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Iraq searches for missing radioactive iridium

Authorities in Iraq are trying to trace a small amount of radioactive material which has disappeared from a site in Basra. While the quantity of iridium is not enough for a nuclear bomb, it can still be used in a weapon.

Iraqi officials have been searching for the missing iridium ever since the US company Weatherford reported its loss some three months ago, Khajak Ferweer, the head of Basra's environment commission, said Thursday.

The material allegedly went missing from a Weatherford storage facility in the oil-rich Iraqi region.

According to Ferweer, the radioactive substance amounts to only several grams of Ir-192, a

radioactive iridium isotope

. It was stored in a protective casing the size of a laptop computer and used in a device for testing oil and gas pipelines.

Ferweer said that the material could not be used to make a nuclear bomb.

Both companies deny responsibility

Weatherford had hired the Turkish branch of the Swiss inspections group SGS to test pipes in the southern Iraqi province of Basra.

SGS, which owns the missing iridium, has denied any responsibility for the security at the site.

A sign warning about radioactivity

Iridium can cause severe burns and deadly radiation poisoning if improperly handled

"When not in use, the equipment and radioactive source are stored in a secured bunker designed for that effect and provided by Weatherford," the company said in a statement.

"The disappearance of the equipment occurred while the equipment was stored in the Weatherford bunker," SGS added.

Weatherford also denied responsibility in a statement on Wednesday.

"We do not own, operate or control sources or the bunker where the sources are stored," the company said.

Dirty bomb fears

Iraqi officials still consider the iridium to be missing, and not stolen, said Jabbar al-Saadi, a member of Basra's security committee. There were also no signs of forced entry at the scene, another security official in Baghdad told the Reuters news agency.

The US State Department said there were no signs that the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) or other militant groups had acquired the radioactive material. The closest territory under IS control is 500 kilometers (300 miles) north of Basra.

Still, Iraqi security officials are worried that IS or other jihadist groups could obtain the radioactive material and combine it with conventional explosives to create a so-called "dirty bomb." When activated, this device would contaminate large areas with radiation.

However, SGS has described the material as a low-level radioactive source.

"At the time of the disappearance of the equipment, the source was close to the end of its useful life," SGS said, adding that it was "safe to affirm" that it was now very weak.

dj/cmk (AFP, Reuters)

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