Iraqi scientists have succeeded in removing and treating radioactive contamination resulting from the use of chemical weapons decades ago in Basra and the surrounding area, Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has announced.
The scientists began work in Basra, Iraq’s third most populous region, in June 2018 after the International Atomic Energy Agency approved their action plan.
Majed Al-Saadi, head of the scientific team on the project, told Al-Fanar Media: “Radioactive waste has been present in Basra since the early 1990s. It resulted from the use of depleted uranium weapons with a high degree of radiation during the First Gulf War in 1991.”
More contamination occurred during the military operations after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he added.
“We succeeded in removing and treating waste in 26 sites throughout Basra Governorate,” said Al-Saadi, a professor of science at Al Nahrain University. “These sites vary between houses that were bombed with uranium, and military equipment left behind because of the bombing.” (See a related article, “Fallout From Chemical Weapons Program Continues to Plague Iraq.”)
“We succeeded in removing and treating waste in 26 sites throughout Basra Governorate. These sites vary between houses that were bombed with uranium, and military equipment left behind because of the bombing.”Majed Al-Saadi
Head of the scientific team and a professor at Al Nahrain University
Researchers have documented serious health consequences resulting from radioactive and chemical pollution in Iraq.
The High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq has reported a high rate of cancer, reaching about 800 cases per month, in Basra Governorate. (See a related article, “An Iraqi Scientist Speaks Out on the Lingering Effects of Radioactive Weapons.”)
A study published by the Arab Scientific Community Organization in March 2019 reported a high rate of congenital malformations in children after 1991. The authors expected that “the problem of radioactive pollution in southern Iraq and its health effects will continue for decades.”
Removing Contaminated Soil
The Iraqi scientists divided the decontamination work into stages. First they measured the radiation level at each site using advanced devices from the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna. Then they removed materials inside the sites where high levels of radiation were detected, including remnants of demolished buildings. Finally, they treated and took away contaminated soil in specially designed barrels.
The last stage included measuring radiation levels after treatment, said Al-Saadi, whose mission with the team ended in 2020.
Ehab Ali Hassan, another member of the treatment team, told Al-Fanar Media that the worst part of the job involved “facing danger for long periods of time.”
“We sometimes had to stay overnight in some sites for a week or ten consecutive days,” Hassan said.
“We sometimes had to stay overnight in some sites for a week or ten consecutive days.”Ehab Ali Hassan
A member of the treatment team
Hassan started working with teams to clear contamination from Iraq’s former battle zones after graduating from the College of Engineering at the University of Mosul in 2013. His work there was paused for several years after Islamic State forces occupied the northern Iraqi city in 2014. (See a related article, “An Encounter with a Mosul Photographer.”)
He was only able to resume work in 2018. Hassan said he wanted to build treatment plants in several governorates to dispose of all chemical and radioactive pollutants.
A Former Minister’s Advice
The teams began their work during the tenure of Abdul Razzaq Al-Issa as minister of higher education and scientific research. (See a related article, “Iraq’s Former Higher Education Minister Strives to Improve Universities.”)
Al-Issa told Al-Fanar Media that some Iraqi governorates still contain radioactive pollutants. These include the Mosul region and the border area between Iraq and Kuwait, he said.
The sources of radioactive waste vary, Al-Issa said, but include remnants of weapons used in previous wars.
He added: “The best way to get rid of this radiation is to expand the establishment of treatment plants.”
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Two years ago, the ministry established four radioactive waste treatment plants in Basra Governorate. Al-Issa said Iraq had scientific teams capable of the task, “but there must be a political will to liquidate this waste in all governorates that suffer from the problem.”
To read more about the efforts of scientists and researchers to deal with sources of environmental pollution in Iraq, see the following selected articles from Al-Fanar Media’s archives: