05/19/2009 - 10:34

What we found at Al Tuwaitha

Brenda E. RodgersRonald K. Chesser

Ronald K. Chesser

Chesser is a professor of biological sciences and director of Texas Tech University's Center for...

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Brenda E. Rodgers

Rodgers is an assistant professor of biological sciences at Texas Tech University. She has investigated...

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Editor's note: This piece is based on a longer Bulletin report that provides much more detail on the findings below. Although the authors of this work received funding and logistic support from the State Department, the opinions expressed herein and in the companion article are our own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.

For the last four years, we, a research team from Texas Tech University, have studied the degree of radioactive contamination at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center in Iraq, which was the center of Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program. The site is in many ways historically unique: It has been used in the development of nuclear weapons; it has been bombed in repeated military campaigns; and it has been looted by civilians who in 2003 inadvertently dispersed radioactive material at and around the research site and in their own homes and villages.

Reports of contamination at the site and in the surrounding villages of Ishtar, Al Riyadh, and Al Wardia have been a cause of alarm for residents, the Iraqi government, and the international community since 1991, when Iraq reportedly was 18-30 months from having enough enriched uranium for a Bomb and the facilities were destroyed by Coalition forces. Through the years unsubstantiated press reports have claimed that the bombing and looting had resulted in "frightening" levels of radiation at the site and in the adjacent villages.

In an attempt to determine the degree of contamination at the site, we recorded the dispersion of radioactive materials, identified the likely sources of this contamination, and provided a basis for gauging potential ongoing hazards to cleanup crews at the site and inhabitants of the nearby villages. Such data also is useful because it creates a scientifically valid accounting of Al Tuwaitha's history that fills in the record on Saddam's nuclear program during the period that Western observers didn't have access to the site.

Our surveys confirm that most of the environmental contamination can be attributed to events that occurred during or immediately following operations Desert Storm (1991) and Iraqi Freedom (2003). There were some isolated areas within the inner perimeter of the site that appear to be contaminated by substandard transfers of radioactive waste during normal operations of the facility as well.

Natural uranium--unenriched and thus not useful for weapons--was the most common contaminant encountered at the site and in nearby areas. None of the environmental samples taken at Al Tuwaitha showed evidence of enriched uranium. The most significant dispersal of radioactive material occurred when barrels containing yellowcake were looted from the research center by local residents in 2003 (in the chaos after Saddam's ouster) and carried into the villages of Ishtar and Al Riyadh less than three kilometers away. Yellowcake also was dispersed when civilians washed out the barrels and scattered it both near the storage facility and along the roadside between Al Tuwaitha and Ishtar and Al Riyadh.

Civilians used these barrels to store food and other household items. Several radioactive sources (e.g., cesium 137 and cobalt 60) also were looted but were recovered by Coalition forces and Iraqi hazmat personnel prior to June 2003. Due to the constraints in our physical sampling, it's likely that there are still unidentified areas of yellowcake contamination. All known radioactive sources were recovered, since their high gamma radioactivity made them relatively easy to locate.

Cesium 137 was detected at Al Tuwaitha, both isolated and mixed with uranium and in combination with cobalt 60, strontium 90, americium 241, and barium 133. These latter samples are interpreted to be the remnants of radioactive wastes generated by the first steps of the PUREX method of fuel reprocessing--a process intended to separate uranium from spent reactor fuel.

More than 400 of the samples (about 6 percent overall) that we took included elevated levels of radionuclides would merit cleanup actions to meet U.S. industrial land-use guidelines. The Iraqi government is presently revising its own regulatory requirements, so rules governing the remediation of contamination at the site aren't yet available.

We, along with Iraqi specialists, now are evaluating rubble, scrap, discarded equipment, and the interior spaces of buildings at the Al Tuwaitha facility for radioactive contamination. Our scoping surveys have identified substantial amounts of such material in several structures, yet many technical challenges remain for the Iraqi teams before they can completely dismantle the most contaminated buildings.

Presently, Iraq has insufficient numbers of trained personnel and lacks the proper equipment to conduct exhaustive laboratory and field analyses to complete these characterizations. Iraq must act quickly to equip a functional radiation analysis facility, train a sufficient technical staff, and meet the standards of recognized international laboratories to fulfill the challenges ahead to clean up the site. Unfortunately, additional money hasn't yet been made available for this effort, and the funding to continue our work is uncertain as well. Yet matters aren't completely dire. A co-author of this piece has been invited to meet with Iraqi teams in Vienna to design a laboratory, devise training programs, and identify equipment so that Iraq will have proper radio-analytical capabilities in the future.

Still, this is only part of the greater effort necessary to reconstruct a peaceful and thriving Iraqi science and technology sector. Such reconstruction requires the active involvement and collaboration of the international scientific community in the training of the next generation of Iraqi scientists in peaceful research and proper cleanup of the country's nuclear weapons sites. Cleaning up the sites will take time, however. It's estimated that removing all the structures of concern and disposing of wastes at Al Tuwaitha will take at least 15 years. Our piece of this project, in collaboration with Iraqi scientists, is only one part of that long-term and vital mission, which also seeks to convince the citizens of Iraq that the Saddam era is truly over and that the elected Iraqi government is worthy of their trust.