Iraq was the likely source of a shipment of scrap steel containing radioactive material known as yellowcake, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said today.

A spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, Melissa Fleming, said a specimen of barely refined uranium oxide examined from a shipment in Rotterdam harbor might have come from a mine in Iraq known to be active before the 1991 Gulf War, the Associated Press reported.

The shipment was passed on from a Jordanian metal dealer who claims he was unaware it included uranium oxide, the newswire said.

The material, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, was at the center of a controversy last year over President Bush’s reference in his State of the Union address to a report Iraq was seeking to purchase it in Africa.

Key documents supporting the claim were found later to be forgeries, but the U.S. said its original information about the alleged attempt to buy yellowcake from Niger came from British intelligence. The UK’s Foreign Office still stands on its claim.

Fleming estimated the sample discovered in Rotterdam contained about 5 pounds of uranium oxide.

“I wouldn’t hype it too much,” she said, according to the AP. “It was a small amount and it wasn’t being peddled as a sample.”

The IAEA will run comparisons on the sample to see if it came from Iraq’s al-Qaim mine, which was bombed in 1991 and dismantled in 1996-97, Fleming said.

Paul de Bruin, spokesman for Rotterdam-based Jewometaal, told the AP he has dealt with the Jordanian dealer for 15 years, and the man is convinced the material came from Iraq. De Bruin has been told to not reveal the dealer’s name, however, because of the investigation.

Uranium oxide is not highly radioactive, experts say, but with advanced technology can be processed into enriched uranium, suitable for a nuclear weapon.

The Dutch Environment Ministry said Jewometaal reported the find Dec. 16, the AP said.

Environment Ministry spokesman Wim Van der Weegen said the material was discovered in a small steel industrial container used to connect pipes or electrical wires.

Dr. Alan Ketering, a researcher at the nuclear research plant at the University of Missouri-Columbia, told the AP yellowcake has no non-nuclear industrial use. It would be strange to find it in random scrap metal, he said.

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