London, July 10: Iraq has notified the UN that Sunni militants seized nuclear material from a university in the northern city of Mosul last month as they advanced towards Baghdad, the nuclear regulatory body of the UN said today.
Gill Tudor, a spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is based in Vienna, said in a statement that the organisation’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 UN 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 mention of such weapons has a resonance in Iraq where the American-led invasion of 2003 was justified in Washington and London by assertions that Saddam Hussein had acquired weapons of mass destruction. None were ever found by the invading forces.
In her statement today, Tudor said that the atomic energy agency “is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details”. She said experts did not believe that the material could be fashioned into a weapon. “Nevertheless,” the statement said, “any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.”
The statement was issued days after the Iraqi government acceded to the IAEA’s Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, on July 7.
The convention initially entered into force in 1987 and was strengthened in 2005 to require its 150 signatories to “protect nuclear facilities and material in peaceful domestic use, storage and transport”, a statement from the agency said.
“It also provides for expanded cooperation between and among states regarding rapid measures to locate and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material, mitigate any radiological consequences of sabotage, and prevent and combat related offences,” the statement added. Officials at the regulatory body did not immediately say how it was possible to redeem such promises in a land such as Iraq, where large areas are beyond government control and in the hands of insurgents.
In a letter to the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on July 8, Reuters reported, Iraq’s ambassador to the UN wrote that “terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state” when the militants captured Mosul.
By Iraq’s account, the uranium had been used for scientific research. By calling it “low grade”, the IAEA seemed to rule out any suggestion that the material was of the highly enriched kind needed to create a nuclear weapon.
The uranium was unsuitable for use in a so-called “dirty bomb”, in which using conventional explosives are used to spread radiation, Olli Heinonen, a former chief inspector for the agency, told Reuters.
Sunni rebels battling forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki broke into a military base in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad today.