U.S. Removes Uranium From Iraqi Nuclear Site

Meredith Lugo

In early July, U.S. forces transferred 550 metric tons of yellowcake, the compound made from mined natural uranium ore, from the Iraqi nuclear site of Tuwaitha to a port in Montreal. If the material were processed for military purposes, it would be sufficient for as many as 50 nuclear weapons. The Canadian corporation Cameco purchased the nuclear material.

In a July 7 briefing, Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack said the operation was conducted according to applicable International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regulations. Citing "security concerns," McCormack noted that the transfer was done secretly. An unnamed senior U.S. official told the Associated Press in July that the transferal took nearly three months, beginning in April.

The United States flew the material to the British island Diego Garcia, the site of a U.S. naval base, where it was then shipped to Montreal. The Associated Press reports that officials considered moving the yellowcake through Kuwait to a port on the Persian Gulf, but were deterred by concerns about passing through Iraq's Shiite territory and the possibility of an Iranian-U.S. naval clash in the Strait of Hormuz.

In a July 2008 interview with the Canadian television network CTV, Cameco spokesperson Lyle Krahn indicated that the company intends to process the uranium in Ontario and sell it as fuel for nuclear reactors. Cameco is the largest producer of uranium in the world and was "invited" by the U.S. government to bid on the material from Iraq.

Yellowcake is a solid compound made from refined uranium ore. It is converted into uranium hexafluoride and enriched into low-enriched uranium (LEU) for civilian nuclear reactors. At higher levels of enrichment, the compound may be used for nuclear weapons material. The 550 tons that were transferred is enough to produce as many as 50 nuclear weapons. In June 2003, the Department of Energy removed 1.77 tons of LEU from the Tuwaitha complex. (See ACT, September 2004. )

Iraqi president Saddam Hussein purchased the yellowcake in the early 1980s from Niger. Following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the IAEA discovered and safeguarded the material at Tuwaitha until 1998, when its inspectors were ousted from Iraq. International inspectors were not invited back into the country until 2002, on the brink of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. An IAEA report prior to the 2003 war concluded that all declared uranium compounds in Iraq were untouched during the suspension on inspections.

The nuclear compound at Tuwaitha was the center of concern in 2003, when the agency reported looting of the complex after Iraqi soldiers and civilian guards abandoned their posts during combat in mid-March. By April, U.S. forces had secured the facilities. A senior defense official in June 2003 said the site was found "in disarray" and that some of the IAEA seals had been broken. An IAEA inspection shortly thereafter discovered uranium compounds scattered across the floor and many storage containers emptied or missing. Some of the barrels used in the Tuwaitha facilities had been sold to Iraqi locals to store drinking water and food. The IAEA recovered all of the spilled uranium, which was repackaged after all materials had successfully been accounted for.

The IAEA reported in 2006 that levels of radiation around Tuwaitha were several times greater than normal, putting nearby villagers at risk. The Iraqi government asked for IAEA assistance to decommission former nuclear facilities around the country, and the agency has noted that a full clean-up and decommission is a sizeable challenge that will likely take up to a decade.

As the remnants of Iraq's prior nuclear efforts are being addressed, Baghdad took a further step toward integration into the nuclear nonproliferation regime by signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on August 19. The treaty, which opened for signature in 1996, prohibits the testing of nuclear weapons. Tibor Tóth, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization's Preparatory Committee, remarked that Iraq's decision was "particularly significant given the multitude of challenges facing the government of Iraq today."