This investigation sheds light on the poor working conditions at the Tuwaitha Nuclear site, southeast of the Baghdad, and the high level of radiation at the site, in addition to the fatal mistakes in treating radioactively contaminated waste in military and civilian sites that were exposed to depleted Uranium as a result of the US bombing of Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
The investigation reveals that workers in the Nuclear radiation field use cheap, inadequate protective suits, and they lack periodic examinations to measure their body radiation level and medical follow-up, and it exposes scores of Cancerous diseases in the areas adjacent to the Tuwaitha Nuclear site.
“Cancer did not give him more than five months before he died,” said “Duha” Mahmoud’s widow, who was an employee at the Directorate of Radioactive Waste Treatment, while a number of his peers at the Tuwaitha Nuclear site struggle to die silently.
In early 2014, Mahmoud Fadel returned from Basra to Baghdad in an ambulance, after his last trip which aimed to remove and treat radioactive waste from an Iron and Steel plant. Few months later he died due to a rare Cancerous disease.
Few days after Mahmoud went to Basra, his wife Duha Namiq (47 years old) received a phone call from one of his colleagues, informing her of a sudden deterioration in her husband’s health, “It was not Mahmoud’s first trip to Basra, as he did many trips to treat radioactively contaminated sites in various governorates, but that was his last trip,” says Mahmoud’s widow.
Forensic Medicine report, after Mahmoud’s autopsy, attributed his death to “Bone marrow Cirrhosis (a rare type of chronic Leukemia), cardiovascular system failure, and heart failure.”
One of his colleagues, who refused to reveal his name for fear of administrative persecution, attributed Mahmoud’s infection with this disease and his death “for the nature of his work in the treatment of radioactive waste, and his direct contact with radiation, especially at the Tuwaitha Nuclear site,” indicating that the protective equipment that are provided to the workers are not efficient.
Despite the secrecy of the Atomic Energy Directorates on the number of their employees who had Cancerous diseases; we monitored five employees infected with Cancer, along with a number of non-Cancerous pathological cases. In Diyala Bridge sub-districts (Riyadh, Al-Ga’ara and Wardiya), which are adjacent to the Tuwaitha site; dozens of deaths from Cancer and other diseases resulting from exposure to radiation were recorded, according to researchers.
The Nuclear “Tuwaitha” …
Located in the southeastern part of Baghdad, is the main headquarters for the Iraqi Nuclear and Radiological activities, known as “Tuwaitha” where the Iraqi Nuclear program began 60 years ago, with an understanding with the Soviet Union, and France’s approval to build a Nuclear plant with two reactors, Tammuz 1 and Tammuz 2.
On the afternoon of June 7, 1981, in a surprise Israeli air strike, known as “Oprah”, eight F16-F15 fighter jets, crossed the Saudi border into Iraq launched, and launched an attack, with sixteen (air-to-ground) missiles, targeting the Tuwaitha Nuclear research facility. The Tammuz reactor was destroyed, and the facility was turned into rubble.
In 1991, American aircrafts bombed a number of buildings at the Tuwaitha site, and they repeated that during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, by targeting five “containers” inside the site containing radioactive materials from the remnants of the Second Gulf War, using bombs carrying depleted Uranium., according to one of the workers at the site at the time.
According to a document obtained by the author of this investigation, the number of employees of the main directorates working in the field of Nuclear radiation and affiliated to the Ministry of Science and Technology is (1227) employees and workers, distributed among 7 main directorates.
A source from inside the Tuwaitha site, who refused to reveal his identity, estimated the number of people directly exposed to high levels of radiation, at 300 workers and employees, who are responsible for the treatment of radioactive waste and the dismantling projects of the Tammuz reactor and Radiokemia, while more than (400) administrative employees at the Tuwaitha site were exposed to radiation, but at lower rates.
The danger does not threaten the lives of those employees only, but the lives of tens of thousands of people who live in areas close to pollution sites, according to the source.
The Iraqi Parliament reveals …
On the 26th of March 2019, the Health and Environment Committee in the Iraqi Council of Representatives issued a statement in which it acknowledged the presence of confusion in the work of the Atomic Energy directorates of the Ministry of Science and Technology , which are integrated with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, revealing the infection of an atomic energy employee (Basem Jassim Hattab) with “dangerous radiation, skin rashes, skin abnormalities and a decrease in white blood cells.”
According to the statement, the committee attributed the infection, to forcing (Hattab) to work near the Tammuz Nuclear reactor at the Tuwaitha site, during its dismantling in 2018, despite his request to be excluded.
One of the workers at the Tuwaitha site, engineer Abdul Bari Salman, confirmed that “Working conditions at this site do not protect the workers from radiation dangers”. He added, “We do not have the simplest means of protection. They are simply not intended for work in radioactive enviroment.”
“Protection” Suits, but…
Workers in the Directorates of radioactive waste treatment, Nuclear sites liquidation, directorates and other departments concerned with working with radioactive pollutants; wear two types of suits; the first is the blue TAHA cotton suit, the second is the PRAIME CAPTAIN single-use disposal suit, according to a group of radioactive waste treatment employees.
An administrative employee in the Atomic Energy revealed that the source of the purchase of the suits used in the Nuclear sites is “Al-Sinak” market in the center of Baghdad, which is one of the markets designated for selling field work supplies.
The author of the investigation went to the market to find out more about these suites, and what are they supposed to be used for.
Alaa’ Al-Bahadli, the owner of a store that sells occupational safety devices, answered, when asked whether the TAHA suit, which he imports, is capable to protect against Radiation, by saying: “This type of suit is not designed to protect from the risk of radiation exposure.” stressing that “these suits are not suitable for such use, and there are no words in the attached instructions that indicate they were made for this type of work.”
He added “most of those who use the TAHA suit are workers in the electricity sector, or in small private factories and workshops of various fields of work. It is the most popular and best seller in the occupational safety clothing and tools market, because of its low price, but it is not the most efficient”.
We did not receive a response from TAHA to our inquiries that we sent to its official e-mail address, but what is striking is that the mother company (TAHA) is of Pakistani origin, while the workers in the Tuwaitha site wear (TAHA) suits of (Chinese) origin which carry the (Made in China) tag.
We received an answer via WhatsApp, from one of the agents of PRIME CAPTAIN, about the suitability of using the suits that it manufactures and supplies to Iraq, in radioactive environment. They confirmed that it “does not manufacture any suit or any kind of protective tools suitable for use in a radiation environment.”
A Price difference …
Three private sources from the Tuwaitha site administration, who refused to disclose their names, confirmed that the Energy directorates buy the single “TAHA” suit for 20 thousand Iraqi dinars, equivalent to $16 , but with a simple tour of the shops selling occupational safety equipment in Baghdad, you can find out that the price of a TAHA suit ranges between (8-10) thousand dinars, or about $8, and this is the retail price, according to what Alaa’, who sells these suits in the Sinak market, confirms.
Lack of Resources
Abdul-Bari Salman, an engineer at the Tuwaitha site, says that “Workers at the site are sometimes forced to buy new suits from their own accounts,” and they are repeatedly subjected to what he described as a “letdown” by the administration of the Atomic Energy departments.
Salman continues, “In 2017, one of our teams went to treat a radioactive contamination case at the Nasiriya governorate power station (352 km south of Baghdad). The team members were not provided with protective suits, so they were forced to use their old suits, which were already contaminated due to their use in a previous location.”
This poses a source of danger to workers, who sometimes have to work in contaminated areas even when safety equipment is not fully secured.
Pictures and a video clip we obtained show workers from the “Atomic Energy Directorates” wearing the single-use “TAHA” and “PRIME CAPTAIN” suits, during decontaminating a polluted site in Basra Governorate (540 km south of Baghdad), of “depleted Uranium”.
However, the Director General of the Department of Destruction and Processing and the Supervisor of the Atomic Energy Directorates, Dr. Majed Al-Saadi, ruled out in a phone conversation the existence of any risks to workers in the directorates of the Tuwaitha site, and confirmed, “They enjoy adequate protection through what is available to them in terms of work suits and head and hands protectors.”
Gamma Rays penetrate Workers’ Uniforms …
Dr. Eqbal Lateef, who is an expert in the field of radioactive pollutant treatment, believes that these types of suits “may” only protect workers from (Alpha and Beta) radiation risks.
She confirms that “the two suits used by workers in the Iraqi Atomic Energy Authority do not protect against the dangers of (Gamma) rays, because working in an environment where (Gamma) rays are spread or high doses of (Alpha) rays require special shields, which are suits that contain Lead.”
The website of the (SAFEOPEDIA) organization, which is specialized in environmental, health and safety issues, had published a study that clarified the conditions that must be met in the manufacturing of work suits that are used in radiation work environments, and the main components that must be used to manufacture these suits.
The study stated that “Work suits used in the radiation environment must include a group of elements, most important of which are Rubber, Lead and Fibers, in addition to activated Carbon and Boron.”
The process of gathering information and statistics about the number of Deaths and Cases for workers at the Tuwaitha site was very difficult, as about 30 employees and workers who were contacted refused to provide any information about the health conditions that accompany their work at the radioactive sites, or the cases of infection among the employees, as they fear administrative persecution, and they continuously receive instructions from their superiors not to disclose any information regarding the nature of their work.
In our search for Iraqi experts and scientists in Nuclear and Radiation Physics, we faced a huge media blackout on everything related to energy programs and their risks in Iraq. Six experts in the field of atomic energy in Iraq, who we personally contacted, refused to make a statement, and most of them apologized with an Iraqi accent, saying: “save us.”
In order to verify the information on “the danger of Nuclear radiation in Iraq, the “NIRIJ” Network for Investigative Journalism submitted an official request to the College of Science-Physics Department- at the University of Baghdad, to allow interviews with some professors of Nuclear Physics.
However, the Department of Physics refused to allow the professors to make a statement and requested us to visit the Deanship of the College of Science, so a request was submitted to meet its dean, but after waiting for more than three hours, the meeting did not take place, and we were asked to obtain the approval of the University Presidency.
After a visit of the University Presidency, we were “verbally” informed of the necessity to formally address the University Presidency, and if the Presidency approves the request, the interview will take place in the presence of a special committee, which will be responsible for the nature of the questions that can be answered by the university expert or professor.
This is why NIRIJ contacted the Tunisian Journalist, Sabra Al-Tarabulsi, who is close to the headquarters of the Arab Atomic Energy Authority in Tunis, to conduct a press interview with the head of the authority or his representative and a number of experts, to find out what information the authority possesses about the status of workers in the radiation field in Iraq.
After the Journalist addressed the authority’s media official, Jamal Al-Raissi, he welcomed the idea of the meeting, and told the representative of “NIRIJ” that he would provide her with important information and documents on the radiation situation in Iraq, and a date was set for the interview.
On the day of the interview, Al-Raissi apologized, under the pretext that the director of the authority had traveled, and the date of the meeting was changed to a week later. The authority’s Media official repeated his apology more than once later, until he stopped answering the calls of the “NIRIJ” delegate.
Cancerous Cases …
The attempts to investigate and persuade the employees of the Atomic Energy directorates to talk have not stopped.
After many attempts, a small number of employees of the Directorate of Radioactive Waste Treatment agreed to speak on the condition that their names are not to be mentioned and any information that might indicate them to be concealed.
The first of them questioned the work of the Radiation Safety Directorate and of the test equipment and periodic examinations that it conducts for workers in the field of radiation, saying, “We rarely see the details of our test results, and they always answer that we are all within “Safe Dose”, while we witnessed the infection of a number of colleagues with Cancerous and other diseases, some of which led to death.”
During the period of research and investigation, which was limited between August and September 2019, we detected a number of Cancerous tumors cases among Nuclear energy employees, who are still continuing their work, despite their need for rest, treatment and reducing the doses acquired from the workplace.
But the Director General of the Department of Destruction and Treatment, Dr. Majed Al-Saadi, denied the existence of any serious illnesses among the employees in the directorates of radioactive waste and Nuclear sites.
The Radiation Protection Center at the Ministry of Health and Environment refused to provide any information or data about the infected personnel working in the field of Atomic Energy.
The Cancer Center at the Ministry of Health and Environment, according to Dr. Manahel Al-Mukhtar, received “occasional visits by employees working at the Tuwaitha Nuclear site or from the employees of the Directorate of Dismantling and Disposal of Radioactive Waste”.
When asked about the possibility that the radioactive environment is a cause, she said: “Until now, the cause of most Cancerous cases is not known, but it has been noted, through studies, that there are auxiliary factors we call (Risk Factors) that may be a cause of infection.”
Dr. Al-Mukhtar added, “Among these risk factors are physical factors that are preceded by exposure to ionizing radiation, as it greatly increases the likelihood of developing Cancer, and this was proven by the Hiroshima bomb, as the Leukemia patients subsequently increased dramatically.”
50 Thousand Dinars for Dismantling a Reactor
An expert in the field of Nuclear energy (GH), who has worked at the Tuwaitha site since the 1990s, says: “Teams from the departments of Dismantling of Nuclear facilities and the Treatment and management of radioactive waste, worked to dismantle the remaining parts of the Tammuz reactor at the Tuwaitha site, as well as continuing to treat radioactive equipment in different locations in Iraq, with primitive tools that are do not comply with scientific standards that take into account health and environmental factors” .
“Some of the personnel working on dismantling the reactors are not trained, and they lack adequate equipment” the expert says, expressing his annoyance, adding, “The workers rely on primitive equipment and shields that do not protect them from the radiation dangers, and some workers in our field are not aware of the risks of work in general, and this is a responsibility that the management bears.”
Talking about what happened during the process of dismantling “Tammuz Reactor” in 2018, he expressed his regret for what the officials in the energy directorates had done, when “some simple workers were tempted to work in dismantling the reactor, by promising them lucrative rewards. The team spent long hours for two consecutive months in this dangerous environment. In the end, everyone was rewarded with only (50) thousand dinars (about $40).
Blackout on the High Level of Radiation at the Tuwaitha site …
In a Televised interview broadcasted on April 7, 2019, Dr. Majed Al-Saadi, Director General of the Department of Destruction and Treatment and the supervisor of the Atomic Energy Directorates, responded to the statement of the Parliamentary Health Committee on the case of Basem Jassem Hattab, by saying that “The radiation level at the Tuwaitha site is equal to that of any street in Baghdad,” denying the fact that the radiation level at the Tuwaitha site is higher than the normal limit.
However, the expert on Nuclear activity (GH) refuted the recent “Al-Saadi” statement and confirmed the high level of radiation at the Tuwaitha site, especially near the “Core” part of the recently dismantled reactor, and at the radioactive waste site, as well as the presence of pollution risks in the areas surrounding the work sites in Tuwaitha, for which we obtained pictures showing the presence of large quantities of radioactive waste lying on the ground in the open, without being treated.
Through special sources, we obtained a picture of the “RadEye” surface radioactivity measurement meter result from inside the Radiokemia site – which is a site that is prohibited to enter or approach, even for workers – that proves high radiation dose inside, reaching (7.13) Bq / cm2 , – “ Bq or Becquerel” is the radioactivity measurement unit – noting that the normal radioactive range for the “RadEye” device is (0.20) “Bq / cm2”, meaning that the on-site dose is 35 times more than the norm.
(GH) confirms the high radioactivity at certain points of the Tuwaitha site, revealing that “the radioactivity of the contaminated liquid present inside the (Radiokemia) site has reached (8) million Becquerels, as stated in one of the reports submitted by Iraqi scientists to the international agency”. He adds that “there is no accurate information about the size and quantity of the contaminated liquid.”
“Radiokemia” is a name given to one of the destroyed sites inside the Tuwaitha site. The workers there describe it as extremely dangerous due to the presence of (8) tanks of contaminated liquid inside underground rooms.
In early (2020), we learned that the Iraqi Atomic Energy Directorates intend to treat the destroyed ” Radiokemia ” site. The expert (G.H.) believes that the process of treating it is almost impossible, and the reason, he said, is: “There is a leak of contaminated liquid outside the tanks, also there is lack of equipment to deal with such contaminated liquids, in addition to our fear of the high amount of radiation doses that we may receive if we enter those tank rooms.”
Contaminated Area …
On the morning of April 10, 2003, American forces who took control of Baghdad, allowed the residents close to the (Diyala Bridge) side, to enter the Tuwaitha Nuclear site and loot some of its contents, most of which are contaminated with either radioactive or chemical materials.
Some people looted dozens of plastic “barrels” that contained chemicals or radioactively contaminated liquid residues, as well as office furniture, construction equipment and tyres, which people used directly in their homes without realizing their danger.
Dr. Eqbal Lateef, who is an expert in the field of treating radioactive pollutants, conducted field surveys in the areas confined between Al-Za’faraniya (west of the Tuwaitha site) through Diyala Bridge to the villages of Wardiya and Al-Gaa’ra (east of Tuwaitha).
This area, according to Dr. Lateef and a number of researchers, is one of the most dangerous polluted areas in Baghdad, due to the presence of the destroyed Tuwaitha Nuclear, and the violent battles in the (Diyala Bridge) area during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in which US “Marines”, tried to storm Baghdad from its eastern side and crossing the Diyala Bridge towards the heart of the capital, but those forces encountered resistance from the “Republican Guard” – one of the strongest formations of the Iraqi armed forces at the time – so they used bombs containing depleted Uranium in order to quickly win the battle,” according to military testimonies from the people of the region, and their evidence for that was “the meltdown of a number of aircraft and military tyres.”
In addition to targeting five containers at the Tuwaitha site, the US forces bombed the site with missiles containing depleted Uranium. According to workers who witnessed the incident, the containers were intended for storing contaminated atomic work supplies.
Dr. Eqbal Lateef believes that the US forces’ allowing civilians to enter the Tuwaitha area was not arbitrary, “This operation was carried out deliberately, as the US forces know very well the harm these containers have on civilians”, but Lateef did not explain the goal for that?
She revealed the high rate of Nuclear radiation in and around al-Tuwaitha area, and this is all according to scientific experiments and measurements that she conducted for a 3 month period in that area, where she was able to measure the final output of Uranium in 238 hectares of soil, by planting the Cress plant in it. A ratio of (3.720) Grams of Uranium in ten thousand square meters were found, while the normal ratio should be (0.02) grams.
A significant increase in the percentage of Potassium isotope and some other elements was also detected, and this is an evidence of soil loss of fertility due to the high percentage of depleted Uranium.
Lateef also revealed the diseases that afflicted civilians in the areas of Diyala Bridge, Tuwaitha and Wardiya, which surround the heart of the Tammuz reactor, where a large increase in Cancerous diseases was recorded. Breast Cancer was ranked first, followed by Leukemia, then Colon Cancer. In addition, dozens of cases of Gastrointestinal Cancers, as the Pancreas Cancer, which is considered as one of the most severe types of Cancer, Liver, Rectal, Stomach, Gland, Eye, and other Cancers were recorded.
The rise in Lymphoma cases among civilians in that region indicates that the amount of radiation and radiation dose is very high, especially in the “Wardiya” area, and the “Al-Asala” area overlooking the Tigris River, which supplies more than one million and two hundred thousand people with drinking water.
The areas surrounding Tuwaitha, such as Diyala Bridge to Za’faraniya in the west, recorded significant increase in viral diseases, because the high level of radiation greatly harms the immune system, so many viral diseases such as Hepatitis have been recorded.
Dr. Lateef also indicated that the increase in radiation led to a decline in soil fertility and agriculture in general in those areas, where the death of “male” palms was recorded as a result of the increase in Gamma rays exceeding normal.
Employees facing Death
“Mahmoud Fadel,” who passed away due to Cirrhosis of the bone marrow, and other employees, working in the field of atomic radiation, who were infected with Cancer and skin diseases, “were left to face their inevitable fate without any financial or moral governmental support, especially from the directorates to which they belong.” Says Duha Namiq, widow of the deceased Mahmoud.
Workers in the field of Nuclear energy lack a “private” health center in the Energy directorates, to treat them from diseases that result from exposure to radiation, which forces them to resort to public hospitals (governmental and private) for examination and treatment.
After several phone calls and hours of waiting, we met in a Baghdad café, with “Adnan Shalash” (a false name), who is 45 years old employee in one of the atomic energy directorates, who had undergone a surgery to remove a “malignant tumor” in his body, few months ago.
With his pale face and light hair, and with eyes swollen from sickness, Shalash told us about his suffering and relentless pain, before he opened a small bag loaded with medical reports and radiographs of his slender body, which lost 30 kilograms, showing the location of the “tumor” in his body.
More than 100 workers in the field of removing and treating radioactive waste, are likely to suffer from diseases, (5-8) of them with Cancerous diseases, and others with multiple diseases such as kidney failure.
There is no global average wage for workers in the radiation field, but, according to the “NEWVOO ” job site, the salaries of Iraqi workers in this field are far less than their peers in countries of the world. In the United States, workers in Nuclear institutions earn an annual average salary of (92) thousand dollars, (62) thousand Euros in the United Kingdome, (71) thousand dollars in Canada.
Batoul Ahmed, an employee at the Directorate of Radioactive Waste Treatment, says, “Our salaries do not meet the family daily basic needs. The nominal monthly salary of a Bachelor’s degree holder who works for the Government does not exceed (400) thousand Iraqi dinars, to which risk and marital allocations are added, so total is about (800) thousand dinars monthly, i.e. (9,600,000) dinars annually (about 8,000 US dollars).
With this salary, the worker in the field of Nuclear radiation in Iraq earns 8.6% of the salary of his peers in the United States of America.
Batoul points out that “many workers in the polluted sites are not full time Government employees. Some of them work on daily wage basis with a monthly income of (250) thousand dinars (200 dollars), and others are contracted with salaries not exceeding 400 thousand dinars (325 dollars)”.
The number of daily workers who work in the Ministry of Science and Technology (merged with the Ministry of Higher Education) is 138 employees distributed among the directorates of the ministry, 33 of them belong to departments directly concerned with radiation work in the directorates of atomic energy, 14 of them are employees in the directorate of radioactive waste treatment, and 7 in the Directorate of Liquidation of Nuclear Facilities, and 12 others in the Directorate of Sites support.
According to February 2018 daily workers’ salaries sheet, the daily wage for a worker in the directorates of radioactive waste treatment, liquidation of Nuclear facilities and site support, amounts to only (10) thousand dinars (about 8 dollars).
Administrative Chaos …
Staff of the Atomic Energy Directorates complain of administrative chaos that they fall victim to, as they were following the Ministry of Science and Technology, but the directorates of Al-Tuwaitha site and the Ministry of Science and Technology were all merged with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.
Legal expert, Jamal Al-Asadi, describes the transfer of employees of the Atomic Energy Directorates to the Ministry of Education, as a great mistake, stressing that “the work scope of these directorates’ has no ties with the Ministry of Education.”
Al-Asadi added, “It was necessary to include these departments and any other units concerned with Radiological and Nuclear work within the (Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission) that was formed in January 2017, because the work of the two directorates consists with the work of the commission.”
Employees of the Atomic Energy Directorates complain about their low salaries, which prompted them in March 2019 to sign a petition requesting an increase in their financial dues, in line with what was stated in the Atomic Energy Commission Law.
Commenting on the low salaries, Al-Asadi says that the Atomic Energy Commission Law, specifically Article 18 of it, is relatively fair to the Commission’s employees, “but the Tuwaitha departments did not join the Commission, which did not start in the first place. As a result, the employees are the only victims.”
Dr. Shukri Al-Hassan, who is an Environment researcher, says that Iraq was considered as one of the clean environments that was completely free of radioactive contamination, despite the destruction of the Tammuz reactor, in which there was no dangerous leak of radiation outside the site.
But the problem of radioactive contamination, according to Al-Hassan, “worsened after 1991 and the bombing of Iraq with hundreds of bombs containing depleted Uranium, in addition to the 2003 US use of munitions containing highly depleted Uranium,” which is estimated at (2000) tons according to Dr. Al-Hassan.
Before 1991, the radiation exposure in Iraq did not exceed (7.5 parts per million Rotingen / hour), but it increased to (8.08) parts per million Rotingen / hour, according to the Radiation Protection Center.
That reality requires great efforts to reduce the risks of radiation to humans and to the environment. The bulk responsibility falls on the shoulders of Iraqi workers, experts and employees who lack adequate protection means.
“Nobody cares,” says Doha Namiq, looking at her husband’s picture hanging on the wall of their modest home, then continues, “I have pity on the Radiation workers … I hope they will not meet Mahmoud’s fate.”
* The names of the speakers were hidden at their request for fear of persecution.
* The investigation was carried out with the support of the “NIRIJ” Network for Investigative Journalism and under the supervision of Ahmed Al-Rubaye.