Media reports have stated that specialized seals have been broken on a stock of nuclear material stored at the Tuwaitha nuclear research center at a site called Location C. The seals are in place to ensure that any tampering with the material would be detected.
A key issue is what happened in the days between the abandonment of the site by the Iraqi guards and the arrival of US troops and the imposition of adequate security. Has some of the nuclear material been taken? Some of this material is highly radioactive and poses a health and safety risk to anyone mishandling it. All the material could be useful for terrorists or other nations intent on making nuclear weapons or radiological dispersal devices.
Tuwaitha was Iraq's primary civilian nuclear research site prior to the first Gulf War in 1991. It was also the location of numerous secret, nuclear weapons-related activities that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Action Team inspectors discovered when they conducted Security Council-mandated inspections in Iraq after that war. One result of those inspections was to remove Iraq's stock of weapons-usable material, such as highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium. Some material that could not be used directly for nuclear weapons, including natural uranium and low-enriched uranium, was left in Iraq but placed under IAEA seals and near-constant monitoring. This material was still monitored by the IAEA during the absence of UN Security Council-mandated inspections in Iraq between 1998 and 2002. The IAEA used the legal authority of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to gain access to this material at least once a year.
The IAEA should immediately go to Location C and ensure that all the nuclear material is accounted for and is properly safeguarded. There is a precedent for the IAEA to conduct inspections during war. In June 1999, the IAEA conducted its first wartime inspections at the Vinca nuclear site in the former Yugoslavia. Just as in the Yugoslavia case, the IAEA has a responsibility to inspect the nuclear material under safeguards in Iraq. The United States and Britain, as the occupying parties of Iraq, should allow the IAEA immediate access to Tuwaitha.
This case demonstrates the confusion that can be caused by inaccurate reporting by individuals without a firm technical understanding of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In addition, it highlights that the United States military needs help in its efforts regarding WMD. The military has placed an appropriate priority on locating and containing any secret WMD activity in Iraq, but they are not prepared to conduct safeguards activities. Indeed, they should not be expected to do so. The IAEA has the experience and the responsibility to carry out the task of determining the status of the nuclear material at Tuwaitha, even during times of conflict.