“Highly dangerous” radioactive material went missing in Iraq last year and officials have been searching for it since, a Reuters report said Wednesday. Several security, environmental and provincial officials are worried the material could be procured by fighters affiliated with the Islamic State group, which could use it to try make a nuclear weapon.
The Reuters report said the material was stored in a protective case the size of a laptop computer. The material went missing in November from a storage facility that belonged to U.S. oilfield services company Weatherford, near the southern city of Basra. While an Iraqi official did not comment on the matter due to national security reasons, a statement from Weatherford said the company could not be held responsible or liable for the theft.
“We do not own, operate or control sources or the bunker where the sources are stored,” the statement from Weatherford said.
The latest report comes amid speculations that the militant group ISIS may be trying to procure nuclear material or that it had already procured some.
The iridium was owned by Istanbul-based company called SGS Turkey, and was meant to be used in a process called gamma radiography. The process uses gamma rays to find flaws in the materials used for oil and gas pipelines, Reuters reported. The protective case contained about 0.02 pounds of Ir-192, a radioactive isotope of iridium, which is also used in cancer treatment.
A senior security official said, according to Reuters, “We are afraid the radioactive element will fall into the hands of Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS],” adding: “They could simply attach it to explosives to make a dirty bomb.”
Unlike the complex fission process needed to make a nuclear weapon, a dirty bomb does not use nuclear material in a conventional bomb format that can contaminate the area. The Reuters report added there were no leads in the disappearance of the material but evidence so far points to the possibility of an inside job.
"[There were] no broken locks, no smashed doors and no evidence of forced entry," the official said, according to Reuters. However, there was no evidence or indication that the material could have fallen into the hands of ISIS.
A U.S. official, who spoke to Reuters, confirmed that the material was missing and added that Iraq reported it to the International Atomic Energy Agency in November. “They've been looking for it ever since. Whether it was just misplaced, or actually stolen, isn't clear,” the official said.
David Albright, a physicist and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, told Reuters that besides the risk of ISIS fighters making a bomb, there was also a risk of contamination if the material was just left in a public place.
“If they left it in some crowded place, that would be more of the risk, if they kept it together but without shielding,” Albright said, according to Reuters, adding: “Certainly it's not insignificant. You could cause some panic with this. They would want to get this back.”
Two provincial government officials also told Reuters that hospitals in the country had been alerted to notify officials if they received any patients who had been exposed to radioactive materials.