The Iraqi Health Ministry has ordered an immediate health assessment around the country's largest nuclear facility after scavengers said they came into contact with radioactive materials they removed from the site.
The situation around the Tuwaitha nuclear plant has drawn international scrutiny from nuclear experts concerned that materials such as uranium were stolen or dumped by thieves in the area.
Members of the Iraqi nuclear agency have also expressed worry about the potential health effects for those living nearby.
On Wednesday, dozens of members of the Iraqi Agency for Atomic Energy held a meeting with U.S. officials for the first time. They circulated an order from the Health Ministry to study the area around the dormant Tuwaitha nuclear complex, 30 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Shortly after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government on April 9, villagers stormed the sprawling site and looted barrels and jugs filled with hazardous materials.
U.S. military officials, currently conducting a damage assessment at the site, said Tuesday that 20 percent of the known radioactive materials stored at the facility are missing.
Iraq has about 1,000 sites where radioactive materials are used in industry or medicine. But Tuwaitha, where Iraqis worked on the final design of a nuclear bomb before the 1991 Gulf War, has drawn the most concern since the recent Iraq war ended.
The Iraqis had been using the dormant plant to store declared nuclear materials that were prohibited and sealed by the U.N. nuclear agency in 1991. During the short-lived inspection regime that ran from November to the start of the war in March, IAEA inspectors visited the site 19 times.
Iraqi nuclear experts blame Americans for failing to guard the site quickly enough and prevent the looting.
"They knew that there were nuclear materials in this site, and they were supposed to protect it," Mohammed al-Hamadani, a researcher at Tuwaitha, said in an interview Wednesday.
Villagers nearby have begun reporting ill effects they attribute to contact with hazardous waste.
Menem Abed Ali, who lives in the village of al-Mansia, which is adjacent to the plant, said since the looting took place he has been suffering from exhaustion and skin irritation. Residents, he said, have been gathering to share stories of their symptoms.
The U.S. military is conducting a damage assessment at the site, but it doesn't include a health survey of the surrounding areas.
The teams are already monitoring the air around the area, and Col. Tim Madere, a U.S. specialist in unconventional weapons, acknowledged that "a potential health hazard" remains. He said 80 percent of the barrels containing radioactive material such as uranium remained intact.
Uranium, if enriched, is a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. The IAEA was monitoring 2 short tons of enriched uranium and several tons of natural and depleted uranium stored at Tuwaitha.
David Albright, an American nuclear expert who served on U.N.-led inspection teams during the 1990s, said the major health concern would involve those who went inside the facility to areas where highly radioactive sources were stored.
"These sources emit gamma radiation that penetrates the body and can pose a life-threatening risk if a person is exposed to the source too long," he said.
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