Experts say hunt for uranium seized by Iraq terrorists 'unnecessary'
Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed Ali Alhakim, caused a stir last week with a letter announcing that terrorist groups had seized nearly 40 kilograms of “uranium compounds” from the country’s Mosul University.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was quick to issue a statement saying the material was “low-grade” and did not represent a security or safety risk. But the agency did not specify what the missing materials were, or whether it knew about them before they disappeared.
“This seems to be a reagent used in teaching,” an IAEA diplomat told The New York Times, adding that it was a relatively small amount of material that could “fit in a bucket.”
Analysts note, however, a lab would typically have only a few kilograms of such material, not 40 kg. And while the use of uranium compounds for chemistry and physics research and teaching is widely accepted, there are strict regulations in place to limit the amount an institution can hold at any given time.
Bob Kelly, a former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990s downplayed the issue. He told NBC News the stolen uranium was likely to be more dangerous as a toxin, like lead, than as radioactive material.
“Putting it in a dirty bomb is a pretty silly idea,” he was quoted as saying. “If you spread uranium over a large area, it is just going to disappear.”
Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA chief inspector, told Reuters it was impossible to make a nuclear explosive from the seized amount, but noted all uranium compounds are poisonous.
Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think tank told Reuters UN inspectors had previously scoured Mosul, including several universities following the Gulf War. He said what remained was uranium liquid wastes, sources, uranium oxides and uranium tetrafluoride.
However, it remains unclear whether or not the IAEA knew about this “low grade” residual stockpile or not, and if they were aware of it, why it wasn’t removed.