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IAEA to clean up Iraq atom site; many at risk

Written by: Staff

Vienna, Apr 25: The International Atomic Energy Agency has begun a drive to clean up the former Tuwaitha nuclear site in Iraq where radioactive residue poses a health risk to 1,000 nearby inhabitants, the nuclear watchdog said today.

Residents of Ishtar village near Tuwaitha, 20 km south of Baghdad, are exposed to contaminated rubble left by aerial bombing and looting during and after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein, the IAEA said.

It said a project to clean up Tuwaitha and other nuclear facilities in Iraq was launched earlier this year at agency headquarters in Vienna and Washington had given the IAEA photographs to assist the campaign.

Iraqi and US teams had begun to collect environmental and radiological data and launched studies on health effects among people living near the 56-sq-km Tuwaitha complex.

''This is a huge task, one that could take many years,'' said Dennis Reisenweaver, the IAEA official in charge of the nuclear clean-up drive in Iraq.

Radiation levels around Tuwaitha register higher than normal and could be a health hazard over time, the IAEA said, attaching photos showing wrecked facades spray-painted with warnings like ''radioactive'' and ''HOT'', with children playing nearby.

The IAEA said Iraq's government, plagued by an insurgency against the US-led occupation and reconstruction efforts, had sought the agency's help to prepare plans to decontaminate sites where radioactive material was used or waste was buried.

The project's groundwork was laid at an IAEA meeting in Vienna in February attended by Iraq's science and technology minister and officials from 16 countries, including the United States, and the European Union.

Initial steps would include pinpointing and cordoning off contaminated areas posing the biggest risk to inhabitants.

Some locations remained unknown and a major challenge lay in recovering missing records about the contents of radioactive materials stored in waste containers, the IAEA said.

Armed chaos from militant groups fighting US forces and US-backed Iraqi authorities could pose another serious obstacle as Tuwaitha lies within the ''Sunni Triangle'' around Baghdad hardest hit by the bloodshed.

Tuwaitha hit the headlines in April 2003 during the war when some 3,000 barrels containing low-level uranium ore concentrate known as ''yellow cake'' were stolen from the unsecured site.

The barrels were emptied and sold to local people who used them for storing water or food or to wash clothes.

The UN Environmental Programme's task force chief told Reuters last year that Iraq's environmental problems were among the world's worst and attempts to address them were being crippled by the lack of public security.


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