CBRNE & EOD Defence

Analysis: The strange case of Iraq's missing uranium

14 July 2014
Following the collapse of Iraqi Army units in Mosul, ISIL stole 39.151 kg of nuclear materials. Credit: PA Photos

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militant group made world headlines on 10 June when it rolled into Mosul, routing the security forces that were supposed to defend the city and robbed the bank of some USD400 million in gold. Now there is news that they also took other things: specifically 39.151 kg of nuclear materials. This was revealed by a letter sent by the Iraqi ambassador to the UN to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. There is something very strange about this story.
On 7 July 2014, Baghdad informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna that it intended to join the international Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM): a move that would allow the Iraqi government to access international assistance in retrieving missing radioactive substances. The accession will not actually take place for 30 days until 6 August.
The next day, Ambassador Ali Alhakim in New York informed the UN secretary general that the ISIL took nuclear material from three university sites in Mosul. He gave the quantities of material to the nearest gram for almost 40 kg of miscellaneous uranium compounds.
While the ambassador's letter pointed out that it was a notification under Article V, Paragraph 2 of the CPPNM, it strongly suggested that the IAEA had not been informed because the amount of material involved was insignificant. (The IAEA announced on 10 July that it was aware of the notification and was in contact to seek further details.)
"The above mentioned nuclear materials were used in very limited quantities for the purposes of the study and scientific research, which is allowed by the relevant international conventions for the States Parties to get them in accordance with the terms and conditions of specific commitments, foremost of which is to be announced to the IAEA and through formal publication of its existence, which is implemented by Iraq in accordance with the IAEA regulations," it said.
The quantities of uranium in question are indeed small by global standards for a country with nuclear materials. Nevertheless, under the safeguards agreement executed by Iraq and the IAEA in 1979, all of the materials described in the ambassador's letter should have been declared long ago and placed under international verification.
What the ambassador appeared to be saying was that Iraq's accession to the CPPFM was a way to try to get around its failure to declare these materials to the IAEA for many years as required by the 1979 agreement. The Iraqis would be in further violation of their IAEA safeguards agreements if they were carrying out scientific work on the nuclear fuel cycle.
This lack of transparency is strange, given that Iraq is under more than usual scrutiny because of the secret nuclear weapons programme that ended in 1991. It is also difficult to dismiss as a procedure mistake, given that the Iraqis should be more cognizant of the regulations than any other state due to the intrusive inspections that followed the 1990-91 Gulf War.
At the same time, by bypassing the IAEA, Baghdad created confusion among those with the most at stake. Since the details of what materials went missing were not available for several days, there was unnecessary speculation in the media of possible hazards.
This was compounded by the ambassador's apparently misleading claim that the materials could be used in weapons of mass destruction (WMD). There is nothing in his letter to suggest this is remotely true. All the available information indicates that the likelihood that these uranium compounds are highly enriched is infinitesimal. Iraq does not have the thousands of kilogrammes of natural uranium or the huge industrial infrastructure that is required to produce weapons-grade uranium.
The ISIL could cause panic or disruption by scattering uranium compounds, but the real physical effects are on a par with other industrial chemicals. Indeed, uranium is more chemically than radiologically hazardous to human health.
A possible explanation is that the uranium compounds were taken from the Al-Jazeera Nuclear Material Feed Plant west of Mosul after it was bombed by coalition forces in 1991. The plant was completely destroyed and tonnes of uranium had to be accounted for and recovered after the war. Some equipment and instrumentation was known to have been taken to the University of Mosul, but it is a good bet that Iraqi scientists collected additional souvenirs for further study and these were subsequently forgotten, even though they should have been declared to the IAEA.
Whatever the source of the missing materials, the failure lies squarely on Iraq. The IAEA is only required to verify declared nuclear materials and not to do extensive searches for undeclared materials.
The ambassador ended his letter by saying: "Iraq is notifying the international community of these dangerous developments." It would have been more appropriate to inform the IAEA promptly under the existing agreements rather than delay to create a new agreement and then bypass its procedures. Iraq's sleight of hand in joining the CPPFM the day before it made the announcement and bypassed IAEA is disappointing. It will certainly be a factor in any further assessments of the correctness and completeness of Iraq's co-operation on nuclear matters.

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