RIYADH, Iraq --
In the cramped classrooms of Amin Bit Wahab high school, 800 teenage
girls in this small Iraqi village are receiving a crash course on the damaging
effects of radiation.
Last month, looters descended on the concrete depths of the nearby Tuweitha
Nuclear Research Center, carrying off dozens of barrels filled with toxic
waste. Much of the contaminated material landed in village homes, at least for
Children rummage through a pile of material looted from the Tuweitha Nuclear Research Center near the village of Riyadh. Photo by Thorne Anderson, special to the Chronicle
Village religious leaders later collected the stolen goods from local
households and are now storing them on school grounds, filling the yard and
four of its 16 classrooms. The leaders removed the material after residents
who had been exposed to it complained of symptoms indicative of radiation
poisoning -- nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, fatigue, skin rash and hair loss.
Tuweitha was the heart of Iraq's nuclear program and one of the most
suspect weapons sites before the war. Twelve miles south of Baghdad, it is the
site of the Osiraq reactor bombed by Israel in 1981. And Tuweitha is the only
known place in Iraq where tons of radioactive waste, depleted uranium and low-
grade enriched uranium were sealed.
A walk through Riyadh and nearby Wadiya, two dusty, impoverished villages
that surround Tuweitha, offers insight into the area's lack of environmental
safety. But Tuweitha is not the only site of its kind in Iraq: there are at
least two other facilities identified by U.S. intelligence as being part of
Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program and possibly vulnerable to looters.
WARNINGS NOT UNDERSTOOD
Men and children of the two villages near Tuweitha looted the facility,
lugging away containers, wires, metal rods, desks and computers. Kasim Sadun,
a lean 18-year old, said he had chosen a shiny blue barrel because it was
solid and didn't leak.
Noor Jarin, 12, (left) and Altifad Rusen, 14, had nosebleeds after looted material from Tuweitha appeared in their village. Photo by Thorne Anderson, special to the Chronicle
He ignored a warning written in English because he couldn't understand it -- or the meaning of what is the West's accepted danger symbol, a skull and
crossbones -- and dumped out a yellow powder, whose acrid smell dissipated in
the air. He then rolled the barrel past the facility's abandoned security
watchtowers, through an opening in a barbed wire fence and into his yard. A
faint trail of yellow dust marked the path.
For the next two weeks, Sadun's family used the barrel to store drinking
water. Then, he accepted an offer made by U.S. soldiers who were paying
villagers $3 for each looted barrel. Most families, who also used the
containers to store milk or fuel, took the money.
Hisham Abdul Malik, a former nuclear inspector with the Iraqi Atomic Energy
Commission, said the powder Sadun looted was "yellow cake," a uranium
derivative that emits radiation but is dangerous only when ingested.
Back at the school, the clerics, who assumed control of the village
government in the power vacuum that followed Hussein's fall, decided to take a
precaution. In the hallway next to the material from Tuweitha, they erected a
plywood wall in an effort to keep any radiation from seeping into classrooms.
INSPECTORS TO RETURN
Last week, the Bush administration agreed to allow experts from the
International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, to
return to Iraq to inspect Tuweitha. IAEA inspectors last examined the 3-acre
complex in January 2002; they kept an inventory of all materials stored at the
Now, U.N. inspectors are determined to find out which potentially harmful
substances are missing and to estimate the danger to the surrounding area.
IAEA officials are also concerned that some of the stolen materials could be
used to build a "dirty bomb," which is conventional explosives combined with
radioactive material that could contaminate a large area.
Decaying barrels filled with "yellow cake" nuclear waste at Tuweitha. Many villagers used emptied containers to store water. Photo by Thorne Anderson, special to the Chronicle
Before the allied invasion, Tuweitha was a high-security area monitored by
the IAEA with the cooperation of the Hussein regime. But in the chaos after
dictator's downfall and before the arrival of U.S. troops, locals stripped the
The Americans, meanwhile, did not confiscate other looted goods such as the
refrigerator Eltifat Saber's mother uses to store food or the "No Parking"
sign that acts as a pot cover.
Saber, 13, has suffered from nausea and repeated nose bleeds for the past
three weeks. Her neighbor Noor Jalin, 12, has similar symptoms, although her
parents took nothing from Tuweitha.
Rukun Kadhum, an elderly woman with tribal markings tattooed on her face
and hands, has a severe rash all over her shrouded body. Her daughter-in-law,
Wasan Aziz, has a similar rash on her chest.
Over at the school, a parka with the words "Civil Defense" in English
stitched on the back lies in a classroom next to a gas mask. A centrifuge
machine sits under a blackboard with mathematical equations written before the
war. Four metal suitcases tied together with rope stand in the schoolyard next
to a jumble of electronic equipment, furniture and rolls of wire.
LIMITED TREATMENT AVAILABLE
Iraqi nuclear experts visited the school two weeks ago accompanied by U.S.
troops. The Iraqis were equipped with radiation sensors. They taped a sign
saying "Pollution. Keep away." over the suitcases. Even though most local
people cannot read English, they seem to understand that the suitcases contain
"There is chemical radiation inside," said school guard Kabum Barah. "It
looks like green powder with a sharp smell."
At Halima al Saadiya Clinic a few blocks away, Dr. Edan Altamimi struggles
to treat patients suffering from radiation poisoning. The clinic is located in
a classroom at a boy's high school, and his medical equipment consists of an
old hospital cot and a few syringes. Altamimi has treated three people a day
for radiation sickness for the past three weeks. His only medicine is a shot
"We are a simple clinic. We can't help," Altamimi said. "Maybe women who
are now pregnant will have babies with birth defects."
Despite the growing numbers of villagers who have fallen ill from radiation
exposure, looters continue to sneak into the plant nightly, said Lt. Kevin
Caesar, who commands a platoon of 40 U.S. soldiers deployed to repel looters.
"They take whatever they can get their hands on," Caesar said. "Either they
take it to help their families or they take it to the black market."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle