U.S. Downplays Extremist Seizure of Low-Grade Uranium in Iraq

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki speaks to the press in Washington in February. On Thursday, the spokeswoman downplayed risks associated with the seizure of a quantity of low-grade uranium in Iraq by extremist insurgents.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
July 11, 2014, 10:33 a.m.

The U.S. State De­part­ment on Thursday moved to re­duce con­cern about the re­cent seizure of low-grade nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al in Ir­aq by Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ists.

Bagh­dad in a Ju­ly 8 let­ter no­ti­fied the United Na­tions that roughly 88 pounds of urani­um com­pounds were now un­der the con­trol of the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia after the group took con­trol of a uni­versity in Mo­sul, where the nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al was used for sci­entif­ic re­search. Though the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment has warned that IS­IS mil­it­ants could try to use the sub­stance in a ter­ror­ist act, in­de­pend­ent is­sue spe­cial­ists have said the urani­um is not suit­able for use in a nuc­le­ar device or even a ra­di­olo­gic­al “dirty bomb.”

State De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Jen Psaki dir­ec­ted re­port­ers to a state­ment put out by the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency, which said it un­der­stood the urani­um to be of low grade and to pose no sig­ni­fic­ant pro­lif­er­a­tion risk.

The Vi­enna-based nuc­le­ar watch­dog agency is “the ap­pro­pri­ate en­tity to make any de­cision about wheth­er there is a risk or con­cern, but it doesn’t seem that is the case at this point in time,” Psaki said in a Thursday brief­ing.

Psaki noted that Bagh­dad had said the urani­um was “used for sci­entif­ic and med­ic­al pur­poses.” That fact, she ad­ded, was “an im­port­ant con­tex­tu­al point on our level of con­cern.”

Mat­thew Bunn, a nuc­le­ar weapons spe­cial­ist at Har­vard Uni­versity, in a Fri­day web post for Na­tion­al In­terest said it was likely that the urani­um in ques­tion was “nat­ur­al or de­pleted urani­um — use­less for a ter­ror­ist group try­ing to make a nuc­le­ar bomb. It’s of no sig­ni­fic­ant use for a ‘dirty bomb’ either, as urani­um is only very weakly ra­dio­act­ive.”

The Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia at one point was a re­cog­nized al-Qaida fran­chise. However, ties between the two ex­trem­ist groups were said to be form­ally severed earli­er this year after al-Qaida lead­er Ay­man al-Za­wahiri grew angry that IS­IS mil­it­ants were fight­ing with an­oth­er al-Qaida-af­fil­i­ated group and in­dis­crim­in­ately killing ci­vil­ians. Al-Qaida’s in­terest in car­ry­ing out a nuc­le­ar or ra­di­olo­gic­al at­tack on a West­ern tar­get has been well doc­u­mented.

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