Fears radioactive material stolen in Iraq could be used for ‘dirty bomb’
The theft involved “a highly dangerous radioactive source of Ir-192 with highly radioactive activity belonging to SGS,” according to a document seen by Reuters. The document dated November 30 was addressed to the Center for Prevention of Radiation at Iraq’s environment ministry; the news agency says various officials have confirmed its content.
The radioactive material was owned by Istanbul-based SGS Turkey and was being kept in a protective laptop-sized case in a depot belonging to US oilfield services company Weatherford in the Rafidhia area of Basra province.
An unnamed senior environment ministry official told the agency that the stolen material contained up to 10 grams of Iridium-192 (Ir-192) capsules. It was used for industrial gamma radiography, a process of testing flaws in materials using gamma rays.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s classification the stolen material belongs to Category 2 which means that it can cause permanent harm to a person in case of close proximity for minutes or hours, and even death in case of contact lasting hours or days. The harm is determined by the age and strength of the material. The nuclear watchdog offered assistance to Iraqi authorities, when it was informed about the theft, but none had been requested, the IAEA said in a statement.
“We are afraid the radioactive element will fall into the hands of Daesh (Islamic State or IS, formerly ISIL/ISIS),” an Iraqi senior official told Reuters.
“They could simply attach it to explosives to make a dirty bomb,” he added. A dirty bomb cannot cause a nuclear explosion but can pollute an area with radiation.
Chris Hunter, a former bomb disposal officer, told RT that IS may already have enough material for a dirty bomb as the group has gained control over huge areas with dams, power facilities and hospitals where they can take radioactive materials.
“The point is that have already got radioactive material that they could turn into a dirty bomb,” Hunter said.
He also said that, despite the fact that IS has “a very advanced capability when it comes to weapons,” it will be difficult for them to make and to use a dirty bomb.
“But terrorism is, of course, about terrorizing and scaring people and when we talk about a dirty bomb – it is something that people are very concerned about,” Hunter added. Creating a dirty bomb is not the only way to use Ir-192 for terrorist purposes, David Albright, a physicist and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, told Reuters.
“If they left it in some crowded place, that would be more of the risk. If they kept it together but without shielding. Certainly it's not insignificant. You could cause some panic with this. They would want to get this back,” he said.
However, there is still no evidence that the material fell into hands of the IS jihadists whose closest area is more than 500 kilometers north of Basra. The US State Department also said that it was aware of the incident but did not see any signs that IS or any other terrorist group acquired the radioactive material.
An Iraqi security official told Reuters they had no suspects for the theft adding that the thieves must have had specific knowledge of both material and facility as they left no broken locks, smashed doors or other sign of forced entry.
Army and police are working “day and night” to locate the stolen material, a spokesman for Basra operations command told Reuters.
Last May an IS in-house magazine boasted that the terrorist group might gain nuclear weapons within 12 months. The article said the group could buy nuclear the weapons in Pakistan.