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Iraqi nuclear plant searched, public may be at risk, UN says

Three weeks into their campaign in Iraq, coalition forces still haven't found any secret caches of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons -- but they may have jeopardized public safety by breaking into a sealed nuclear storage facility south of Baghdad, according to UN sources.

UN sources said they are concerned at reports that radiation is escaping from a nuclear storage building that U.S. marines entered three or four days ago.

"The marines barged in there, blasted through the seals, opened the building up, breaking these very important containment measures," said a UN official who is familiar with the site, the old nuclear power facility at Al-Tuwaitha, 20 kilometres south of Baghdad.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, had "many tonnes" of uranium waste under lock and seal in drums stored in a secure building before the war.

"When they arrive at these places they should take certain precautions. . . . They're putting their own people at risk," the official said.

"Extreme caution should be used when handling this material."

The UN Security Council ordered Iraq's nuclear program shut down after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. But Iraq was allowed to keep uranium waste on its territory at Al-Tuwaitha under IAEA seal. The uranium was not enriched sufficiently to be used for nuclear weapons.

The IAEA has been "monitoring this building for more than a decade, visiting two times a year to make sure seals were still on and intact," a UN official said.

"Al-Tuwaitha is the single most inspected facility in Iraq," the official added.

UN experts had been to the site as recently as February, checking seals and inspecting previously inaccessible underground chambers. The Osirak nuclear power reactor complex at Al-Tuwaitha was destroyed when it was bombed by Israel in 1981.

A correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported from Al-Tuwaitha yesterday that U.S. marines found high levels of radiation. Chief Warrant Officer Darrin Flick, a Marine nuclear-warfare specialist, was quoted as saying that at one building "the rad detector went off the charts. Then I opened the steel door, and there were all these drums, many, many drums, of highly radioactive material."

Meanwhile, UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said that finding weapons of mass destruction does not seem to be high on the list of U.S. war objectives.

"I think the Americans started the war thinking there were some [prohibited weapons]. I think they now believe less in that possibility," Mr. Blix told the Spanish daily El Pais.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director-general, said that if the U.S.-led coalition finds evidence of weapons of mass destruction, this must be verified by the UN.

That's the only way to make sure the claims are credible, Mr. ElBaradei said through a spokesman.

The coalition will likely have to depend on Iraqis to pinpoint biological weapons labs, says William Potter of the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at Monterey.

Chemical facilities are easier to find. "They will probably find chemical weapons," Mr. Potter said.

As for nuclear weapons, there is probably "nothing for them to find," Mr. Potter added.

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