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August 7, 2003

Mission accomplished. Via YAWL: The Scotland Sunday Herald reports finding cylinders of uranium oxide, very possibly looted from Iraq’s al-Tuwaitha complex, for sale in Basra.
The Sunday Herald source, who cannot be named for fear of reprisals, was approached by black marketeers in Basra and asked if he would help sell the material. He said: 93The cylinders are about a foot long, grey in colour with a red band around the top. The skull and crossbones warning logo, and the label 91pure uranium oxide92 are clearly marked in English.94 He added that it is thought to have come from the al-Tuwaitha complex, which is 15 miles southeast of Baghdad.

John Large, a leading independent nuclear consultant, said the size and description of the cylinders 93suggests this is enriched uranium94. He added: 93A well-informed terrorist might be able to construct a crude nuclear device which would act like a mini-nuclear reactor and generate highly radioactive fission products for release into the urban atmosphere.94

What a relief that our leaders, in their wisdom, have taken action to make sure no weapons of mass destruction emerge from Iraq.

UPDATE: Various commenters make plausible arguments that whatever’s being sold in Basra, it’s probably not actually WMD-useful uranium. Read the comments. [03:38 PM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Mission accomplished.:

Trogdor the Burninator ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 03:49 PM:

The uranium could not have possibly come from Iraq, it's been proven that there were no WMD in Iraq!

Writing from Downtown Strongbadia,

Trogdor the Burninator

paul robichaux ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 04:02 PM:

So let me make sure I understand this: if the coalition finds WMDs, that's bad and proves that Bush is an idiot. If they don't find any, that's bad and proves that Bush is an idiot. I must be missing some fine logical subtlety.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 04:06 PM:

Not to worry. You're missing something, but it's hardly subtle.

Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 04:23 PM:

I'd be more than slightly skeptical. I find it hard to imagine uranium oxide, especially enriched UO2, being labelled with a skull and crossbones rather than with a radiation hazard logo. "Pure uranium oxide" also sounds like something a scammer would add; I'd expect either just "uranium oxide" or an assay percentage.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 04:31 PM:

An good point. Here in Likely Target #1, I hope you're right.

Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 05:05 PM:

If they are scammers, they're a bit short-sighted... why risk a physical scam when they could simply harness the power of the internet?






the talking dog ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 05:06 PM:

Well, I tend to agree with the "scammer" assessment-- surely, the labels would be in French or German (or possibly Russian). And why not in Arabic?

I do wonder if this stuff could be deployed in say... 40 minutes?

Obviously, securing that particular nucular site from looters seemed less of a priority than securing the oil fields, a very odd choice given the war's official purpose of prophilactically removing the threat of Iraqi WMDs falling into the hands of terrorists insofar as failure to secure that area increased the possibility of said WMDs falling onto the black market...

But let's fe give the Administration its due: it hasn't done a particularly good job of securing the oil facilities either!

Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 05:19 PM:

"Well, I tend to agree with the "scammer" assessment-- surely, the labels would be in French or German (or possibly Russian). And why not in Arabic?"

Is there a 'lingua franca' in the uranium industry?

English might serve that role better than Arabic, French, German, or Russian. Iraqis are unlikely to know Russian, and Russians are unlikely to know Arabic, but both might know English. The same may apply to German and French, depending on which languages were commonly taught in Iraqi schools.

If Iraq was bringing foreign scientists or contractors, English might have been the language of choice for working, as opposed to the language used in less directly involved contexts like management and government.

Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 05:21 PM:

But did anyone actually verify that the stuff is uranium? I have a feeling this is the Middle East terrorist equivalent of those sealed VCRs offered for sale on the street that, when subsequently unwrapped, turn out to be a bricks inside old VCR boxes...

Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 05:23 PM:

The whole thing sounds like something created by the ignorant to attract the gullible.

You or I would at least try to fake correct hazard-warning symbols, if only the radiation one. I could probably soon add a couple more for toxic dusts. Yes, I wouldn't be surprised to see a skull * crossbones symbol as well, nor is an English label so wildly improbable, as well as Arabic. The whole style is wrong.

And if we were talking enriched uranium oxide, how big can the package be before it gets really unsafe?

Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 05:41 PM:

There are no stories on google news except for these two



They don't prove anything, but it does seem possible that there was nuclear material somewhere in Iraq. Unsurprising, given that we knew that Saddam was building a reactor at some point.

It's beyond the bounds of credulity, however, that an Iraqi reactor would have cylinders labled in English, and with a skull and crossbones. No producer of uranium uses those symbols. The radiation hazard symbol is international.

Furthermore, material used for storage of radioactives is propotionaly huge to the amount of material it contains even for things that are not very "hot". I know. I've had some medical radioactive materials for cell research in my fridge.

Unless some Iraqi stole uranium oxide, repackaged it and tried to sell it, there's a scam going on there. Getting ahold of minorly radoiactive material, though, is pretty easy. Get enough old smoke detectors together and you have some. Radioactive iodine is also easy to come by.

My only question is, who's running the scam?

Josh ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 05:45 PM:

How big before it gets unsafe? What do you mean? It's not going to blow up on it's own. If you want to know how much blockage is needed to keep you safe from the radiation, that's another question. I can't say for sure. I know a few nuclear physicists, but they're not immediatley available. I'll check around.

Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 05:48 PM:

"Is it atomic?"
"Yes, sir, VERY atomic!"

Rich McAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 06:26 PM:

It's beyond the bounds of credulity, however, that an Iraqi reactor would have cylinders labled in English

Not at all -- back during the active part of the war, there were lots of pictures of Iraqi freeway signs, which are in both English and Arabic. (I've never been to Iraq, but I've been to Saudi Arabia, and it's the same there.)

How big before it gets unsafe? What do you mean? It's not going to blow up on it's own

Blow up, no, but if it's enriched enough it can start a chain reaction in the presence of a moderator -- like water. (That's how those Japanese nuclear plant refuelers cooked themselves back in 1999.) No explosion, but buckets of hard radiation and some really nasty fission products left over.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 07:34 PM:

if the coalition finds WMDs, that's bad and proves that Bush is an idiot. If they don't find any, that's bad and proves that Bush is an idiot.


Assuming Bush is an honest man:

If the coalition finds Iraqi WMDs showing up on the open market, that proves that Bush was an idiot for thinking that invading Iraq would keep Iraqi WMDs out of the hands of terrorists.

If the coalition never finds Iraqi WMDs, that proves that Bush is an idiot for wasting time, money, and lives invading and occupying a country that posed no immediate threat.

Is that logic subtle enough for you?

Josh ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 07:42 PM:

The freeway signs make sense. They used to get tourists back before the Gulf War. But labeling something in English (not just Roman letters) in a scientific instalation? I'm just not buying it.

One assumes that any chain reactions would be fairly obvious from (IIRC) the heat. But then I'm still not a nuclear physicist, or even a reactor tech. I have no clue how much it would take for it to get that dangerous, or what conditions it would take.

This whole thing reads like a con game. I do belive that, given the chance, Saddam Hussein would create WMD. I know he had chemical weapons in the past. If they discovered something with writing in Russian and the international symbol for radiation on it, I'd be a lot more accepting of the possibility.

That said, the Bush administration has lied to me too many times for me to trust them anymore. They've created "free speech zones", the Patriot Act, Patriot II, they've started hastling air travelers on the basis of dissent, and they're getting worse every day.

Add that to the fact that there's still no link between september 11'th and Iraq, and the fact that the Neo-cons were pushing for an Iraq invasion before september 11'th.

It's sad, but if they do provide a "smoking gun", I can't say I feel I could trust that they didn't manufacture it in the first place. I hate the idea that I'm going to sound like some conspiracy theorist, but there it is.

I don't belive, as some actual conspiracy theorists do, that the september 11'th attacks were known of, or worse, staged, but I do think they were used to pin the blame on Iraq with no evidence.

It disgusts me that I can't trust evidence that might actualy prove that Bush was right because he's lied to the US public so often.

Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 07:53 PM:

Kip: We don't want none o' them damn atoms around here!

Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 08:33 PM:

This story is sounding awfully familiar. Remember the "35 pounds of enriched weapons-grade uranium" found in a taxi in Turkey last fall? It turned out to be, what was it, 3 ounces of zinc, manganese, iron, and something else... zirconium, that was it.

Not to say that there isn't real smuggled uranium floating around that part of the world. Very likely there is. But even if this is the real goods, Basra is on the Persian Gulf, and contraband is just as likely to have arrived from somewhere else, for instance, stolen from a Russian sub. Especially in the chaos of post-invasion Iraq, this doesn't come close to being proof of the existence of Iraqi WMDs.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 09:58 PM:

Well, if it is uranium, I doubt that it is highly enriched, if it is enriched at all. If the material is close to reactor grade or better (which in minimally enriched) it is stored and transported mot just in "cans" but in "birdcages" that prevent too much of the stuff from being stacked together and creating an informal reactor. Considering that with some kind of moderator (anyone have some carbon handy?) you can create a reactor with natural uranium, its a reasonable precaution.

Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 10:25 PM:

"It's beyond the bounds of credulity, however, that an Iraqi reactor would have cylinders labled in English, and with a skull and crossbones"

Well, um. Maybe the Iraqi nuclear program was run by someone named Tariq Al-Blackbeard?


Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 12:35 AM:

Pirates of the Mesopotamian, perhaps?

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 02:29 AM:

Arrr, a mighty blast our cannons will make with this glowing powder!

Elric ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 08:25 AM:

Back in the seventies and eighties there was a good educational system in Iraq, and they acted as though they wanted to make the country bilingual, with English as a second language. (I don't remember the year, but there was a rather interesting National Geographic article on Iraq in the late eighties.)

Signage in English is possible.

There's been evidence that there were radioactive materials in storage. People who emptied containers and began using them for storing water and food have been showing up with indications of radiation poisoining.

Has anyone seen any stories about an effort being made to clean up radioactive contamination at the site? There may be such news out there, but I haven't noticed it. If there is a cleanup going on, thank goodness. If not, then there damned well ought to be, and more shame to Bremer and the Bush league for not getting crews in ABC suits on the scene at once. (Let's not even go into the reasons why a nuclear research facility wasn't singled out for heavy security as soon as U.S. forces were anywhere withing fifty miles.)

As commented above, between waste material from al-Tuwaitha, and material from hospitals, smoke detectors, contracting sites, and other legitimate locations, there's certain to be material in Iraq that is radioactive. The presence of that material is not evidence of WMD in and of itself.

Finding such material that has been combined with conventional explosives to make contaminating bombs is, unfortunately, at least as likely to represent opportunistic action as it is to show evidence of Iraqi government programs.

Again, as commented above, if processed radioactive materials, capable of supporting any form of fission reaction, are actually found on the market, it proves either that international and U.S. teams were incompetent in their failure to locate and secure the material in Iraqi facilities (and I would be very dubious of claims that anyone was told to take twenty kilos of fissionable material to bury in a rose garden), or that they need to have their origins established.

Conspiracy theorists have already spent lots of bandwidth positing spooks placing WMDs where they can be "discovered" and I don't need to open that topic. But there has been plenty of instability in various parts of the former Soviet Union, and materials could have been removed for resale. There's been documentation of serious problems in the locations established under Stalin for disposal of radioactive waste, and the desparate or the ignorant could have removed "hot" material. God knows why anyone would smuggle it INTO Iraq to try to sell it, but it could happen.

To the question above--not finding WMDs means no WMDs have been found, and that lack makes the intelligence the White House acted on look pretty weak. Finding materials of unknown quality for sale in the town market doesn't represent finding WMDs, but rather the discovery of either a petty con artist, or of a need for some further investigation. And, if a hidden bunker full of chemical-armed rockets targeted for all the major cities within a thousand miles of Baghdad is found, it would provide a powerful boost to Bush and Blair. Of course, since the U.S. search for hidden WMDs has been cut back, that last seems like a very remote possibility. This isn't blind Bush-bashing. It's just what the evidence shows at this time.

Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 09:40 AM:

I have updated YAWL with a link to this thread. I really hope everyone here is right, and the Herald wrong: I'd far rather that someone is playing "let's scam Al-Qaeda" (a game unlikely to get anyone but the players killed) than that the stuff is actually floating around the Basra souk.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 10:35 AM:

No kidding. Hard though it may be for some people to believe, I would actually prefer not to have a (say) dirty bomb set off in (say) New York City.

But hey, I also think Paul Krugman doesn't actually want the country to fall into a years-long, debilitating economic collapse. We liberals will claim anything!

Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 10:41 AM:

Ok, I have no qualms about positing a conspiracy theory.

Do you suppose that maybe they allowed the al-Tuwaitha facility to be looted so that, should they need it, they could produce some weapons grade uranium as proof that Iraq had an ongoing nuclear program, without having to show any evidence where it came from other than the "buyer" who claims to have looted it from an Iraqi nuclear facility. And heaven knows, they wouldn't lie to us about that, would they?

This story also smacks of a version of "it fell of the back of a truck."

Not that this particularly qualifies me, but I was once a HazMat specialist for FedEx. Although I am not sure about the label being in English, I do know that the radioactive symbol is universally used because things are labelled in different languages, except by people who forge documents from Niger. I no longer have access to my hazmat manual, but "Pure Uranium Oxide" doesn't sound like proper terminology either.

Don't worry. Someone will catch these flagrant errors and correct them before the 6 o'clock news. It takes time to develop a proper story and give it legs and clean up all the contradictory material from the initial report.

Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 10:44 AM:

That should have been "seller," not "buyer."

James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 10:50 AM:

It's well-known that there was radioactive material at Tuwaitha in Iraq. This was accounted for by the Iraqis, inspected and inventoried by the UN, and placed under seal.

It's also well-known that Tuwaitha was looted to the walls after the recent war.

If some of the looted material has shown up on the black market, no one should be surprised.

Should the story prove true this would be no way the same thing as "finding WMD in Iraq."

This article seems pertinent:

Hisham Abdel Malik, a Iraqi nuclear scientist who lives near Tuwaitha and has been inside the complex, told me that in buildings "where there are radioactive isotopes, there is looting every day." He says the isotopes, which are in bright silver containers, "are sold in the black market or kept in homes." According to IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, such radioactive sources can kill on contact or pollute whole neighborhoods.

James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 11:04 AM:

A bit more on all this. To make an atomic bomb you need either U-235 or plutonium. Plutonium comes from reactors -- you don't find it lying on the ground. U-235 is found in natural uranium ore; it's about 0.7% in a sample of pure uranium. To make a bomb you have to separate out the U-235 from the rest of the isotopes. This is the step that requires some really good engineering, an industrial base, and expertise. Exactly how much U-235 you need is one of those nuclear secrets that you have to have stayed awake in high school physics to figure out for yourself. Let's just say that you have to process tons of ore to get it, and the processing is neither easy, nor cheap, nor something you can do at home in your spare time.

This doesn't stop uranium oxide from being a nasty, poisonous, radioactive material. If you take some and scatter it around, you've created a health hazard. If you have a bunch of radioactive material from whatever source, you can build a dirty bomb; the equivalent of a HAZMAT spill, only deliberate and at a particularly damaging location.

See also this: the case of the radioactive Boy Scout.

Raven ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 11:58 AM:

Thanks for reminding people of the particulars of the Tuwaitha story, James MacDonald. When I started reading the thread, I was amazed that many people already seem to have forgotten about this.

I only wish to add two points: There was indeed slightly enriched (not weapons grade) uranium in Tuwaitha, and that was well known and inventoried by the IAEA. It is quite possilbe that some of that material might have been looted.

Also, since the IAEA inventoried the materials, they are bound to have control numbers and inventory labels in English. That would not surprise me at all.

That said, as several people already pointed out, doubts are probably in order, and it does sound like a scam.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 12:20 PM:

A good source for some background is this Nuclear Regulatory Commission site on uranium enrichment.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 03:33 PM:

I’d far rather that someone is playing “let’s scam Al-Qaeda”

“They wanted me to build them a bomb, so I took their plutonium and in turn gave them a shoddy bomb casing full of used pinball-machine parts!”

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 10:56 PM:

Looters seem to be the most effective weapons inspectors.

James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2003, 11:10 AM:

Recall why the President's men want to kill Hussein rather than capture him and put him on trial: to avoid "embarrass[ing] Washington by publicizing past US support for the deposed Iraqi dictator."

Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2003, 02:33 PM:

And anyway, maybe stuff had English labelling on it because it was purchased from an English-speaking country. Remember, one reason reason why a lot of people thought Cheney & Bush knew something the rest of us didn't know about Saddam having WMD was, "Because we have the receipts!"

Barry ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2003, 10:25 AM:

From Kathryn Cramer,
posted on August 8, 2003 10:56 PM:

"Looters seem to be the most effective weapons inspectors."

Even better. They seem to be able to *sanitize* sites so thoroughly that inspectors can't find any decent evidence afterwards. Not just hauling off saleable equipment and easily-transportable scrap metal. And they do it in a few weeks.

We really need to find those people for hazardous waste clean-ups in the US. Give them a year and they could probably scour all sites on the EPA Superfund list.