28 October 2016
A security guard walks past a Weatherford booth during an oil and gas trade fair in Basra in this 2010 file photo. Photo: Reuters
A security guard walks past a Weatherford booth during an oil and gas trade fair in Basra in this 2010 file photo. Photo: Reuters

Radioactive material stolen in Iraq raises security fears

Iraq is searching for “highly dangerous” radioactive material stolen last year, which officials feared could be used as a weapon if acquired by Islamic State militants.

The material, stored in a protective case the size of a laptop computer, went missing in November from a storage facility near the southern city of Basra belonging to US oilfield services company Weatherford, Reuters reported, citing an environment ministry document and several officials.

Weatherford said in a statement that it was not responsible or liable for the theft. “We do not own, operate or control sources or the bunker where the sources are stored,” it said.

The material, which uses gamma rays to test flaws in materials used for oil and gas pipelines in a process called industrial gamma radiography, is owned by Istanbul-based SGS Turkey, the news agency said.

The US State Department said it was aware of the reports but has seen no sign that Islamic State or other militant groups have acquired it.

A US official said separately that Iraq had reported a missing specialized camera containing highly radioactive Iridium-192 to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog, in November.

“They’ve been looking for it ever since. Whether it was just misplaced, or actually stolen, isn’t clear,” the official was quoted as saying.

The environment ministry document, dated Nov. 30 and addressed to the ministry’s Center for Prevention of Radiation, describes “the theft of a highly dangerous radioactive source of Ir-192 with highly radioactive activity belonging to SGS from a depot belonging to Weatherford in the Rafidhia area of Basra province”.

A senior environment ministry official based in Basra told Reuters the device contained up to 10 grams (0.35 ounces) of Ir-192 “capsules”, a radioactive isotope of iridium also used to treat cancer.

The material is classed as a Category 2 radioactive source by the IAEA, meaning that if not managed properly it could cause permanent injury to a person in close proximity to it for minutes or hours, and could be fatal to someone exposed for a period of hours to days.

Large quantities of Ir-192 have gone missing before in the United States, Britain and other countries, stoking fears among security officials that it could be used to make a dirty bomb.

A dirty bomb combines nuclear material with conventional explosives to contaminate an area with radiation, in contrast to a nuclear weapon, which uses nuclear fission to trigger a vastly more powerful blast.

“We are afraid the radioactive element will fall into the hands of Daesh,” said a senior security official with knowledge of the theft, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“They could simply attach it to explosives to make a dirty bomb,” said the official, who works at the interior ministry and spoke on condition of anonymity as he is also not authorised to speak publicly.

There was no indication the material had come into the possession of Islamic State, which seized territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 but does not control areas near Basra.

A State Department spokesman declined to comment on whether the missing material might be suitable for use in a dirty bomb.

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