Iraq's stolen radioactive material raises security concerns

Iraqs stolen radioactive material raises security concerns
US oilfield services company Weatherford says it was not responsible or liable for the radioactive material stolen last year from a storage facility in southern Iraq. Reuters

By Reuters

Published: Thu 18 Feb 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 19 Feb 2016, 3:40 PM

Iraq is searching for "highly dangerous" radioactive material stolen last year, according to an environment ministry document and seven security, environmental and provincial officials who fear it could be used as a weapon if acquired by Daesh.
The material, stored in a protective case the size of a laptop computer, went missing in November from a storage facility near the southern city of Basra belonging to US oilfield services company Weatherford, the document showed and officials confirmed.A spokesman for Iraq's environment ministry said he could not discuss the issue, citing national security concerns.
Weatherford said in a statement that it was not responsible or liable for the theft. "We do not own, operate or control sources or the bunker where the sources are stored," it said.The material, which uses gamma rays to test flaws in materials used for oil and gas pipelines in a process called industrial gamma radiography, is owned by Istanbul-based SGS Turkey, according to the document and officials.
The US State Department said it was aware of the reports but has seen no sign that Daesh or other militant groups have acquired it.A US official said separately that Iraq had reported a missing specialised camera containing highly radioactive Iridium-192 to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog, in November.
"They've been looking for it ever since. Whether it was just misplaced, or actually stolen, isn't clear," said the official.The environment ministry document, dated November 30 and ad-dressed to the ministry's Centre for Prevention of Radiation, describes "the theft of a highly dangerous radioactive source of Ir-192 with highly radioactive activity belonging to SGS from a depot belonging to Weatherford in the Rafidhia area of Basra province".
A senior environment ministry official based in Basra, who declined to be named, said the device contained up to 10 grams (0.35 ounces) of Ir-192 "capsules", a radioactive isotope of iridium also used to treat cancer.The material is classed as a Category 2 radioactive source by the IAEA, meaning that if not managed properly it could cause permanent injury to a person in close proximity to it for minutes or hours, and could be fatal to someone exposed for a period of hours to days.How harmful exposure can be is determined by a number of factors such as the material's strength and age, which could not be immediately determined.
The ministry document said the material posed a risk of bodily and environmental harm as well as a national security threat.Large quantities of Ir-192 have gone missing before in the United States, Britain and other countries, stoking fears among security officials that it could be used to make a dirty bomb.
A dirty bomb combines nuclear material with conventional explosives to contaminate an area with radiation, in contrast to a nuclear weapon, which uses nuclear fission to trigger a vastly more powerful blast."We are afraid the radioactive element will fall into the hands of Daesh," said a senior security official with knowledge of the theft."They could simply attach it to explosives to make a dirty bomb," said the official, who works at the interior ministry and spoke on condition of anonymity.
There was no indication the material had come into the possession of Daesh, which seized territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 but does not control areas near Basra.A State Department spokesman declined to comment on whether the missing material might be suit-able for use in a dirty bomb.The security official, based in Baghdad, said there were no immediate suspects for the theft. But the official said the initial inquiry suggested the perpetrators had specific knowledge of the material and the facility.
"No broken locks, no smashed doors and no evidence of forced entry," he said.An operations manager for Iraqi security firm Taiz, which was contracted to protect the facility, declined to comment, citing instructions from Iraqi security authorities.A spokesman for Basra operations command, responsible for security in Basra province, said army, police and intelligence forces were working "day and night" to locate the material.The army and police have responsibility for security in the country's south, where Iranian-backed militias and criminal gangs also operate.Iraqi forces are battling Daesh in the country's north and west, backed by a US-led coalition. The militant group has been accused of using chemical weapons on more than one occasion over the past few years.

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