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Iraqi technicians dismantling Hussein's nuclear plants

From Frederik Pleitgen and Yousif Bassil, CNN
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Dismantling Saddam's nuclear secrets
  • Complex at the center of Saddam Hussein's nuclear efforts slowly being dismantled
  • Cleanup could take decades: Tuwaitha complex has 18 facilities
  • Dismantling at Tuwaitha made more difficult because of bombing, looting
  • Iraq began attempting to produce enriched uranium during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s

Tuwaitha, Iraq (CNN) -- The shell of former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein's efforts to produce a nuclear bomb is being slowly dismantled along the banks of the Tigris River, but its radioactive legacy lingers on.

The Tuwaitha research complex, about 18 kilometers (11 miles) southeast of Baghdad, was bombed by Israel in its 1981 airstrike on Iraq's Tammuz 1 research reactor. It was bombed again during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, and it was looted extensively after the 2003 U.S. invasion that ousted Hussein.

Now, engineers and technicians are working to dismantle the laboratories and equipment at the site, but the extensive contamination left behind complicates their work.

"It is difficult because of the destruction," said Anwar Ahmed, the project manager at Tuwaitha. "This facility was bombed in 1991. Now, finally the decision was made to decommission all the destroyed facilities."

Video: Cleaning up nuclear site in Iraq

Workers and visitors have to wear protective suits and masks around the facility, where about 20 people are at work so far. Iraq's ministry of Science and Technology said it is training more specialists to decommission the facility, but acknowledged the cleanup could take decades.

"We have 18 facilities in Tuwaitha," said Fuad al Musawi, Iraq's deputy science and technology minister. "We have another 10 facilities around the country. So you can imagine how long it will take."

Iraq's nuclear ambitions date back to the 1960s, when it obtained a Soviet-built research reactor. It built another, French-designed reactor in the 1970s. Israel's concerns about the program led to the 1981 raid, in which Israeli pilots flew across then-hostile Jordan and a corner of Saudi Arabia to strike the facility.

Despite the damage inflicted by that attack, Iraq began attempting to produce enriched uranium -- a step toward producing a nuclear weapon -- during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group reported in 2004. It accelerated that program after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait left it facing an international military coalition that ultimately drove out the Iraqi forces.

The bombardment that accompanied the 1991 war inflicted extensive damage to the Tuwaitha plants. The U.N. sanctions and inspections imposed after 1991 forced Hussein's government to abandon its nuclear program, the ISG concluded.

After the 2003 invasion, which was launched after the United States incorrectly accused Iraq of having restarted its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, nearby Iraqis inflicted further damage by looting the unguarded facility. Villagers nearby complained of symptoms that local doctors attributed to radiation sickness, particularly from using containers taken from the plant to store drinking water.

The Iraq Survey Group found basements full of radioactive water in some of the buildings, and the U.S. military later spent $70 million ensuring the safe transportation of 550 metric tons of non-weapons grade uranium oxide -- known as "yellowcake" -- to Canada.

Some Iraqi scientists still hope to start a civilian nuclear energy program in the future. But for now, Iraq is still grappling with the shadow of its past.