Iraqi Nuclear Site Is Found Looted
U.S. Team Unable to Determine Whether Deadly Materials Are Missing
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2003; Page A01
NEAR KUT, Iraq, May 3 -- A specially trained Defense Department team, dispatched after a month of official indecision to survey a major Iraqi radioactive waste repository, today found the site heavily looted and said it was impossible to tell whether nuclear materials were missing.
The discovery at the Baghdad Nuclear Research Facility was the second since the end of the war in which a known nuclear cache was plundered extensively enough that authorities could not rule out the possibility that deadly materials had been stolen. The survey, conducted by a U.S. Special Forces detachment and eight nuclear experts from a Pentagon office called the Direct Support Team, appeared to offer fresh evidence that the war has dispersed the country's most dangerous technologies beyond anyone's knowledge or control.
In all, seven sites associated with Iraq's nuclear program have been visited by the Pentagon's "special nuclear programs" teams since the war ended last month. None was found to be intact, though it remains unclear what materials -- if any -- had been removed.
Enclosed by a sand berm four miles around and 160 feet high, the Baghdad Nuclear Research Facility entombs what remains of reactors bombed by Israel in 1981 and the United States in 1991. It has stored industrial and medical wastes, along with spent reactor fuel. Though not suitable to produce a fission bomb, the highest-energy isotopes here, including cesium and cobalt, have been sought by terrorists interested in using conventional explosives to scatter radioactive dust.
One team member said the quantities measured today would not suffice for that purpose, but others expressed doubt that the survey was complete. It was impossible to determine what may have been removed -- by unknowing looters, by knowledgeable thieves bent on black-market trade or by former Iraqi officials seeking to conceal evidence of banned weapons programs.
The most important looted nuclear site, less than a mile down the road, is the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, where U.N. weapons inspectors had catalogued tons of partially enriched uranium and natural uranium -- metals suitable for processing into the core of a nuclear weapon. Iraqi civilians have stripped it of computers, furniture and much equipment; whether dangerous nuclear materials were taken is unknown.
U.S. authorities do not know what is missing, if anything, because of an ongoing conflict between the Bush administration and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as a dispute within the administration about how much to involve the IAEA in Iraq. The unresolved struggle has kept U.S. forces out of Tuwaitha's nuclear storage areas, but a brief outdoor inspection on April 10 found the door to one of them had been breached.
The special nuclear team that surveyed the Baghdad facility this morning had been eager to make the trip for weeks.
Twenty-three days ago, a smaller U.S. survey team passed by and recommended an immediate increase in security. The following day, April 11, the IAEA listed this site and Tuwaitha as the two requiring the most urgent protection from looters. U.S. Central Command sent a detachment of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division to control the facility's gate.
Rolling in at 8:15 a.m. today, accompanied by two reporters, Navy Cmdr. David Beckett said U.S. troops were reported to be securing the gate. Beckett's master sergeant, a Special Forces soldier who asked to be identified only as Tony, hopped out of the driver's seat and spoke to the lieutenant on duty.
"I don't believe this," he said, returning. "They let workers in here for the past week!"
"Local workers?" Beckett asked.
"Yeah," Tony said.
Employees of the research center -- or Iraqis who said they were employees -- had been coming in by the score for more than two weeks. The 3rd Infantry's security detail had no Arabic speaker and could not verify their stories. In addition, looters had been scavenging inside continuously since U.S. forces took control. At the peak, there were 400 a day. On Friday, the U.S. soldiers detained 62 of them, but many more got away.
"Looters, they see us in Bradleys or on foot," said Capt. Blaine Kusterle, a platoon leader in Alpha Company. "They can outrun us easily because they have a 300-meter start."
Not far inside the complex, a fraction of the plunder -- whatever Kusterle's men had managed to wrestle back -- lay strewn about. An acre of laboratory equipment sat by the roadside: a Braun sedimenter, an autoclave, a Nikon photo microscope, toxic gas monitors, a machine to measure tiny particles with laser diffraction.
The first hint that dangerous isotopes might be loose came when a monitor began beeping in the rubble. In a shallow hole protected by sandbags, the men found a yellow crate, shaped like a toolbox, that bore the warning, "CAUTION RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL." A nuclear-trained special operator named Rick -- all the men except Beckett gave only first names -- pulled out a suitcase-size detector. The box was throwing gamma rays, but nothing too dangerous.
What bothered the team was that one radioactive leak might mean there were others.
Kusterle, the company's NBC officer -- responsible for nuclear, biological and chemical hazards -- told Beckett that an Iraqi had come to the gate claiming that the head scientist here before the war had "worked on anthrax and buried an anthrax culture machine here."
"Are there any signs or reports of dead animals in the area?" Beckett asked.
"No," Kusterle said.
"Has [military intelligence] been called in?"
Beckett took the scientist's name and moved on.
The team took another road, armed with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Using a bathtub-size instrument that recorded time and location with each measurement, they began to build a three-dimensional radiation map of the site. Beckett, who directs special nuclear programs at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), made a more targeted survey.
He headed first for Osirak, the French-built research reactor that Israel destroyed just before it became operational in 1981. From a distance, the reactor's three towers and supporting bulk looked almost intact, though the cooling-pump building listed 45 degrees. Up close, the reactor was an empty hulk. A wall mural of a heroic Saddam Hussein -- with the gleaming reactor on one side and pharaonic splendors on the other -- stood amid the rubble.
Beckett climbed what appeared to be a bunker built up from the ground, covered by a sloping metal roof. A device the size of a TV remote control began vibrating at his ankle, and indicators lit for gamma and neutron bombardment. Beckett crawled under the low-slung roof and found what he estimated to be four rows and 20 columns of buried drums, each with a massive lid bolted flush to the ground.
An expert close to the IAEA's Iraq Action Team said the location of those drums, recorded with a reporter's hand-held global positioning device, corresponded to what the agency calls Building 39, a permanent storage site for low-level nuclear waste.
A more dangerous find by Beckett's team came in a black corrugated metal shed next to a low stone storage area, a site known to U.N. inspectors as Building 55. The IAEA lists those structures as "mechanical workshops and stores." But an Army Special Forces captain named Drew said he got "a huge spike" on his detector from 15 feet away, and he pinpointed a metal storage cylinder the size of a small fire hydrant. There were more of them, and they were corroding. The lock on the shed's door had been forced open.
"I'm getting thorium," Rick said, reading the energy spikes on his monitor. Then came cesium and cobalt. Short-term exposure to particles of those radioactive metals poses no serious threat, but they can be dangerous if inhaled.
"All right," Beckett called out. "Everybody who was inside that place, just go and stand over there." He checked them for contamination but found nothing dangerous in the dust clinging to their clothes.
A few hundred yards away, the team found more equipment that scavengers had tried to drag toward a parking lot.
Next to a heavy lathe were 19 small yellow cylinders and four large gray ones. They were emitting so much gamma and neutron radiation that the team could not interpret the results.
"It overpowers the system," Beckett said. Scientists will do further analysis at DTRA headquarters in Virginia.
David Albright, an expert on the Iraqi nuclear program who runs the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said, "There are many radioactive areas within the berm. . . . Clearly, they do not appear adequately protected. If any radioactive material has been taken, it could pose a significant risk to those who have it. Does the military appreciate this risk?"
Meanwhile, at the nearby Tuwaitha storage site, security remains a concern. Administration officials in Washington said again today that they intend to involve the IAEA eventually, because the radioactive materials there are under the U.N. agency's seal, which the United States is treaty-bound to respect. But the Pentagon and State Department are still trying to formulate guidelines for a U.S. search team to make a preliminary survey.
"It's very distressing," said a nuclear expert with close ties to the IAEA's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei. The agency "expects measures to be taken so that the looting that took place a month ago will not continue to take place this month. This material really should not be moved."
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
-President Barack Obama, 1st Inaugural address