-Jazeera, the men, who were employed by Iraq’s Nuclear Energy Authority, recently voiced concerns over looting they claim took place at the Nuclear Authority’s Al-Tuwaitha facility in the aftermath of the war.
Al-Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center is located 18 miles south of Baghdad.
According to a translation of the interview by the Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI, Dr. Hamid Al-Bahali, who is identified as an expert in nuclear engineering and a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Nuclear Engineering, said he has alerted both Iraqi police and coalition forces about the alleged radioactive contamination and imminent biological contamination stemming from the looting.
He said Al-Tuwaitha contained barrels full of crude components used in the production of uranium and by-products from the processing of these materials.
“Tons of uranium known as yellow cakes were stored in barrels,” he said, according to the MEMRI translation. “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.”
According to the scientists, the looting happened after the Marines retreated from the facility and before members of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division moved in to take their place. Al-Bahali described how he and his colleague made the discovery of the “tragedy.”
“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 [stored] at the Authority, and that was the reason why they did not open these doors, where there were insects.”
Dr. Muhammad Zeidan, who is a biology expert and a graduate of Damascus and Baghdad Universities, maintains there were flies that were bred by the Nuclear Authority to be used as biological farming insecticides. The flies, formally known as chrysomya bezziana and nicknamed screw worms, were to be released after being sterilized.
But according to Zeidan, the looters released thousands of the flies that were not sterilized. The scientist said the flies will harm animals in Iraq and neighboring countries, causing an ecological disaster.
“In every country there are weak people and thieves alongside good people. What happened was … 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,” Zeidan asserted.
“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,” said Al-Bahali.
Following the discovery, the pair began visiting homes and measuring the radioactivity to determine the extent of outdoor contamination. They do not have equipment to measure indoor contamination.
Al-Bahali reported the level of radioactivity on the walls of one of the houses was 30 billion/hour – more than 500 times the 0.2 level he said experts consider safe.
Inside the homes, the men found the Iraqi citizens using the contaminated barrels to store tomatoes, cooking utensils and other household tools for everyday use. When told the barrels contained radioactive materials, they dumped some of them in the river or the sewer system.
The scientists say they found radioactive materials in homes, in beds and in clothing. One 10-year old girl had a yellow cake hanging from the button of her shirt.
The scientists said they tried to get authorities to take control of the situation.
“I was very concerned, so I went to the Iraqi police,” said Al-Bahali. “The only thing that interests me is protecting those people from harmful insects, since there are four labs full of those insects.”
“We contacted the Americans,” he continued. “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.”
Capt. Dani Burrows, a spokeswoman at U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, in Doha, Qatar, told WorldNetDaily she could not confirm the scientists’ report.
WorldNetDaily reported last month that an investigation is under way to determine if the vast underground complex of tunnels, warehouses and offices at Al-Tuwaitha contain previously undocumented weapons-grade nuclear material.
Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, a CENTCOM spokesman, earlier told WorldNetDaily he could not confirm whether the Marines discovered anything new.
“What we’re going to have with this site at Tuwaitha, or with other finds, is a very cautious approach by the Department of Defense, here at CENTCOM and by people in the theater,” he said. “If it is what we think it is, or what people are speculating about, we want to get it right, and it’s going to be a long and painful process.”
Burrows said the testing by Sensitive Site Exploitation teams is still ongoing at a lot of weapons facilities, and no results have been released.
In a statement, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna said its inspectors visited the research facility many times between November 2002 and March 2003. The agency said it “examined underground areas at Tuwaitha as part of the inspection process” and is aware of stocks of low-grade nuclear materials.
The IAEA said a known quantity of nuclear and other radioactive material at Al-Tuwaitha has been stored near the complex in three buildings known as “Location C.”
The agency said it was not required by the U.N. Security Council to remove this material after the 1991 Gulf War because it could not be used for nuclear-weapons purposes. However, the IAEA warned that “radiation levels are high and great care must be taken if entering the building.”
Al-Bahali faults the IAEA for the alleged contamination.
“I say to the head of the [International] Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, 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?”
Al-Bahali, who has been working at the Nuclear Authority since it opened in 1968, claims the development of atomic energy has always been for “peaceful and humanitarian purposes.”
“Al-Tuwaitha … is free of weapons of mass destruction and as far as I know, nothing was done there in this respect,” he said.