This is an archive of blogs on the nuclear waste at Tuwaitha, Iraq.
From the June 10, 2003 Mahablog
To fully appreciate the disaster unfolding in Iraq, just look at
Tuwaitha is a town about 15 kilometers southeast of Baghdad.
It sits next to a 23,000-acre nuclear waste site that once included a nuclear reactor. Last weekend a team of safeguards
inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived to inventory the nuclear material there, or at least what was left of it.
Iraqi guards at the nuclear site left their posts in mid-March, as U.S. Marines approached. But the
Marines did not arrive until April 7. In the interim, the people of Tuwaitha broke into the facility and carted
off anything that looked useful or saleable or just interesting.
Brightly colored 55-gallon barrels were especially prized. The men of Tuwaitha emptied hundreds of the barrels
of yellow-brown mud and used the barrels to haul water from wells and canals for drinking, baking, and cooking.
The yellow-brown mud was uranium oxide, or "yellow cake," a low-grade form of enriched uranium.
"How Did the World Miss All of This?"
Shortly after U.S. Marines occupied Tuwaitha, stories about an
amazing discovery of nuclear material popped up in American news media.
So far, Marine nuclear and intelligence experts have discovered 14 buildings
that betray high levels of radiation. Some of the readings show nuclear residue too deadly for human occupation.
A few hundred meters outside the complex, where peasants say the "missile
water" is stored in mammoth caverns, the Marine radiation detectors go "off the charts."
"It's amazing," said Chief Warrant Officer Darrin Flick, the battalion's nuclear,
biological and chemical warfare specialist. "I went to the off-site storage buildings, and the rad detector went off the charts.
Then I opened the steel door, and there were all these drums, many, many drums, of highly radioactive material."
To nuclear experts in the United States, the discovery of a subterranean complex
is highly interesting, perhaps the atomic "smoking gun" intelligence agencies have been searching for as Operation Iraqi Freedom
The mayor of this high-tech city is, for now, Capt. John Seegar, a combat engineer commander from Houston, Tx. He trudges
up the 10-story hillocks hiding the campus from the surrounding villages and, crossing near a demolished mud bunker, it all
opens up, gleaming and swaddled in roses.
And the answer is, "the world" knew good and well about the nuclear
material at Tuwaitha. The world, however, didn't bother to brief the Marines or the people (called "peasants" by Mr.
Prine) of Tuwaitha.
What the World Knew: In the 1970s, Iraq built
a 40 megawatt light-water nuclear reactor at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Center near Baghdad with French assistance. France also
supplied approximately 27.5 pounds of 93% Uranium-235 [source]. The reactor was called Osiraq by the French, Tammuz 1 by the Iraqis.
Israel believed Iraq planned to use the reactor to develop weapons-grade
material. On June 7, 1981, eight Israeli F-16s accompanied by six F-15s dropped fifteen 2000-lb. bombs deep into
the reactor structure, reducing the facility to rubble. Justification for this attack remains controversial. But in the months
leading up to the recent war on Iraq, the Bush Administration cited the bombing as a precedent for the Bush Doctrine of preemptive
Further, the IAEA had
inspected the site several times before the Iraq War began in March, most recently on February 11, 2003 [source]. United Nations weapons inspectors had visited the facility in December, 2002 [source].
In short, the nuclear site at Tuwaitha was no secret, except to people most in danger from it.
Confirmed: It Could Be Plutonium
News of the Marines' "discovery" at Tuwaitha concerned the IAEA, which worried the Marines had broken inspection seals.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which
has inspected the Tuwaitha nuclear complex at least two dozen times and maintains a thick dossier on the site, had no immediate
But an expert familiar with U.N. nuclear inspections told
The Associated Press that it was implausible to believe that U.S. forces had uncovered anything new at the site. Instead,
the official said, the Marines apparently broke U.N. seals designed to ensure the materials aren't diverted for weapons use
-- or end up in the wrong hands.
Did the Fox News audience catch those qualifiers? Or did they hear "confirmed
... plutonium"? I contacted Fox News to find out of this story had ever been retracted, but as of this writing I have not
received a response.
"His Teeth Are Still There"
By mid-May, reports of possible radiation sickness in Tuwaitha
began to surface.
Amar Jorda is a boy who said he has fallen ill after drinking water from a
plastic barrel from the site.
A spokesperson for the U.S. coalition, however, downplayed
possible health problems:
"Our initial assessment is that the risk for health effects is not large,"
the spokesperson said.
"We have had folks there at the site, my deputy went there and his teeth are still there, and
his hair is still in." [Ibid.]
U.S. reassurances could not be corroborated, because at that point the Bush Administration was refusing to
allow UN and IAEA inspectors back into Iraq. IAEA director general Mohamed El Baradei feared a radiological emergency and
pleaded repeatedly with the Bush Administration to be allowed back into the Tuwaitha site. Finally, in late May, the
Bush Administration relented. All the while looting continued.
U.S. troops are now guarding the research center, but looting nonetheless
has continued, and scientists are worried that missing nuclear material can result in a slew of safety and health problems.
However, the White House made it clear that the U.S. will limit the IAEA
to the storage site itself. The seven-member IAEA team has been given two weeks to compare their February inventory
with what remains at the Al-Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center. Further, the team will work with heavy military escort. The
IAEA team will be guarded more closely than the yellow cake.
Ari Fleischer told reporters that no more help is necessary; the coalition
has the situation in hand.
Q: Does the U.S. support having the international inspectors go back
in and do the full-fledged search that they were trying to do before the war started?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, that full-fledged
search is well underway now as a result of the increasing involvement of the coalition.
Q: But that's primarily
with U.S. personnel --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q: -- not IAEA, which has a very limited role
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the IAEA is different. The IAEA is going in, that's the International Atomic Energy
MR. FLEISCHER: They're going in to look at the nuclear facility.
Just to make certain that the facility is intact?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. The search for WMD involves biological
and chemical, which was not headed by IAEA.
Q: Well, why not have the other agency go in and be able to work without
MR. FLEISCHER: Because IAEA is going in to take a look at actual inventoried items that they, themselves, knew
precisely where they were, what their status was, because they inventoried them. That wasn't the case with the chemical and
biological. What the United Nations concluded about the chemical and biological is he had tons of it -- anthrax,
VX, sarin -- but it was not accounted for. They had accounted for these nuclear materials. And that's why the difference.
But if, indeed, the threat was imminent before we went in, in the middle of March, why not have as many people as possible
on the ground, regardless of their affiliation, to find these weapons? Because the last thing that you want is to have them
get into --
MR. FLEISCHER: Because the coalition is leading this effort and will continue to do so, for those reasons.
However, military commanders in Iraq say they are "unequipped to handle the nuclear
site. 'I know that the Tuwaitha facility is larger than the assets we have now in country to deal with it,' said Lt. Gen.
David McKiernan, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq." [Associated Press, June 7, 2003] Perhaps Mr. Fleischer should speak with General McKiernan.
Conclusions, and Questions
The war on Iraq was supposed to be about weapons of mass destruction, not oil. Yet the Pentagon moved quickly to secure
oil fields but forgot about Tuwaitha.
The war on Iraq was supposed to benefit the Iraqi people. If the United States is concerned about the health of the people
of Tuwaitha, why not invite in the United Nations and Doctors Without Borders and Meals on Wheels and anybody else willing
to come and help? The Pentagon says only that a health study in Tuwaitha will begin soon.
José Padilla, a United States citizen, has been held in military
custody as "enemy combatant" for one year. He was suspected of conspiring to release a "dirty bomb"; however,
he had no bomb, no materials for a bomb, and apparently little idea how to make such a bomb. Yet the Justice Department considers
him to be so dangerous he cannot be allowed to speak to a lawyer. How many dirty bombs might be made from materials looted
Why was the White House and Pentagon so complacent about Tuwaitha that the IAEA is just now
being allowed back into the facility, two months after the Marines arrived? And why is the White House putting such
stringent limits on their mission?
And, if the situation in Tuwaitha is such a mess, what about the rest of Iraq?
While researching this article, I came across an Associated Press story in the
Mount Rocky (North Carolina) Telegram headlined "Iraq Nuke Site Was Close to Making a Bomb." The article itself said no such
American journalists mince daintily about the missing
weapons of mass destruction issue, and polls say most Americans think the war on Iraq was righteous even if no WMDs are found.
Will this be a campaign issue? Maybe, but most potential
Democratic candidates will have to (a-HEM) explain why they didn't ask more questions last October. I am still waiting for
my senators -- my allegedly liberal New York senators -- to publicly apologize for voting for the dadblamed Iraq
war resolution. And, in my opinion, Lieberman and Gephardt have no hope of getting the support of the rank-and-file
in a presidential campaign.
But here's an issue the Dems should be all over like ketchup on freedom
fries: The looting of radioactive waste at Tuwaitha.
Let's review (for details and documentation, see the June 10 Mahablog,
The Tuwaitha nuclear waste site is a short distance from Baghdad,
and it was no secret. Inspectors from both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations visited Tuwaitha
last winter to take inventory of its contents. According to the IAEA, the Tuwaitha site held 1.8 tonnes (1 tonne = 1.1023
U.S. tons) of low enriched uranium and 500 tonnes of natural uranium.
And, we know that the Bush Administration was aware of Tuwaitha. Twenty
years ago, Israelis bombed a nuclear reactor there shortly before it was to be loaded with fuel. They did this to prevent
Iraq from developing nuclear weapons. Some in the Bush Administration -- Donald Rumsfeld, for example -- cited the bombing
of Tuwaitha as a precedent for the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war.
Yet last March, the Pentagon seemed in no hurry to secure Tuwaitha.
Iraqi soldiers and civilian guards abandoned Tuwaitha in mid-March, yet the U.S. Marines didn't arrive until April 7.
What's worse, the radioactivity at the site took the Marines by surprise;
it is obvious they had not been briefed. News stories from April 9 and 10 reveal that the Marines believed they had discovered
nuclear weapons materials. In one of its finest moments, Fox News reported
(I love that quote. How many viewers heard "confirmed"
and "plutonium" and assumed Saddam's nuclear arsenal had been found?)
Anyway: In the three weeks or so between the time the guards
skedaddled and the Marines arrived, the people of Tuwaitha (who didn't know about the radioactive waste, either) entered the
facility and looted it. They emptied barrels and jerrycans of uranium oxide and used them for hauling water for drinking and
bathing. Even after the Marines arrived, there were not enough of them to guard the entire 23,000 acres of the nuclear site,
and looting continued.
Now there are two big problems to deal with. One, the people
of Tuwaitha are showing signs of radiation sickness. The Pentagon denies that this is a problem.
The sprawling site, left unguarded by U.S. troops who passed
by during the war, was ransacked by nearby residents who dumped uranium out of IAEA barrels, then used the potentially radioactive
containers to store drinking water.
The U.S. military has conducted an initial radiation survey
in the villages, and a health study is to begin soon.
The people of Tuwaitha are
complaining of rashes and nosebleeds, but there are no health problems, and soon the Pengaton will begin a health study to
But here's the other problem: How many dirty bombs
might be made from the nuclear material "liberated" at Tuwaitha?
The Iraq war was supposed to be about disarming Saddam Hussein,
not about oil. Yet U.S. troops quickly secured oil fields. They also quickly tore down statues of Saddam. And the
same week the Marines got to Tuwaitha, U.S. soldiers entered the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad to do some decorating.
They tore up the mosaic floor tile picture of George H.W. Bush and replaced it with a picture of Saddam Hussein.
Someone further up in the hierarchy remembered the Al-Rashid
floor, but forgot Tuwaitha. They remembered the oil fields and arranged the photo-op of Saddam's statue being toppled,
but forgot Tuwaitha.
What does this tell us about priorities?
Although the U.S.-coalition clearly lacked the resources
to properly secure the nuclear material and deal with potential health problems, for two months the Bush Administration rebuffed
IAEA petitions for access to Tuwaitha. Last week there was a reversal; the IAEA is being given two weeks to re-inventory Tuwaitha,
but the inspectors are limited to the nuclear facility itself and will be accompanied by military guard at all times.
The Pentagon will keep closer watch on the IAEA team than on the barrels of uranium oxide.
However, military commanders in Iraq say they are "unequipped
to handle the nuclear site. 'I know that the Tuwaitha facility is larger than the assets we have now in country to deal with
it,' said Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq." [Associated
Press, June 7, 2003]
So, radioactive material may even yet be "liberated" from
Tuwaitha. There are not enough personnel in Iraq to hunt it all down and secure it. But the White House refuses to allow the
United Nations and the IAEA to provide any meaningful help.
On the surface, this is colossal hubris mixed with
incompetence. But is the Bush Administration trying to hide the full extend of the foul-up? Is covering their
political behinds more important than keeping nuclear material out of terrorist hands?
And why aren't the Democrats speaking up about this?
From the June 13, 2003, Mahablog
Friday the 13th Edition
This is an update on the two previous blogs. Be sure to read
Nicolas Kristof's column in the New York Times today.
To help out Ms. Rice and Mr. Cheney, let me offer some more detail about the
uranium saga. Piecing the story together from two people directly involved and three others who were briefed on it, the tale
begins at the end of 2001, when third-rate forged documents turned up in West Africa purporting to show the sale by Niger
to Iraq of tons of "yellowcake" uranium. [Kristof, "White House in Denial," The New York Times,
June 12, 2003]
The documents were a howling lie; the government of Niger
didn't have any yellowcake (uranium oxide) to sell. The CIA knew good and well the documents were forged. It appears everybody
in Washington knew the documents were forged. Even so, the Niger story turned up in the State of the Union address as a reason
to go to war with Iraq.
And, anyway, Iraq already had more than two tons of yellowcake in barrels in Tuwaitha, just 15 or
so miles from Baghdad. These same two tons of yellowcake may be scattered all over Iraq by now. Yet the White House and Pentagon
are strangely unconcerned about it.
According to Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer
The [IAEA] inspectors are kept isolated in the Rashid Hotel and are not
allowed to speak to the press. Nor did U.S. officials permit them to bring a press officer from their Vienna headquarters.
When I try to drive toward Location C, where the IAEA team is working on a limited two-week assignment, I am stopped by Sgt.
Steven Collier. Standing in front of a tank, he tells me his superiors "don't want nobody here right now. They don't tell
us why." [Rubin, "Looting of Iraqi Nuclear Facility Indicts U.S. Goals,"
Knight-Ridder/Charlotte Observer, June 12, 2003]
Further, an Iraqi scientist who lives near the complex told Rubin that radioactive isotopes -- which
are a lot more dangerous than uranium oxide -- are being looted every day. Right now, perhaps.
He says the isotopes, which are in bright silver containers, "are
sold in the black market or kept in homes." According to IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, such radioactive sources can kill
on contact or pollute whole neighborhoods. [Ibid.]
I don't know about you, but ... I'm angry.
If Saddam had wanted uranium, there were more than two tons of
the same stuff he allegedly tried to buy in Niger just a short hike from Baghdad (see recent blogs, below). It was in barrels
sealed by the IAEA in 1991. He hadn't done a thing with any of that. And he was trying to buy more, because ....?
The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam
Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different
methods of enriching uranium for a bomb. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant
quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum
tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has
much to hide.
This entire paragraph is a lie from beginning to end. To begin
with, the IAEA never said Saddam had an advanced nuclear weapons development program. The IAEA said just the opposite; that
Saddam's nuclear weapons program had been "uncovered, mapped, and neutralized." You can read one of their reports here.
Next we have the famous "out of Africa" story, based on documents
that are known to be clumsy forgeries.
Bush said that intelligence sources
say that Saddam attempted to purchase high strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. But the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), quoted favorably by the president elsewhere, reports that the tubes are for rockets, not nuclear
production, and that there is no evidence of Saddam trying to buy uranium. [Jonathan Alter, "Scoring the Speech,"
MSNBC, January 29, 3003]
(Note: the Alter
link is broken; story no longer on the web. This is why I go to the trouble of keyboarding in sources of quotes and information
along with links; I still know where the quote came from.)
"Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength
aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production," Bush said again, repeating the charge that he first made at the U.N. last September.
As everyone knows who listened to (or read) Mohammed ElBaradei's report to
the U.N. Security Council on nuclear research and development in Iraq, he found that the emphasis on those tubes by Bush and
Condoleezza Rice was misplaced if not misleading. Today's Washington Post carries yet another story -- buried for some inexplicable reason on page A13 -- that sums up the International
Atomic Energy Agency findings in Iraq so far. According to ElBaradei, who heads the IAEA, the tubes "can not be used" for
the purpose of enriching uranium. He also inspected the eight buildings formerly used in Saddam's nuclear program, which U.S.
intelligence -- and Bush -- have suggested were being refurbished for the same purposes. There was "no evidence" to support
the president's allegations, he said. [Joe Conason, Salon, January
Last Sunday, Condi Rice hit the television news show circuit to
say that the Niger story was not central to the President's case that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. They might
want to figure out what is central to the argument, and let the President know.
From the June 21, 2003, Mahablog
Several U.S. newspapers today are running a story under
the headline "Iraq's looted uranium found." This will mystify readers, since most of them had not been told uranium had been
From the Associated Press:
Experts from the U.N. atomic agency have accounted for tons of uranium feared
looted from Iraq's largest nuclear research facility, diplomats said Friday.
Not said: tons might still be unaccounted for.
...The mission -- whose scope was restricted by the U.S.-led interim administration
of Iraq -- was not allowed to give medical exams to Iraqis reported to have been sickened by contact with the materials, said
They also said that the IAEA team was unable to determine whether hundreds
of radioactive materials used in research and medicine across the country were secure. Officials fear such material could
be used to make crude radioactive devices known as "dirty bombs." ...
The diplomats did not detail how much uranium had been looted and where it
was found, but it appeared much of it was on or near the site. [link]
It is probable that most of the uranium stored in barrels
was dumped out within the site, since the looters were interested in the barrels and not the uranium. However, the source
of the information in the Associated Press story, the "diplomats," is murky.
According to Reuters, the IAEA itself is not saying anything.
VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog agency declined to comment
on Saturday on a U.S. magazine report that inspectors had found most of the uranium missing from a looted storage facility
at Iraq's main nuclear site. ...
But at the Vienna-based IAEA, spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the agency
would not comment until the inspectors finished their job of assessing the damage from wartime looting at the storage site
for radioactive materials.
"We are not commenting on any findings while the team is still working," Fleming
The IAEA has no deadline for issuing its report,
so the facts of what was found may not come out for weeks. But, somehow, word is getting out that the uranium was 'found.'