CAMBRIDGE, U.K.--Atomic inspectors have accounted for virtually all the uranium known to have been stored at Iraq's premier nuclear research facility before the war, ScienceNOW has learned. But the high-profile mission by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was not permitted to assess the health of Iraqis said to have become ill after contact with materials looted from the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center. Furthermore, the status of an additional 1000 radiological sources at Tuwaitha and other locations remains unclear.
Coalition authorities grudgingly agreed to the mission last month only after IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei repeatedly urged a swift response to the reported looting at Tuwaitha, 20 kilometers south of Baghdad. As early as 10 April, ElBaradei urged the U.S. government to secure nuclear materials there that had been under IAEA seal since 1991. After another letter to that effect went unanswered, ElBaradei in widely publicized comments on 19 May warned of the "potential radiological safety and security implications of nuclear and radiological materials that may no longer be under control."
The third rebuke was a charm: Coalition authorities began negotiating with IAEA on the return of a team to Iraq. The outcome of the talks restricted IAEA to a safeguards mission to attempt to secure 500 tons of natural uranium and 1.8 tons of low-enriched uranium. The low-enriched uranium consists of less than 20% of the fissile isotope uranium-235; it's not the raw stuff of a nuclear bomb, but one fear was that it could have ended up in the hands of a would-be nuclear power like Iran. The seven-member IAEA team started their work at Tuwaitha on 7 June.
Two team members returned to IAEA headquarters on 18 June, with the rest expected back next week. "Nearly all the material that went missing has been recovered," an IAEA official told ScienceNOW. The agency declined to comment officially before the findings are presented to the coalition. "We want to make sure first that the report is completely accurate," says IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming. But if the uranium is indeed secure, "that's really good news," says nonproliferation expert Matthew Bunn of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
The status of another concern--some 400 radiological sources listed in an IAEA inventory of Tuwaitha last February--remains in doubt. A fraction of these sources, including some filled with the isotopes cobalt-60 and cesium-137, pose serious health risks and could be used in a radiological dispersal device, or dirty bomb, says Bunn. The most dangerous sources are thought to have remained encased in heavy lead shielding, he says, but "that wouldn't necessarily have posed an obstacle to a determined looter."
Although the IAEA inspectors weren't supposed to probe beyond the uranium stockpiles, a source close to the mission says the team was able to get around that restriction and conduct a broad survey of Tuwaitha, on the grounds that they themselves were at risk from any unsecured radiological materials. As Science went to press, IAEA was awaiting a report on the status of these sources. Even less is known of an additional 600 radiological sources stored before the war at other sites in Iraq.