Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq: IAEA Experts Inspect Uranium Supplies

International Atomic Energy Agency experts began an inspection of nuclear materials in Iraq on Saturday. The inspection of Iraq's uranium stocks is the first since UN arms monitors left Iraq more than a year ago but is unrelated to UN demands for detailed weapons inspections. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on what the team will do.

Prague, 24 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The team from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is conducting a week-long checkup of Iraq's uranium supplies to assure they have not been diverted to weapons-development programs.

The visit is the first by UN nuclear inspectors to Iraq since all UN arms monitors were pulled out of the country in December 1998.

But both sides have made it clear that the IAEA visit is quite apart from the disputed monitoring of Iraqi weapons programs ordered by the UN following the 1991 Gulf War.

RFE/RL spoke by telephone with Hans Meyer, a spokesman of the Vienna-based IAEA, to learn more about what the agency's inspectors will do.

Meyer says that the key task of the five-person team -- which arrived in Baghdad last Friday and starts work Saturday -- will be to check the whereabouts of Iraq's stockpile of some 1.8 tons of low-enriched uranium. It will also verify the whereabouts of several tons of natural and depleted uranium. Those stockpiles are not weapons-grade materials and are distinct from the plutonium and highly enriched uranium removed from Iraq by UN arms inspectors after the Gulf War.

Our correspondent asked Meyer why Iraq maintains the stockpiles of non-weapons grade uranium. He says that the IAEA has never determined Baghdad's precise purpose.

"This is very difficult to answer. They had this material for a long time and it can be used for scientific purposes, it could have been used for further enrichment [for nuclear reactor fuel]. I only can say that the material is there, it came from abroad and we have had it under our inspection all the time."

Iraq prior to the Gulf war had two functioning nuclear reactors. One was Russian-designed and the other was a small French-built facility replacing a larger one destroyed in a 1981 air attack by Israel. But both those nuclear plants were destroyed during the 1991 Gulf War and have never been rebuilt.

The current IAEA visit comes under the framework of an international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to which Iraq and other countries with nuclear energy programs are signatories. The treaty provides for annual checkups by the IAEA of the countries' nuclear materials to assure they are not enriched for use in making nuclear warheads.

Meyers says that the IAEA inspectors will verify that Iraq's stocks have not been diverted to weapons development during the last 12 months.

"The inspectors have to verify that this material is there and has not been diverted. When our team left in the middle of December 1998, all these drums in which this material is stored had been sealed and also the storage building where this material is stored. So, the first thing our inspectors have to do is inspect and verify that all the seals are not tampered with, that they are unbroken, and that they are there. [The inspectors] have measurement equipment with them to measure also the percentage of enrichment [to confirm] that uranium is there, that the uranium hasn't been replaced by some yellow powder."

The IAEA accounting of Iraq's uranium stocks is particularly important to the international community because Baghdad is known to have sought enriched uranium to secretly develop nuclear weapons. Meyer says IAEA inspectors found evidence of those programs when they uncovered greater amounts of highly enriched uranium in Iraq after the Gulf War than could reasonably be used by its limited nuclear power and research facilities.

"There were some 150 tons of highly enriched uranium which we have, between 1990 and 1994, removed out of the country. Only a very small percentage of it was manufactured, or enriched, in Iraq. Iraq was in 1990 just a the beginning of enriching to a higher percentage of uranium [for generating energy]. Iraq had a completely separate, secret enrichment program and a program to get uranium, highly enriched uranium, for a bomb in a separate, secret way."

Under the NPT, the current IAEA inspection was originally scheduled to take place last month. But Meyer says the schedule is somewhat flexible and the current delay is not considered serious by the agency. He attributes it mainly to the conjunction of Ramadan and Christmas holidays slowing arrangements for the visit.

The current visit will satisfy the agency's basic "safeguarding" requirement under the NPT of assuring Iraq's low-enriched uranium stocks are all accounted for. But the IAEA has yet to be able to resume other functions in Iraq connected with its UN mandate following the Gulf War to assure Baghdad no longer has a nuclear weapons capability.

Meyers says the IAEA already has made great progress in dismantling Iraq's weapons facilities. But its program to detect any start-up of new nuclear weapons programs has been on-hold since UN arms monitors left Iraq 13 months ago.

"Mainly until 1994, we have really destroyed, removed and searched for what was there in the country, what was the infrastructure for an atomic bomb program. From then onwards, we have more and more moved to an ongoing monitoring system and we had at the end of this system, by 1998, we had some 300 sites in Iraq which were almost daily inspected [and] visited."

That system includes sensors placed in Iraq's riverways to monitor any increase in radioactivity that would come from water pollution associated with industrial processes to enrich uranium. Similarly, other sensors monitor Iraq's air quality and take dust samples.

But Meyer says that making that monitoring system operational again now will have to wait a final accord between the UN and Iraq on resuming comprehensive arms. And the prospects for such an accord remain uncertain.

The UN passed a resolution last month offering Baghdad a new arms monitoring regime but Iraq refused to accept it. The offer ties an easing of sanctions to full Iraqi cooperation in completing several outstanding disarmament tasks to be set forth by a new monitoring agency, UNMOVIC.

Analysts say the most pressing disarmament tasks center on Iraq's capabilities to produce biological and chemical weapons. Its capabilities for nuclear weapons are now considered to be severely reduced and to not be a priority for weapons inspectors.