The militant outfit Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has seized nearly 40 kg of uranium compounds used for research purposes at Mosul University when it overran that city last month, and now that poses a risk, “in Iraq or abroad,” according to an Iraqi government letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“Terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state,” said Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim in a July 8, 2014 letter initially obtained by Reuters, adding that despite the limited amount believed to be in ISIS’ possession such materials “can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction”.
Terror groups with the requisite expertise could smuggle the material out of Iraq for this purpose, he added.
However a multiplicity of experts, including at the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency and unnamed U.S. government sources, suggested that the materials were not likely to be enriched uranium and “therefore would be difficult to use to manufacture into a weapon”.
Reports quoted U.S. officials familiar with security matters as saying that they were unaware of this development raising any alarm among U.S. authorities, while the IAEA clarified that the uranium was “low grade”, and does not pose “a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk”.
IAEA spokesperson Gill Tudor however said, “Any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern”.
News about Iraq’s letter to the U.N. comes a day after Iraqi officials confirmed that ISIS was also in control of a disused chemical weapons factory, sparking fears that they may have had access to the “remnants of 2,500 degraded chemical rockets filled decades ago with the deadly nerve agent sarin”, stored in that facility alongside numerous chemical warfare agents.
In that case as well, the Associated Press reported, the U.S. government “played down the threat from the takeover”, saying there were no intact chemical weapons and it would be “very difficult, if not impossible, to use the material for military purposes”.
However the IHS Jane’s think tank noted that the Al-Muthanna Chemical Weapons Plant was sealed by the U.N. Special Commission in 1994 as it was too difficult to clear at that time, and “decontamination and clean-up has been put off due to the severity of the risks involved”.