U.S. Has Not Inspected Iraqi Nuclear Facility

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2003

Before the war began last month, the vast Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center held 3,896 pounds of partially enriched uranium, more than 94 tons of natural uranium and smaller quantities of cesium, cobalt and strontium, according to reports compiled through the 1990s by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Immensely valuable on the international black market, the uranium was in a form suitable for further enrichment to "weapons grade," the core of a nuclear device. The other substances, products of medical and industrial waste, emit intense radiation. They have been sought, officials said, by terrorists seeking to build a so-called dirty bomb, which uses conventional explosives to scatter dangerous radioactive particles.

Defense officials acknowledge that the U.S. government has no idea whether any of Tuwaitha's potentially deadly contents have been stolen, because it has not dispatched investigators to appraise the site. What it does know, according to officials at the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command, is that the sprawling campus, 11 miles south of Baghdad, lay unguarded for days and that looters made their way inside.

Tuwaitha is headquarters of Iraq's Atomic Energy Agency, with hundreds of structures covering some 120 acres. At the height of Iraq's clandestine nuclear weapons program, which nearly succeeded in building a bomb in 1991, Tuwaitha incorporated research reactors, uranium mining and enrichment facilities, chemical engineering plants and an explosives fabrication center to build the device that detonates a nuclear core.

The facility was inspected more often than any other site by U.N. inspectors, who began disarming Iraq under U.N. Security Council mandate in 1991.

Disputes inside the U.S. Defense Department and with other government agencies have slowed the preparation of orders for a team of nuclear experts to assess Tuwaitha, officials said. Though it anticipated for months that war would leave it with responsibility for Iraq's nuclear infrastructure, the Bush administration did not reach consensus on the role it would seek at those facilities.

President Bush's senior advisers have accused the IAEA, under Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, of being hostile to U.S. objectives in Iraq. Civilian policy officials in the Pentagon, according to people with first-hand knowledge, initially proposed to make a complete inspection of Tuwaitha without the IAEA -- an exercise that apparently would have required U.S. government experts to break seals the agency's inspectors placed on safeguarded nuclear materials. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which the United States is a signatory, gives the IAEA exclusive authority over those seals.

Strong objections came from other parts of the Pentagon policy apparatus and from the State Department offices responsible for treaty compliance, international organizations and nonproliferation.

The unresolved dispute has prevented Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld from issuing guidance to U.S. Central Command that would define the objectives and limits of a site survey.

Lt. Col. Michael W. Slifka, a senior leader at Central Command's Sensitive Site Exploitation Planning Team, said U.S. forces had not broken any IAEA seals. But he said in an interview here that he did not know whether seals had been broken by others, because he had not been authorized to dispatch a team with nuclear experts from the Energy Department's national laboratories.

"For force protection reasons, because of the folks we've got there," Slifka said, "we aren't in a position to go inside."

"The site is now secured by coalition forces," he said. "They're safeguarded." Slifa said technicians had taken readings and "established safe zones" to protect U.S. forces and civilians, "but we've left it at that."

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