ISIS Captures Nuclear Material From Iraq
Mainstream media attempting gymnastics to avoid alarm
The breaking news via Twitter on Wednesday night was quite alarming.
BREAKING NEWS: IRAQ TELLS U.N. THAT ‘TERRORIST GROUPS’ SEIZED NUCLEAR MATERIALS. REUTERS
— PzFeed Top News (@PzFeed) July 9, 2014
Iraq says militants seized 40 kg (88 pounds) of uranium compounds from university, ambassador warns they can be used for WMD – Reuters
— PzFeed Top News (@PzFeed) July 10, 2014
The United Nations seems to be playing down the significance of the threat, but the Iraqi government’s warning was specific that this material could be used in creating weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq has notified the United Nations that Sunni militants seized nuclear material from a university in the northern city of Mosul last month as they advanced toward Baghdad, the nuclear regulatory body of the United Nations said on Thursday.
Gill Tudor, a spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is based in Vienna, said in a statement that the organization’s experts believed the material — thought to be uranium — was “low-grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk.”
Word of the seizure first emerged in a letter to the United Nations dated July 8 and seen by reporters from Reuters, which quoted it as saying that “terrorists” from the insurgent Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, had taken control of the materials.
The letter said that almost 90 pounds of uranium compounds had been kept at the university and that the materials “can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction,” Reuters said.
The first question that comes to many Americans’ minds is: How can there be uranium material left in Iraq? After all, the Bush Administration was skewered by the media (and continues to be) when they presented the “yellowcake” evidence at the United Nations prior to the 2003 Iraq War. And, as that TIME article pointed out, even the Bush Administration admitted in 2003 that they messed up on the yellowcake evidence.
But not so fast. There were some interesting — and very underreported — elements of the WMD story in Iraq exposed by none other than WikiLeaks. Larry Elder helped wade through the WMD mess from the new WikiLeaks information when it came out.
Wired magazine’s contributing editor Noah Shachtman — a nonresident fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution — researched the 400,000 WikiLeaked documents released in October. Here’s what he found: “By late 2003, even the Bush White House’s staunchest defenders were starting to give up on the idea that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But WikiLeaks’ newly-released Iraq war documents reveal that for years afterward, U.S. troops continued to find chemical weapons labs, encounter insurgent specialists in toxins and uncover weapons of mass destruction (emphasis added). … Chemical weapons, especially, did not vanish from the Iraqi battlefield. Remnants of Saddam’s toxic arsenal, largely destroyed after the Gulf War, remained. Jihadists, insurgents and foreign (possibly Iranian) agitators turned to these stockpiles during the Iraq conflict — and may have brewed up their own deadly agents.”
In 2008, our military shipped out of Iraq — on 37 flights in 3,500 barrels — what even The Associated Press called “the last major remnant of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program”: 550 metric tons of the supposedly nonexistent yellowcake. The New York Sun editorialized: “The uranium issue is not a trivial one, because Iraq, sitting on vast oil reserves, has no peaceful need for nuclear power. … To leave this nuclear material sitting around the Middle East in the hands of Saddam … would have been too big a risk.”
The truth, of course, usually lies in the middle of a fierce debate like this. Those who supported the war in Iraq always maintained that Saddam Hussein could have restarted his WMD/nuclear program at anytime — the WikiLeaks documents seem to confirm this.
But does the radical Islamist group ISIS (now a “declared Islamic state”) have the materials to make a traditional nuclear weapon now? No.
What ISIS does have are the elements to make rudimentary weapons of mass destruction. Earlier in the ISIS advance last month through Northern Iraq — it was revealed that in June the terror army had seized chemical weapons from a facility outside Baghdad.
Still it may come as a surprise to many that the uranium compounds — now in the hands of ISIS — were allowed to remain in control of the new Iraqi government in the first place. The United Nations counted on Iraq to use the material for “peaceful nuclear technology.”
In its comprehensive 30 September 2004 report (also known as the Duelfer Report), the Iraq Survey Group concluded that Saddam Hussein had ended Iraq’s nuclear weapons program following the first Gulf War in 1991, and had not directed a coordinated effort to restart the program thereafter.  Surviving Iraqi nuclear facilities, which were almost entirely destroyed during the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, are controlled by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST). In cooperation with the Iraq Nuclear Facility Dismantlement and Disposal Project – a joint effort of the IAEA, the U.S. Department of State, and U.S. national laboratories tasked with “eliminating threats from poorly controlled radioactive materials” – Iraqi regulators have worked to eliminate most of Iraq’s remaining nuclear infrastructure, much of which poses health and safety risks. 
The post-Saddam Iraqi government has thus far adhered to the nonproliferation regime, and in 2009 displayed interest in developing a peaceful nuclear program.  Iraqi Minister of Science and Technology Ra’id Fahmi publicly cited both research and the growing demand for electricity as reasons Iraq is exploring the feasibility of nuclear technology.  In recognition of Iraq’s adherence to the international nonproliferation regime, the United Nations Security Council in 2010 lifted post-Gulf War sanctions prohibiting Iraq from pursuing peaceful nuclear technology. 
So these weapons now in the hands of a radical Islamic terror army may not be the ones wrapped up in a bow that MSNBC was expecting the United States would find in 2003. But what ISIS has been able to pillage from Iraq are indeed ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ These chemical and radiological materials can be used to poison and maim large populations or to create a radiation dirty bomb out of a van loaded with traditional explosives.
Hopefully our Western intelligence agencies will do a better job of finding these potential WMDs now that they are out of Iraq.
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It boggles the mind how effectively media bias shapes the thinking of the average US voter. Ask the average person walking down the street about WMD in Iraq and they’ll tell you that “Bush lied and people died.”
But there are bushels of evidence, as cited in this post above, that there was in fact WMD in Iraq before we went in the second time. And then there is that pesky UN Inspectors inventory of WMD materials before they got kicked out the last time before the 2003 invasion and which they refused to account for afterwards.
And our Marxist Media refuses to connect the dots… where did the chemical weapons being used in Syria come from? How is it that Uranium has been seized by ISIS in Iraq if there was never any WMD materials in Iraq? And on and on and on and on.
Try to have this conversation with a prog and they will just try to shout you down with their talking points.
Pathetic really what this country has come to. We’re led by a bunch of emotionally driven liberal idgets who have the liberal media’s thumb up their butts. We have become a case study on why democracy doesn’t work.
If you really want an active, inquisitive media that questions government actions, then the answer is simple.
Elect a Republican President.
The eternal problem, which burns me every single time I see it: everyone who knew anything about the issue knew Saddam still had pre-Desert Storm stockpiles that hadn’t been fully destroyed but which were unusable by a civilized army. They remain unusable by a civilized army. They remain dubious for a terrorist army. Those WMD were always there. Those WMD were not the ones Bush sent people in to find, and every time people suggest otherwise, I want to explode.
Bush was concerned about an enemy with terrorist friends having all that territory and industrial potential to create fresh, very deadly WMD, especially an active program that could be dusted off at any time, but even including theoretical potential, because Saddam was a very, very bad man.
ISIS having territory like this is a similar problem, but the old 1980’s stuff? Largely a joke.
I think there are some aspects to the story of yellowcake in Iraq that you may also have overlooked (at least you didn’t mention it). Press coverage of the entire yellowcake issue was terrible and misleading back before the war. You didn’t need Wikileaks to tell you that Iraq had huge stockpiles if yellowcake, the IAEA itself was reporting that publicly, although almost nobody in the press ever made mention of it. The existence of these stockpiles was not an item of debate, either: the IAEA knew where they were because they inspected those stockpiles. Press accounts of the whole yellowcake debacle gave the public the impression that Saddam didn’t have any, which meant that if he didn’t GET any from Africa, then he wouldn’t be able to do anything nuclear-related. But that was never the issue, since he had plenty of yellowcake. The issue was that what he had was known to the IAEA, under seal, and subject to inspection. If he did anything with it, then the IAEA would find out the next time they did their periodic inspections. If he was getting more yellowcake from other sources, that would mean he was circumventing those IAEA inspections, and he would only do that in order to restart his weapons program. As we now know, that wasn’t happening. But the existence of those stockpiles meant the threat of restarting his nuclear program was always there. If sanctions were ever lifted, Saddam could have reclaimed those existing stockpiles for “civilian” use, and then diverted some for weapons use.
Um, no. The 550 metric tons of yellowcake was under U.N. seal. It was still under seal when the Americans overran the facility during the invasion. As for old degraded chemical weapons, the country is strewn with them. And for the university research materials, uranium is only weakly radioactive.
“Under UN Seal.” Wow! That sure means a lot when the country had been thumbing it’s nose at UN resolutions for over a decade and had kicked out all UN inspectors years prior.
Paul: Wow! That sure means a lot when the country had been thumbing it’s nose at UN resolutions for over a decade and had kicked out all UN inspectors years prior.
Turns out it must have meant a lot as the uranium was still under seal when the U.S. invaded. Inspectors were in country until ordered out by the U.S.
Oh I see, you trusted Hussein I guess? After twelve years of playing footsie over countless resolutions, numerous incidents of him firing SAMs at our planes enforcing the no-fly zones, conspiracies to assassinate a former US president, etc etc etc you want to take a guy like that at his word?
But I suppose we’re just re-hashing all the same ignorant prog drone talking points as before. Good day to you sir.
Paul: you trusted Hussein I guess?
We stated a verifiable fact. The uranium was put under U.N. seal. It was still under U.N. seal when the Americans overran the facility.
You are a moron. How do you verify such thing when the inspectors were out of country?
Paul: How do you verify such thing when the inspectors were out of country?
Inspectors were in Iraq until told to leave by the Americans.
The uranium yellowcake had been under IAEA seal since about 1991. It was still under seal in 2003, when the facility was overrun by the Americans.
And the uranium is on weakly radioactive? So it’s all good then if they smuggle it up some with some Guatamalan “refugees” and then build a fertilizer/diesel bomb and detonate it in a major US city? No big deal!
Paul: And the uranium is on weakly radioactive?
Yes, uranium is only weakly radioactive with the most common isotope having a half-life of 4½ billion years.
Sorry, you apparently missed my sarcasm. So what if it’s only “weakly” radioactive? What happens if somebody scatters a bunch of it over a major city with a dirty bomb?
Paul: What happens if somebody scatters a bunch of it over a major city with a dirty bomb?
The effect would be limited. Only those that directly inhaled the powder would be seriously affected. People might overreact, though.
Perhaps you missed our point. Many medical centers or research facilities have far more dangerous radioisotopes.
Yea – Both Zach and DM are right.
Yellowcake is just refined Uranium Ore. 238 makes up 99.9% of uranium – 235 is less than 1/10th of 1%.
That’s why people “enrich” uranium – to separate the 235 from the 238 (hence centrifuges).
But, while we all impress each other with our knowledge of isotopes …. WHY did Iraq have 550 TONS of uranium Ore?! Just by math and evaluating real low – that’s more than enough to make a bomb.
Also, and let’s not skip this: there was a LOT of convoys that went into Syrai prior to the war. And recently Syria USED chemical weapons … where did they get them?
Lastly, and this is rather important – so I’ll use an analogy:
A guy is a known felon. He’s shot his neighbors before and has been told he’s not allowed to own a gun.
But he’s bragging he GOT a gun. He makes threats to the cops and tells them they’ll die if they come to his house.
Would ANYONE blame the cops for kicking in his door?!
LSBeene: WHY did Iraq have 550 TONS of uranium Ore?!
Yellowcake. Yellowcake is usually about 80% uranium oxides. The yellowcake was for his nuclear weapons program. Saddam agreed to put his yellowcake under U.N. seal. And it was still under U.N. seal when the U.S. overran the facility.
LSBeene: And recently Syria USED chemical weapons
Syrian is known to have had an advanced chemical weapons program. Using Saddam’s inferior and degraded chemical weapons would make no sense, and would be very dangerous to handle.
LSBeene: A guy is a known felon. He’s shot his neighbors before and has been told he’s not allowed to own a gun. But he’s bragging he GOT a gun. He makes threats to the cops and tells them they’ll die if they come to his house. Would ANYONE blame the cops for kicking in his door?!
Your neighbor is a known criminal and is on probation. He says he has disarmed. You strongly suspect he is building a bomb. You’re afraid, so you call the police. Inspectors search the house and don’t find anything. You show up at the house, shoot your neighbor, kill his dog, terrify his wife, beat his kid. You search everywhere, but there is no bomb, indeed, you find evidence that your neighbor has, in fact, disarmed.
You guys are crazy discussing the varying half-life’s of different isotopes. It simply does not matter how ‘mild’ a particular form of radiation is. Study up on asymmetric warfare and terror tactics, and then trust me… a dirty bomb over a major city, no matter how ‘mild’ the radioactivity may be, will kill thousands and cost trillions as it throws the global economy into a meltdown. If it sets the Geiger counters to chattering it’s all she wrote… people will die in the stampedes and the aftermath.
Sometimes you science nerds are just so… nerdy.
Paul: I agree that some here are being “nerdy”, but they know what they are talking about. Because you have little understanding of how radioactive materials work, the discussions of half-life are lost on you. Unfortunately there are very few radiation experts who can explain things in simple terms, but in reality the basic concepts are fairly easy to understand. They are just not taught in our schools. The radiation safety concepts are even easier to understand. Please read my article at http://atomicinsights.com/dirty-bomb-advice-from-larry-grimm/ Frankly I think your talk of thousands being killed by a radioactive dirty bomb is scaremongering and radiophobia.
Having been in 1st Recon in Vietnam and having a nephew who was in 1st Recon (he now writes for SOFREP.com – a special operations forces blog)in Iraq/Afghanistan, I fully understand your concern for the nature of today’s asymmetrical warfare. However, even in asymmetrical warfare the choice of a radioactive dirty bomb is a poor WMD and anyone who studies warfare knows it. The skinnies aren’t dumb and understand this also. Radioactive materials much more hazardous than Uranium are available everywhere in the world and in large quantities, yet have you seen anyone employ any of them in a dirty bomb yet? Nope.
You are correct that radiophobia will cause a lot of panic. Your scaremongering probably just increased someone’s radiophobia. Good job – not. You are correct that it can be expensive to clean up radioactive materials but radioactives are so much easier to find because – radiation detectors! Chemicals can be lot harder to detect and clean up. Even biologicals are harder to detect and clean up. I’ve been involved with scores of radioactive and chemical cleanups. I’d rather do a radiological cleanup any day as they are generally a lot easier.
aGrimm is correct. Uranium is essentially stable and not radioactive, and it cannot be used to make a dirty bomb in its present form. However, that is not the point.
Uranium is fissile, meaning that if you bombard it with neutrons, Uranium will split into to smaller atoms, which frequently are highly radioactive.
This is the stuff that we pull out of commercial nuclear reactor power plants that is radioactive for thousands of years. This stuff would be good for WMD.
The same university from which this Uranium was looted probably has a neutron gun.
if this is U238 I don’t see much chance of it being used badly, if 235 (and I cannot seem to find any info on what it is) then I bet they could easily sell it to iran or similar and fund themselves more.
usually the explosives used in a dirty bomb would be more dangerous than the 238 if I remember my old training right.
IMO the chem/bio remnants they got are much more dangerous.
god forbid they ever get any Pu and create a dust bomb with it.
dmacleo: if this is U238 I don’t see much chance of it being used badly, if 235 (and I cannot seem to find any info on what it is) then I bet they could easily sell it to iran or similar and fund themselves more.
It’s probably natural uranium in a compound form. It is almost certainly not purified U-235.
dmacleo: IMO the chem/bio remnants they got are much more dangerous. god forbid they ever get any Pu and create a dust bomb with it.
There are much more dangerous radioisotopes that are commonly used in medicine, such as Sr-89 or Ir-192, though the short half-life means they have a short shelf-life. Co-60 and Pu-238 have longer half-lives of about five years, so they would probably represent a greater danger.
Co-60, half-life 5.3 years
Pu-238, half-life 87.7 years
As the last of the unicorns disappear over the horizon, “Hopefully our Western intelligence agencies will do a better job of finding these potential WMDs now that they are out of Iraq.”
Zachriel is correct in everything he has posted. 90 lbs of Uranium “compounds” is not very much and of little physical risk to anyone depending on the chemical structure. Uranium as a radioactive material can be handled without much external radiation protection, but the key is preventing internal contamination. The real question is what is the chemical form that it might be in. UF6 is incredibly dangerous as a chemical, but plain Uranium is not. Most uranium compounds are poorly taken up by the body if ingested. There are some compounds that are readily taken up but these are relatively uncommon. We had all sorts of uranium compounds at the universities I worked at, with 95% being relatively innocuous compared to all the other radionuclides we had.
Could ISIS use the uranium compounds in a dirty bomb? Sure. However they will likely get more injuries from the bomb than the uranium. On the other hand, radiophobia can cause a lot of problems and this is where I see ISIS might use this event of capturing the uranium.
FYI: there are six factors that play into the hazard of a radioactive material. A long half-life, but very small quantity, actually works in our favor and makes the material less dangerous. So don’t go by the “it’s got a long half-life therefore it is extremely dangerous” meme. There is a lot more to understanding the relative hazards of different radionuclides. And don’t get me started on the abysmal ignorance of people about things radioactive…
Paul: You asked about the spread of radioactive material from a dirty bomb. Here’s a link to an article I wrote for a paper that puts the whole dirty (radioactive) bomb thing in perspective and how you and anyone else can handle the situation. http://atomicinsights.com/dirty-bomb-advice-from-larry-grimm/
That was very useful information. Knowledge reduces the risk of overreaction.
Stereotypes or no stereotypes, somewhere there is a smart Jewish businessman who is making a fortune selling ski masks in the hot dry deserts of the middle east.
U-235 is 0.72 percent of naturally occurring uranium. For Sadam having a major source of power was only thing needed to crudely separate U-235… 550 tons of yellow cake and a lot of time and electricity would yield a Hiroshima type (gun type) bomb requiring no testing to go BOOM. Bombing of the Osiris reactor by Israel put plutonium off the table since the key to efficiently making nuclear weapons is a reactor and successful implosion technology. To me the 550 tons was intent and the deal to get more from Niger was just more of the same. As for a dirty bomb, uranium isn’t worth spit…. cobalt, cesium, radium, I-131…. now we are talking….
alaskabob: U-235 is 0.72 percent of naturally occurring uranium. For Sadam having a major source of power was only thing needed to crudely separate U-235
It requires a complex infrastructure to refine U-235. It’s not a simple process.
Just because one has uranium, even enriched, doesn’t mean one can just “Make” a bomb. It is still debatable that Iran has the means to fully enrich uranium to the 95% needed for bomb material. Peaceful enriched uranium is only at the 3% to 5% level. enriched uranium used for fuel can be handled and held close with no concerns about radiation poisoning. The best they could do would be to surround the 5% enriched product with explosives and drop it somewhere. This is a sort-of dirty bomb and would not result in a nuclear explosion, just spread some radiation around and damage a few people.