Looters broke into nuclear plant
Some use barrels for storing water
By Christine Spolar
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published May 6, 2003
AL WADIYA, Iraq -- Halina Haloul was happy when her 15-year-old son rolled home one of the shiny blue barrels from Tuweitha nuclear plant. Young Faisal had run in, nabbed it from among hundreds of barrels filled with mysterious yellow dust and cleaned it up so well that the family planned to store drinking water in it.
Then American soldiers knocked on her door. Suddenly, Haloul and all her neighbors in this raw, dusty village were told they had rolled little toxic waste sites straight into their homes.
"We didn't know," Haloul said as she breast-fed a 20-day-old daughter in her two-room home, a dirt-floor hovel where a couple of chickens roosted with the rest of her family. "We got the barrel right before the baby was born."
Almost a month ago, looters who descended on Tuweitha compound, the main site of Iraq's nuclear program and one of the most suspect weapons sites examined by UN inspectors before the war, made off with potentially deadly booty. Dozens of metal and plastic barrels of toxic waste appear to be missing from the 3-acre site.
On Monday, officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN-affiliated group that guarded the plant during years of inspection, appealed for teams to be allowed to enter Iraq to figure out just what dangers now lurk in area surrounding Tuweitha.
Tons of radioactive waste and low-level enriched uranium were on the premises and kept sealed from the outside world before the war, one official said. Now no one has any idea how much of the potentially harmful substances are missing, he added.
IAEA `absolutely concerned'
"We are absolutely concerned," said Mark Gwozdecky, spokesman for the atomic energy agency.
Gwozdecky said the agency was alerted on April 9 that the compound, about 30 miles from downtown Baghdad, had been broken into during the days of chaos following the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein. The agency contacted U.S. representatives twice--on April 11 and April 30--after reports emerged of looting at the plant, home to four reactors. The U.S. military has yet to respond about how it secured Tuweitha, if it did, in the first days of war.
Over the years of inspection, the nuclear agency documented that the plant had tons of radioactive waste and a substance known as yellow cake, a uranium derivative that must be substantially refined to be used in a nuclear weapon but still is regarded as a hazardous material.
In the wake of the looting, Gwozdecky said, the agency had serious concerns that people near the plant, as well as the environment, might be harmed.
In addition, looters broke into a laboratory where thousands of screw worms, a parasite that infests farm animals, were being bred for use in a vaccination project. All those worms were set free by looters, and the the agency could not estimate the effect that would have on the environment, Gwozdecky said.
Employees from the nuclear plant said they quickly alerted U.S. soldiers to the problem, but villagers appeared to have been warned about the barrels only when news reports of the toxicity surfaced.
"They were nice, clean, bright containers," said one plant scientist who declined to give his name. "They were well-built, without any possibility for corrosion. That's why people wanted them. There were at least 200 barrels there. I think they've only been able to get 20 percent of them back."
Army guards at the front of the plant would not discuss the potential hazards. About 2 miles away, near an isolated building littered with large, dusty barrels, soldiers said they had been warning people, for fear of contamination, not to walk past the front gate.
A week ago, Army hazardous materials teams tested the one building near where five soldiers slept under the open sky.
"The scientists came in and their Geiger counters were just screaming," said Sgt. Brian Keller, one of the guards.
"Everyone took one"
Some villagers, for at least a week if not longer, used the barrels for storing water, fuel or even milk. Many said they threw out the barrels as soon as they heard about a health risk. Some said that when they snatched the barrels from Tuweitha, they dumped the yellow dust near the plant.
A few villagers in the hardscrabble land apparently cannot quite bear giving up the nice-looking barrels.
"Everybody took one," said Mutar Ayel, a 55-year-old father of 12 who lives on the edge of Al Wadiyah and has kept one of the barrels on his roof. His barrel is marked No. 119.
Ayel said he has heard there is a problem with the barrels.
"They say they can make you sick," he said. But he is not convinced there isn't some good use for the plastic container. Only a few people he knew complained that they didn't feel well after handling the barrels, he said.
"I'm not going to throw it away," he said. "Somebody, sometime, might want it. Do you want to buy a barrel?"
Copyright c 2003, Chicago Tribune
Original URL: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0305060248may06,1,2433936.story?coll=chi%2Dnewsnationworld%2Dhed
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