Iraq is frantically looking for radioactive material reported stolen in November from a facility belonging to a U.S.-owned company. The material is reportedly the size of a laptop case.
The facility is located in Basra, a city in the south of Iraq. This facility is owned by Weatherford, which is an oilfield services company, according to Reuters.
Upon hearing word of the story, Weatherford immediately disclaimed any responsibility, saying, “We do not own, operate or control sources or the bunker where the sources are stored.” While Weatherford owns the facility, SGS Turkey owns the Iridium-192, the actual material, which is classified as a Category 2 radioactive source. A total of 10 grams of capsules are gone, and if that material isn’t handled by experts, it could cause irrevocable injury if a person becomes exposed to the substance for just minutes at a time. With enough exposure, injuries can turn fatal.
The State Department is aware of the theft of radioactive material, but does not believe the Islamic State has obtained it, as the group does not have control over the city of Basra. The closest ISIS is to the region is 300 miles north. Iraq apparently reported the incident to the International Atomic Energy Agency back in November.
The danger of the missing radioactive material is that militants with some level of expertise could use it to produce a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb is a combination of regular explosives and nuclear material. The blast instantly floods an area with radiation. In this case, what makes the situation more alarming is that the facility shows no signs of forced entry, meaning that the theft likely originated from someone with deep familiarity of radioactive material. This increases the chance that the material could be put to dangerous use.
Even without any experts, simply leaving the material in public would result in serious injuries. Iridium-192 has a half-life of 73 days. As it decays, the material releases beta and gamma radiation.
“If they left it in some crowded place, that would be more of the risk, if they kept it together but without shielding,” David Albright, a physicist at the Institute for Science and International Security, told Reuters. “Certainly it’s not insignificant. You could cause some panic with this. They would want to get this back.”
To try and mitigate the national security and public health risks, Iraqi health and military officials are searching day and night for the material.
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