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IRAQ: IAEA Fears over Damage at Nuclear Plant

Mehru Jaffer

VIENNA, May 9 2003 (IPS) - Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) say they have been reduced to bystanders in the face of reports of widespread damage to Iraq’s nuclear facilities.

"I know as much as you do," Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman at the Vienna headquarters of the IAEA told IPS. Fleming said the recent television footage of loot at the sprawling Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre south of Baghdad had been worrying.

"We would like to be there to find out for ourselves," she said. "At the moment we have deep nuclear, public and environmental concerns, and would like to make sure that the nuclear facility is adequately protected. We hope that the nuclear material is totally safe."

Mohammed ElBaradei, head of IAEA wrote to the Bush administration last month to say that the U.S. was responsible for safeguarding all the nuclear material in Iraq which had been sealed by IAEA inspectors before the U.S. army took possession of the nuclear premises.

ElBaradei also requested the U.S. to allow an IAEA investigative team to visit Iraq immediately to inspect the nuclear storage facilities. Fleming says ElBaradei has received no reply.

As the world’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA continues to express concern at the possible theft and smuggling of potentially dangerous nuclear components like uranium out of Iraq.

IAEA reports say that Iraq’s Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Tuwaitha stored 3,896 pounds of partially enriched uranium, more than 94 tonnes of natural uranium and some amount of cesium, cobalt and strontium. If further enriched, the uranium in stock could be used as the core of a nuclear device.

The greatest fear now is that someone who wants to make ‘dirty bombs’ from low-grade uranium could buy the material on the international black market if it is smuggled out of Iraq. The IAEA wants to survey the sites as soon as possible to make sure nothing is missing.

Tuwaitha’s sprawling premises spread over 120 acres were said to be under the protection of Iraq’s Special Republican Guard. U.S. forces arrived at Tuwaitha April 6 and reportedly found that the place had no guards.

The site has been under the protection of coalition forces since early April, but the premises were reported to have been abandoned by guards for a few days. Television images show that the premises are damaged but there is no indication of the extent of the damage, particularly to the seals put in place by IAEA inspectors who worked through the nineties to halt Iraq’s nuclear activities.

ElBaradei has said that only the IAEA has the right to safeguard Iraq’s nuclear material. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) only the IAEA can reopen the tamper-proof seals it has put on rooms and on more than 400 barrels of radioactive material.

IAEA inspectors began investigating Iraq’s nuclear capabilities in 1991 to eliminate the country’s suspected weapons of mass destruction and the means to produce them.

At that time inspectors reported that Iraq had a comprehensive nuclear weapons development programme and that Iraq had made continued attempts to conceal the true extent of that programme.

Besides an ambitious uranium enrichment programme, Iraq was found to be separating small quantities of plutonium at the Tuwaitha centre. A programme to produce enriched uranium was halted at two centres in Tarmiya and Ash Sharkat.

IAEA inspectors brought back samples for analysis at its laboratories in Seibersdorf. Iraq was said to have been on the verge of building a nuclear bomb.

The U.S. is reported to have reassured the IAEA that it would safeguard the nuclear material. But reports of ripped barbed wires, broken walls and files in disarray have caused great consternation in the IAEA offices.

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