Grants Help Texas Tech Researchers Clean Up, Understand Iraq Nuclear Program

Funding helps continue safe remediation of contamination, broker science diplomacy.

After Desert Storm in 1991 and the looting in 2003, uranium contamination became a problem for Iraqi villagers who lived near 12 of Saddam Hussein’s enrichment plants.

But thanks to $1.3 million in grants from the U.S. Department of State and the United Kingdom, scientists with Texas Tech University’s Center for Environmental Radiation Studies can continue dismantling the old uranium enrichment plants, getting a better handle on the public health impact of the contamination and helping to train Iraqi scientists to safely continue the dismantling process.

The center received $948,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of State and a $363,500 grant from the government of the United Kingdom, said Ron Chesser, director for the center.

"Our project involves fieldwork in Iraq, direct assistance to the government of Iraq, and membership on the United States official delegations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna," Chesser said "Our main project there is to assist the government of Iraq to dismantle the former nuclear systems program."

A $510,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State will support the center’s continued role in the dismantling and disposal of Iraq’s former nuclear weapons facilities and for its research on public health in villages close to the main facility near Baghdad, Chesser said. This is the second year of this type of funding for the Texas Tech program, which is an outgrowth of faculty involvement since 2003 in the reconstruction of science, technology and engineering capacity in Iraq.

Another $438,000 from the State Department will implement a Radiation Worker Safety Program in Iraq. This includes training Iraqi workers on radiation safety and establishing worker training and safety procedure inside of Iraq. A $363,500 grant from the United Kingdom will help train former Iraqi scientists on project management and nuclear facilities dismantling processes.

Carleton Phillips, a professor of biology, has assisted in Iraq since 2003. He said that Hussein’s weapons program never followed international safety protocol. Now the new government is trying to follow those international rules by trying to assess and clean up the mess and protect people living near contaminated areas.

"The driving force behind the weapons program in Iraq was the war with Iran," Phillips said. "Iraqis thought they might lose. So they deployed chemical weapons, tested biological weapons and tried to develop nuclear weapons."

Some contamination in the region of the nuclear fuel processing facilities may have resulted from the dispersion of natural uranium by allied bombing of that facility. The largest fraction of contamination was due to looting.

Because Hussein’s government never followed international safety rules when dealing with the uranium in the first place, the new government of Iraq is now depending on help to become compliant, he said.

"There’s this challenge of nation-building going on and trying to help Iraq to have a functioning government," Phillips said. "I’ve watched and participated in the evolution of that government and the challenge of creating functional ministries. I’m committed to the idea that science, engineering and technology are crucial to the restoration of government in Iraq. What we’re doing is what I like to call science diplomacy."

Brenda Rodgers, assistant professor of biology, is a co-investigator with the program. This summer, she and others will begin a massive public health testing program to determine whether people living near these processing centers have been affected by possible contamination.

While uranium often gets associated with cancer, she said that the isotopes aren’t readily absorbed by the body. More often, uranium stays in the body’s kidneys and causes nephritis.

"What we want to do is see if there is evidence of contamination of people living in villages near these sites," she said. "We want to assess whether there are any adverse effects on the health of these people. The problem is that rumors abound, and there’s a lot of presumption that people are being poisoned by radiation. Similar rumors led to widespread fear and unsubstantiated reports of death due to radiation sickness from Chernobyl.

"But we want to find out scientifically if there is any danger. If there is, we’ll report our findings to the appropriate ministries in Iraq."

CONTACT: Ron Chesser, director for the Center of Environmental Radiation Studies at Texas Tech University, (806) 252-5871 or; Carleton J. Phillips, professor of biology, (806) 742-2715 or; Brenda Rodgers, assistant professor of biology, (806) 742-3232 or