A Radioactive Mess

While American experts say there is no telling what may have been looted from a nuclear research facility in Baghdad, an Iraqi nuclear engineer who was one of the founders of the facility says he has witnessed the spread of nuclear contamination firsthand.

The U.S. Central Command acknowledges that the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center -- the headquarters of Saddam Hussein's former nuclear program, with hundreds of buildings covering an area of 120 acres -- was looted.

Major newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times have reported that U.S. officials do not know what if anything is missing from the center, which sits on a bend in the Tigris River 11 miles south of Baghdad.

But Dr. Hamid Al-Bah'ly, a founder of Tuwaitha who has worked there since 1968, told Al-Jazeera television's "Iraq After the War" program that nuclear materials have already spread far beyond the center.

Small units of U.S. Marine engineers arrived at the nuclear Center on April 6, after Iraqi forces withdrew following the fall of Baghdad. But they were unable to prevent looting by Iraqi civilians, who got in by cutting the barbed-wire fence surrounding the site.

According to the Associated Press, a U.N. expert familiar with nuclear inspections said the Marines made matters worse by apparently breaking U.N. seals designed to ensure that the materials did not end up in wrong hands or be diverted for weapons use. The center contained several tons of radioactive material placed in hundreds of barrels sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a U.N. nuclear watchdog group.

Al-Jazeera reporters in anti-radiation orange suits interviewed some of the center's employees as they tried to chase away the looters. The workers complained about the lack of American military presence at the facility. One said that there were only two American tanks protecting the entire site, hardly enough to stop the looting.

Al-Bah'ly entered the center soon after the looting and saw chilling scenes. Some of the radioactive material had been taken out of the center, and other materials had been dumped on the floor by looters. Some of the radioactive material was in powder form and had probably dispersed into the air through broken windows, Al-Bah'ly said.

Some of the looters stole big containers that could potentially hold anywhere between 300-400 kilograms of radioactive uranium. Some of the containers were empty but others were not. Al-Bah'ly says he thinks the river has been contaminated by people washing out the containers.

Al-Bah'ly inspects about four to five homes daily in the neighborhood of Tuwaitha, and says he saw some people using the containers to store water, milk and tomatoes, oblivious of the risks. Some containers were even used to transport milk to yogurt factories. Abu Dhabi Television has shown scenes of women using the containers to store drinking water.

At one home, Al-Bah'ly discovered radioactive contamination in clothes and beds. He describes a 10-year-old girl who had attached a piece of "yellow cake" (radioactive waste) to the edge of her skirt for decoration.

Al-Jazerra reports that in some homes, Al-Bah'ly recorded radiation levels 500 to 600 times higher than acceptable levels.

Al'Bahly, who works without protective gear, says he is willing risk his own health as he tries to monitor the spread of nuclear contamination. He says he hopes that the United States and IAEA will soon get actively involved in the effort to contain what may end up being an environmental catastrophe with devastating consequences for both Iraqi civilians and American servicemen and women.

PNS contributor Jalal Ghazi monitors and translates Arab media for New California Media and WorldLink TV.

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