10/25/2005

Is Iraq Contaminated? - Newsweek The War on Iraq - MSNBC.com

Is Iraq Contaminated? - Newsweek The War on Iraq - MSNBC.com

The United Nations documented hundreds of sources of radioactivity in Iraq before the war. Nobody knows where they are now

There used to be a whole lot of radioactive material at Tuwaitha. United Nations inspectors identified it, stored it, sealed it. There were roughly 500 tons of uranium, of which about 1.8 tons was low-enriched stuff. There was also cobalt 60 and strontium 90. All in all, the inspectors found some 228 sources of radioactivity.

Then the United States came along. During the war, U.S. troops on the ground didn’t know quite what they were supposed to do at the facility and much of the radioactive material was looted. No one outside the United States government is sure how much—and those inside probably don’t know the precise amount either. The IAEA, the single organization with an inventory and experience on the site, is one of the U.N. agencies that isn’t being allowed back in by the Americans. Nor is the agency being told what the U.S. military on the scene has or has not found...

In the annals of a war ostensibly fought to contain the threat from weapons of mass destruction, this is a very strange turn of events.

Just this week, the Department of Homeland Security ran a five-day exercise called Topoff 2 that started with the explosion in Seattle of a simulated “dirty bomb” theoretically containing the isotope cesium 137. Good choice. There was a lot of that stuff at Tuwaitha (neither the United States nor the U.N. are saying how much), and most or all of it may now be gone.

Cesium, in minute quantities, is fairly common, even in the United States, as part of various electronic gauges and medical devices. It’s used in larger amounts for work in oilfields, where little cylinders of the stuff, gushing gamma rays and handled with great care, are used to determine the density of rock inside the drill holes.

Not least because it’s relatively light and easy to handle, even in protected containers, cesium 137 is often cited as an ideal source of radiation for a terrorist weapon. In fact, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham waxed eloquent on the subject just two months ago during a conference in Vienna—convened at his request—to discuss the growing danger of “radiological dispersion devices.” (Usually that means isotopes blown up with conventional explosives, but the cesium in Iraq was powdered, which means it could be dispersed by the wind. Dirty yes. But no need for a bomb.)

“It is critically important to deny terrorists the radioactive sources they need to construct such weapons,” said Abraham. “The threat requires a determined and comprehensive international response.” Except in Iraq, it would seem. “We must account for and tightly secure these sources wherever they may be,” Abraham said.

Now, let’s just look at that phrase again. The italics on “account” are Abraham’s because, as you may recall, itemizing dangerous weaponlike stuff was what Saddam Hussein and the U.N. inspectors, including those from the IAEA, supposedly had failed to do. “Unaccounted for,” was the damning accusation made again and again before the U.N. and the world by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

As recently as this Thursday, the director of policy planning at the State Department, Richard Haass, said at a press conference in Paris that the reason the United States concluded that U.N. inspections wouldn’t work and that it had to invade Iraq was because there was not enough of an “informational base” for inspectors to find the weapons that Washington knew must be there. The Iraqis didn’t turn over such data willingly, he said, and the U.N.—and the United States—didn’t have it. “We need to put together the record which the Iraqis never provided,” said Haass.

So we went to war because of information we did not have, and now thanks to the looters we may never get it.

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