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Nuclear fears of Iraqi scientists

U.S. military personnel look down on the nuclear facility at Tuwaitha from a berm on Saturday.
U.S. military personnel look down on the nuclear facility at Tuwaitha from a berm on Saturday.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Radioactive material stolen from a nuclear research site outside Baghdad could contaminate nearby villages and sicken their residents, Iraqi scientists warned Wednesday.

Residents of villages surrounding the Tuwaitha facility, about 10 km (6 miles) south of Baghdad, said they used drums from the site to hold water. The drums contained uranium oxide, or "yellowcake," which was dumped on the ground, they said.

There were no immediate reports of anyone falling ill after being exposed to the material, which is highly toxic if ingested but gives off only low levels of radioactivity. Workers were pouring concrete over piles of yellowcake Tuesday in order to contain it.

The drums came from a fenced site set up by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1991 to store radioactive material that could not be used for nuclear weapons. The site is about a kilometer from the main Tuwaitha complex, which was the focus of multiple U.N. weapons inspections before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March.

The fenced storage site consists of several buildings, now open. A guard shack outside the gate bears a spray-painted warning that radioactive material is inside.

U.S. troops there said high levels of radioactivity were detected from the buildings that had been broken into, and they would not approach them.

The IAEA has asked the United States to allow it to send a team to investigate the status of stored nuclear material at the site. U.S. officials have said there is no role for U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq now, but the IAEA says American forces are responsible for securing Iraq's nuclear storage facilities.

The IAEA says there is not enough nuclear material at Tuwaitha for a nuclear bomb. But substances there could be used for a "dirty bomb," made by combining conventional explosives with radioactive material.

The IAEA says it is concerned about potential radiological terrorism as well as the health and safety of the local population from sources of radiation and any potential damage to the environment.

IAEA inspectors had sealed buildings and containers holding nuclear material, including tons of natural uranium, several tons of low-enriched uranium and radiation sources used for applications such as industrial X-rays.


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