Fifteen months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the United States has removed nuclear material from the country that posed a potential proliferation threat, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced July 6.
Department of Energy experts packaged 1.77 metric tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU), as well as approximately “1,000 highly radioactive sources,” according to a press release. The Department of Defense then airlifted the material, which had been stored at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, to the United States on June 23.
The material could “potentially [have been] used in a radiological dispersal device or diverted to support a nuclear weapons program,” according to an Energy Department press release. A radiological weapon uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material but is not nearly as powerful as a nuclear weapon. LEU can be used in civilian nuclear reactors but also can be further enriched for use as the explosive material in nuclear weapons.
The Tuwaitha facility has long been declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and subject to agency safeguards. The United States informed the IAEA June 30 that it had removed the material, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei wrote in a July 6 letter to the UN Security Council.
National Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson Bryan Wilkes told Arms Control Today Aug. 19 that the United States consulted senior IAEA officials and received no objections to the transaction. The United States first notified the agency of its intention to remove the material in June 2003, ElBaradei’s letter said.
Meanwhile, the IAEA conducted its annual inventory of Iraq’s nuclear material at Tuwaitha, the agency announced Aug. 7. Such inspections are separate from those the IAEA conducted to enforce UN Security Council resolutions requiring Iraq to dismantle its suspected nuclear weapons program. The IAEA last visited Tuwaitha in June 2003, following reports that nuclear material had been looted from the facility after the U.S.-led invasion of the country in March 2003. (See ACT, July/August 2003.)
IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming stated that no nuclear material had been diverted from Tuwaitha since that inspection, Reuters reported Aug. 7. The remaining material, which mostly consists of natural uranium, depleted uranium, and LEU waste, “is not sensitive from a proliferation perspective,” according to an Aug. 7 IAEA press release.
ElBaradei said that this inspection was “a good first step” and expressed hope that the IAEA and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) would be able to complete their UN-mandated missions. However, UN and U.S. officials told Arms Control Today that there is no indication that either UNMOVIC or the IAEA will resume their intrusive inspections work anytime soon, particularly in light of the unstable security situation in Iraq.