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Fallout From Chemical Weapons Program Continues to Plague Iraq

/ 16 Jun 2021

Fallout From Chemical Weapons Program Continues to Plague Iraq

Work to remove chemical and nuclear waste from various sites in Iraq has been suspended after almost three years, raising concerns about the potential impact on the environment and public health. Engineers and scientists working on the program cite technical disagreements with the government, but some also suggest that corruption could be to blame.

“Leaving the chemical residues of such materials at the facility site has caused Iraqis many diseases and environmental disasters,” Majed Al-Saadi, 55, the head of the research team, said in a phone call. Many families who used to live nearby had been moved “for fear of diseases and malformations,” he added.

Muthanna State Establishment, about 140 kilometres north-west of Baghdad, was Iraq’s main chemical weapons research and production facility from 1983 to 1991. In the late 1990s it was used by United Nations arms inspectors tasked with collecting and destroying weapons of mass destruction. Undetermined amounts of toxic chemicals were buried in air attacks during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“Leaving the chemical residues of such materials at the facility site has caused Iraqis many diseases and environmental disasters.”

Majed Al-Saadi   Head of the research team

In March 2018, the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons certified that Iraq’s chemical weapons destruction program was complete. Since then a team of 26 scientists and engineers has been filtering and treating residual chemical waste under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

The team’s efforts were halted after a dispute in August 2020 with the former minister, Jamal al-Adil, who was insisted on a dismantling process rather than the containment method recommended by the team.

Sealing Chemicals in Concrete

The containment method consisted of filling the site’s warehouse with self-hardening liquid concrete so as to seal the chemical weapons residues. The plan was approved by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which provided equipment as well as training for team members in various European countries.

Al-Saadi, who has a Ph.D. in industrial chemistry from the University of Sussex in England and is also a professor at Al-Nahrain University’s Faculty of Science, explained that the first step was to open a 10-centimeter hole in the wall of one of the warehouses at Muthanna and suck out the gases for analysis.

Cameras were installed to photograph the contents, which included hundreds of corroded cylinders; damaged boxes and bags of sodium cyanide and potassium cyanide; and thousands of disabled missile warheads partially filled with sarin, an extremely toxic synthetic organophosphorus compound.

“The pictures helped us in implementing the next step, which is how to inject the foam concrete solution to encapsulate the materials, barrels and containers,” said Al-Saadi. Once the concrete had hardened, the holes in the wall were enlarged to enable some of the team to enter the warehouse and check the casting for holes or cracks.

The same procedure was used for the second warehouse at Muthanna.

Corroded barrels of chemical waste are among the materials found in warehouses at Muthanna State Establishment (Photo by Abdul Razzaq al-Issa).
Corroded barrels of chemical waste are among the materials found in warehouses at Muthanna State Establishment (Photo by Abdul Razzaq al-Issa).

During the work, the team was protected by the Iraqi army because ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had taken control of nearby areas.

ISIS killed one member of a research team that visited the place several years earlier and stole equipment worth millions of dollars in an attempt to get hold of chemical weapons waste.

“We had to work quickly for fear of possible attacks by ISIS,” Khedir Yas, a chemical engineer and a member of the research team, said in a phone call. “We had the additional difficulty of video-taping our work in compliance with the instructions of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.”

Yas said the special structural designs of the warehouses made it an “unknown world” for the research team. Without knowing exactly what chemicals were inside, they were concerned that the slightest movement might cause a massive explosion.

Nuclear Waste Is Also a Problem

In addition to treating chemical waste at Muthanna, the team also worked to destroy two nuclear reactors in Al-Tuwaitha area, about 30 miles south of Baghdad, in coordination with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The largest French-built nuclear plant in the region, Al-Tuwaitha was the center of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program, which he abandoned in 1981 after Israeli fighter planes bombed it. (See a related article, “An Iraqi Scientist Speaks Out on the Lingering Effects of Radioactive Weapons.”)

“Some people are trying to kill ideas and keep pollution and radioactive and chemical waste, which have turned into a source of profit for many.”

Khedir Yas   A chemical engineer and a member of the research team

Yas, the executive director of the project, believes the work stoppage is related to other reasons than dismantling methods.

“Some people are trying to kill ideas and keep pollution and radioactive and chemical waste, which have turned into a source of profit for many,” he said. “I think that keeping us away from completing our tasks is political and has nothing to do with efficiency standards or the magnitude of the achievement that has saved the country millions of dollars.”

Accusations of corruption are not new. Last August, the director of the Chemical, Biological, and Military Waste Treatment and Destruction Department in the Ministry of Science was dismissed due to suspicions of major corruption. Al-Fanar Media also obtained official documents showing that former officials sought to contract with foreign companies to carry out such tasks in exchange for financial commissions.

Al-Fanar Media tried to contact the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, but the ministry refused to comment.

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“Dismantling the reactor means moving it to another place, and transferring radioactive materials may expose the Iraqi environment to more risks,” said Hamid Al-Bahili, an Iraqi nuclear scientist, in a telephone interview.

He explained that the current security conditions in Iraq make moving the reactor very dangerous. “This is a serious issue that cannot be postponed or procrastinated, a wise decision must be taken quickly.”




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام