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Village Battles Illnesses from Nuclear Waste
Published on Monday, May 26, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Village Battles Illnesses from Nuclear Waste
Many have symptoms tied to material looted from nearby facility
by Anna Badkhen
 

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.


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
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 a time.

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


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
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.

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 complex.


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

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.

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 complex bare.

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 dangerous materials.

"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 of adrenaline.

"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

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