The Corner

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A Note


I have received a number of mails today from readers (mostly the naysayer crowd) citing the Associated Press report that says U.S. troops may have inadvertently broken seals on IAEA-inspected drums of low-grade uranium ore at the Tuwaitha facility. This, says AP, was the cause for abnormal radiation readings. Maybe…

But the U.S. Marines responsible for uncovering Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are not a bunch of school boys. These are some of the most highly trained and sophisticated nuclear engineers this country has. They had maps, blueprints of the buildings, detailed sketches from IAEA inspections and precise locations of where old low-grade uranium had been sealed and stored in drums when the IAEA was last there.

In any event, the readings picked up by sophisticated radiation detectors at the Tuwaitha facility initially indicated presence of Plutonium-239 (PL-239). Why PL-239? Because when PL-239 decays naturally, it emits alpha particles almost exclusively. These are in the form of positively charged Helium nuclei. Uranium, on the other hand, emits beta particles (electrons) and gamma rays, as well as alpha particles.

Alpha particles normally cannot penetrate clothes or human skin, whereas beta and gamma radiation certainly can. Reports filed by our troops at Tuwaitha indicated very high levels of radiation, consistent with what plutonium would show. Yet there were thus far no reported casualties, or even serious signs of sickness or other health problems in our battalions.

All of which indicates that most of the radiation is probably not beta or gamma radiation, but alpha radiation — the signature sign of PL-239. Since the nuclear engineers and physicists who discovered the abnormal radiation levels at Tuwaitha have reported no health problems, the plutonium is most likely a pure version and therefore deployable in a weapons form.

There are no known naturally occurring plutonium isotopes. Which implies either very sophisticated reprocessing facilities would have to be present (and one wonders where that technology could have come from) to make it inside Iraq from uranium fuel sources, or there would have to be some serious breach of international law in the sale and transfer of weapons-grade plutonium to Iraq (Russia, North Korea and China come immediately to mind).

Whatever the Marines found there, and none of us know for sure until CentCom confirms what it was, it was dangerous beyond the limits Iraq was compelled to remain within by the United Nations and the IAEA. Saddam’s last acts have always been formulated by the “if I can’t have it, you can’t have it either…” thesis. Let us hope he didn’t break the seals at Tuwaitha, and in a last ditch act of terror, decide to take enough uranium to make multiple dirty bombs, deploy them in Iraqi cities for later detonation once civilian life returns to normal.

As you can all see, this was an op-ed topic by itself, and therefore my reasoning for not including so much detail in the original piece. But since we have naysayers that never seem to get it, I thought it prudent to lay out the full argument.