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Nuclear Official Fears Contamination in Iraq

Mohamed ElBaradei, of the U.N. watchdog agency, cites reports of looting and spills and asks the U.S. to let his inspectors return.

May 20, 2003|From Times Wire Services

VIENNA — The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency warned Monday that a nuclear contamination emergency may be developing in Iraq and appealed to the U.S. to let his experts back into the country.

"I am deeply concerned by the almost daily reports of looting and destruction at nuclear sites," International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said in a statement.

He said he was especially worried "about the potential radiological safety and security implications of nuclear and radiological materials that may no longer be under control."

He said the reports his agency has received describe uranium being emptied on the ground from containers and then taken for domestic use, and radioactive sources being stolen and removed from their shielding.

"We have a moral responsibility to establish the facts without delay and take urgent remedial action," ElBaradei said.

The U.N. agency, which is based in Vienna, has warned that stolen radioactive material could end up in the hands of terrorists who could use it to make "dirty" bombs, which combine radioactive material with a conventional explosive like dynamite to spread the material over a wide area.

In Washington, a senior State Department official hinted that the United States might be more favorable to the IAEA returning to Iraq on its own rather than under the auspices of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, the weapons inspection team that was operating in Iraq before the war.

ElBaradei first asked the United States on April 10 to secure nuclear material stored under U.N. seal at Iraq's Tuwaitha nuclear research center, and the United States promised that its military would keep the site secure. After numerous media reports that Tuwaitha and other nuclear facilities in Iraq had been looted, ElBaradei wrote again to the U.S. on April 29 requesting permission to send a mission to Iraq to investigate the reports of looting.

The IAEA has received no response from Washington and said that contamination could lead to a "serious humanitarian situation." There have been media reports that residents near Tuwaitha have exhibited symptoms of radiation sickness.

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