updated 7/7/2004 8:15:23 PM ET 2004-07-08T00:15:23

The United States didn’t have authorization from the U.N. nuclear watchdog when it secretly shipped from Iraq uranium and highly radioactive material that could be used in so-called “dirty bombs,” U.N. officials said Wednesday.

The nearly 2 tons of low-enriched uranium and approximately 1,000 highly radioactive items transferred from Iraq to the United States last month had been placed under seal by the International Atomic Energy Agency at the sprawling Tuwaitha nuclear complex, 12 miles south of Baghdad, the officials said.

“The American authorities just informed us of their intention to remove the materials, but they never sought authorization from us,” said Gustavo Zlauvinen, head of the IAEA’s New York office.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham disclosed the secret airlift from Iraq on Tuesday as “a major achievement” in an attempt to “keep potentially dangerous nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists.” The material was taken to an undisclosed U.S. Energy Department laboratory for further analysis.

The airlift ended on June 23, five days before the United States transferred sovereignty to Iraq’s new interim government.

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said in a letter to the Security Council circulated Wednesday that Washington informed the agency on June 19 that “due to security concerns” it intended to transfer some nuclear material stored at Tuwaitha to the United States.

Items moved June 23
The agency took note of the U.S. intention to remove the nuclear material “from agency verification,” he said.

According to the letter, the United States informed the IAEA on June 30 that approximately 1.8 tons of uranium enriched to a level of 2.6 percent, another 6.6 pounds of low-enriched uranium, and about 1,000 highly radioactive sources had been transferred on June 23.

A U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was some concern about the legality of the U.S. transfer because the nuclear material belonged to Iraq and was under the control and supervision of the IAEA.

The U.S. Energy Department statement said “the U.S., consistent with its authorities and relevant United Nations resolutions, took possession of and removed the materials to ensure the safety and security of the Iraqi people.”

Iraqi officials “were briefed about the removal and sources prior to evacuation,” the statement said.

In 1992, after the first Gulf War, all highly enriched uranium — which could be used to make nuclear weapons — was shipped from Iraq to Russia, the IAEA’s Zlauvinen said.

Yellow cake at Tuwaitha
After 1992, roughly 2 tons of natural uranium, or yellow cake, some low enriched uranium and some depleted uranium was left at Tuwaitha under IAEA seal and control, he said.

So were radioactive items used for medical, agricultural and industrial purposes, which Iraq was allowed to keep under a 1991 U.N. Security Council resolution, Zlauvinen said.

IAEA inspectors left Iraq just before last year’s U.S.-led war. After it ended, Washington barred U.N. weapons inspectors from returning, deploying U.S. teams instead in a so far unsuccessful search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

An exception was made in June 2003 when Washington allowed an IAEA team to go to Tuwaitha to secure uranium after reports of widespread looting when the fighting ended.

Status of some uranium still unclear
The IAEA recovered most missing material and Zlauvinen said the uranium was put in sealed containers and left for the Americans to guard.

But because U.S. authorities restricted inspections of Tuwaitha, the IAEA team was unable to determine whether hundreds of radioactive items used in research and medicine across the country were secure.

ElBaradei’s letter said that an unspecified amount of nuclear material still at Tuwaitha consists mainly of natural uranium, some depleted uranium and some low enriched uranium waste, which is subject to IAEA monitoring.

Some radioisotopes are also still in the country and come under the agency’s responsibilities, he said.

Tuwaitha is now under the control of Iraq’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments