In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, America was unable to quickly assess the impact of its depleted uranium weapons on Iraqi health. In retrospect, those munitions posed a minuscule health risk—but that hasn’t stopped millions of suspicious people from continuing to accuse the United States of having poisoned Iraqis with radioactive bombs.
Today again, people are claiming that American negligence—allowing barrels that once stored uranium to be stolen from Iraq’s Tuwaitha nuclear storage site—has lead to the poisoning of hundreds of Iraqi civilians. This time, though, the danger may be real.
America must act quickly to confront this possibility, evaluating the extent of the public health risk, treating those affected, and making its assessments and actions well known to the world. The alternative, even if there is no loss of human life, will be a terrible and unnecessary loss of American credibility.
Inspections now under way at Tuwaitha, focusing strictly on finding out what nuclear materials have been stolen, are missing the mark. Though the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency inspections have been spurred by fears of nuclear proliferation, the nuclear weapons threat from Tuwaitha’s looting is small. Media reports noting that stolen uranium could be processed and used to make nuclear weapons are, strictly speaking, correct. But they grossly exaggerate the extent of the danger.
The enrichment process needed to convert this uranium to a form suitable for nuclear weapons is by far the most challenging step in building a nuclear bomb. While uranium thefts should never be taken lightly, we should rest easier in knowing that any rogue, even having obtained Tuwaitha’s uranium, would have much higher hurdles still to clear.
The threat of a dirty bomb is not so easily dismissed, but it is still not as great as many have assumed. The uranium once stored at Tuwaitha—and now comprising the majority of the looted material—would be extremely ineffective in a dirty bomb because of its very low radioactivity.
Instead, possible thefts from the site of several highly radioactive samples of cesium and cobalt present a greater danger. Depending on the quantities present, those samples could be used to contaminate large swaths of a city. It is possible, though, that the samples were small enough to be of little danger in a dirty bomb, and inspectors plan to sort that out.
The greatest potential danger, though, may be to Iraqi public health.
As has been widely reported, Iraqi villagers have stolen plastic jugs that once held uranium and have used them to store food and drink. While external exposure to uranium is not particularly hazardous, ingesting uranium is. Depending on how well villagers washed the jugs, some may have uranium poisoning from swallowed dust. It is impossible to predict how many people have been poisoned. The local population needs to be tested to determine the extent of the problem.
Some U.S. authorities appear to believe that such testing is unnecessary. Their reasoning is illustrated in a recent Washington Times report that cited Col. Tim Madere, head of the coalition weapons of mass destruction search team, asserting, “Tests on showed ‘very low radiation—so low people could drink out of them many times and not get sick.'”
But this is a flawed logic. The jugs posed a danger to Iraqis because of the uranium dust remaining in them immediately after they were stolen. Most of that dust was probably carried away with the first few batches of water stored in the jugs—and ingested by whoever drank from them. Measurements of how much uranium now remains in the jugs is essentially useless in establishing how much uranium villagers have already ingested. That does not imply that there has already been widespread uranium poisoning—but it does suggest that quickly dismissing that possibility without testing individuals is unwise.
Ideally, the International Atomic Energy Agency would expand its mission and conduct such assessments. But lingering tensions between the United States and the agency over weapons inspections prior to the war—U.S. officials felt that agency head Mohamed ElBaradei was understating the Iraqi threat—make such enhanced cooperation unlikely. Simply negotiating the agency’s current access to Tuwaitha seems to have been a monumental challenge, and the resulting arrangement—restricting inspectors to the nuclear site—may well reflect the limit of what the United States is willing to concede.
Independent, international verification, though, is still essential. To satisfy this need, the United States should turn to another, less contentious, international body, such as the World Health Organization or the Red Cross, to independently verify its assessments, legitimating them in the eyes of the world.
American credibility is at a historic low, as people worldwide question earlier claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Without a comprehensive, internationally supervised assessment of Iraqi public health, it appears few will believe American assertions – whether true or not – about the impact of Tuwaitha’s looting.
America does not need a repeat of the depleted uranium fiasco that has dogged it for the past decade. By diligently investigating what has happened, America can pre-empt a further blow to its credibility.