According to a document seen by Reuters and confirmed by environmental and provincial officials, fear is escalating over the theft of what officials are calling “highly dangerous” radioactive material from a storage facility belonging to US oilfield services company Weatherford near Basra, Iraq.
The material, which is contained in a protective case about the size of a laptop, was stolen from the facility near Basra, and though Iraqi officials did report the incident to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last November, the agency said Wednesday that Iraq has not asked for any help in recovering it.
Citing national security issues, a spokesman for Iraq’s environmental ministry offered no further details.
Weatherford quickly denied any involvement or liability in the theft, stating that they “do not own, operate or control sources or the bunker where the sources are stored”, Reuters reported.
According to the document and other officials, SGS Turkey actually owns the material, which is used in a process called industrial radiography, where gamma rays are used to test for flaws in oil and gas pipelines.
Reuters stated that SGS’s headquarters in Istanbul would not respond to phone calls or emails, and an SGS official in Iraq would not comment.
Under the condition of anonymity, environment ministry spokesperson told Reuters that 10 grams (0.35 ounces) of Ir-192 “capsules”, a radioactive isotope of iridium often used to treat cancer patients, were contained in the package.
The IAEA classes the material at a Category 2 level, which means that it can could cause irreparable injuries to anyone who was near the material whether for one minute or one hour and could be deadly to anyone exposed to it for longer than that.
The US State Department said it was aware of the reports but has seen no sign that Daesh or other militant groups have acquired it.
However, that does not comfort the fears of those who believe that Daesh could use it to make a dirty bomb – a bomb that mixes nuclear material with ordinary explosives, which when exploded, can contaminate an area with large amounts of radiation.
An anonymous senior security official told Reuters: “We are afraid the radioactive element will fall into the hands of Daesh. They could simply attach it to explosives to make a dirty bomb.”
The official also said that there are no suspects in the crime, but that initial investigations suggest that whoever stole the material had sufficient knowledge of what the material was.
According to a Basra operations command spokesman, army, police and intelligence forces are working “day and night” to locate the material in an area where Iranian-backed Shia Muslim militias and criminal gangs operate.