Dr Dave Sloggett considers the implications of the report emanating from Iraq that 40 kg of Uranium has gone missing from the University in Mosul.
Ever since the dramatic events of 11 September people have feared that the next major terrorist attack could involve some kind of CBRN weapon. Given the improbability of any terrorist group being able to create a viable nuclear device the focus of the international community has tended to revolve around the possibility that some form of dirty bomb might be created from abandoned nuclear material or stolen radioactive isotopes.
This concern was highlighted by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano at a meeting at their headquarters in Vienna in July 2013 where he warned against a “false sense of security” over the danger of nuclear terrorism. Citing over one hundred reports of the theft or other unauthorized activities involving nuclear materials the Director General quoted a case were highly enriched uranium was intercepted in Moldova in 2011. The Director General made the specific point that the incident showed “a worrying level of knowledge on the part of the smugglers”.
Of course the impact of a dirty bomb would largely be psychological. In practical terms unless significant quantities of specific radioactive materials are obtained the actual physical problems created by the detonation of such a device would be highly localised. Its overall effect would be hugely dependent upon a number of prevailing environmental factors.
This however does not dampen down the enthusiasm in the media for any story that leads editors and journalists to speculate that a dirty bomb attack might soon occur. Against such a feverish backdrop any news that appears to suggest radioactive materials have fallen into the hands of terrorists can have an immediate impact in the media.
This is just the scenario that was played out a few weeks ago when the Iraqi’s released the text of a letter sent by Iraq’s Ambassador on 8 July to the United Nations reporting the loss of 40 kg of Uranium from the University in Mosul, an area recently occupied by the Islamic extremist group ISIS. The letter, which was obtained by Reuters, contained some language designed to inflame concerns. The overall tone of the letter was alarmist and perhaps designed to create a backlash in Washington in an attempt to draw the Americans into greater involvement in the deteriorating security situation on the ground in Iraq.
Putting these two pieces of information together the headline writers had a field day. Claims that ISIS could now create a dirty bomb and suggestions they might be prepared to use it in Iraq, Syria or even worse somewhere in the west proliferated across numerous media channels. After all, some reasoned, ISIS has a track record for extreme behaviour. Developing and using a dirty bomb would just be another step in the extraordinary range of killings that ISIS has already metered out on its foes.
Journalists and editors it seemed were all too ready to jump on the bandwagon raising serious concerns over the potential threat. Against the backdrop of such hyperbole it is worthwhile spending a few minutes actually trying to gather the facts of what is behind the Iraqi report and to asses if it really does pose a wider threat.
Such concerns were obviously fuelled by the wording used in the letter by the Iraqi Ambassador. He stated that “Terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the site that came out of control of the state” adding that despite the limited amount believed to be in the possession of ISIS such materials “can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction” adding that the Iraq needed helped to “stave off the threat of their use by terrorists in Iraq or abroad”.
The first and perhaps most important thing to consider is that the Uranium involved has not been enriched. This is significant and changes the nature of the threat. Even if this form of Uranium at these quantities were to be used in a dirty bomb its overall impact would not be that significant as a threat to health.
This viewpoint was quickly confirmed by the IAEA in a statement release from their headquarters in Vienna. The statement noted that the uranium involved was “low grade” and therefore did not pose “a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk”.
Their spokesperson, Gill Tudor, did however note that “any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive sources is a cause for concern”. This assessment was also quickly confirmed by unnamed sources in the United States and by a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Alexander Lukashevich who added that despite the material itself being of little practical use that the “sheer fact that terrorists show an unmistakable interest in nuclear and chemical materials is, of course, very alarming”. It is clear that the threat from a dirty bomb is never far away from the political and civil leaders as well as those in the media.
The release of the letter also comes at a time when many in Iraq are questioning the longer-term impact of the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) by allied forces involved in the first Gulf War in 1991. Pictures emerging from Iraq of deformed babies and evidence that suggests cancer rates have increased in the south of the county where the allied forces used the majority of their DU weapons are of concern. They would appear to suggest that Iraqi’s are suffering some long-term impact of their proximity to remnants of DU. These pictures provide a calibration of the nature of the real threat from uranium. Whilst concerns have rightly been raised about the loss of the material from Mosul the real focus in Iraq from health viewpoint may need to be elsewhere.