ISIS' Stolen Uranium Is Very Different From Iran's Enriched Uranium, And Here's Why
The war in Iraq may have ended, but its problems seem far from over, especially in light of Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim's Wednesday letter to the United Nations. In it, the Iraqi government revealed that insurgents had seized 88 pounds of uranium compounds from Mosul University, and given that the insurgents in play were members of terrorist group ISIS, Iraq was very concerned. The U.N. and the United States, however, seemed much less perturbed by the information.
According to Alhakim's letter, initially obtained by Reuters, ISIS's latest aggressive move in a chain of increasingly bold attacks was to take "control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state" that the Iraqi government fears "can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction." Wrote Alhakim:
These nuclear materials, despite the limited amounts mentioned, can enable terrorist groups, with the availability of the required expertise, to use it separate or in combination with other materials in its terrorist acts.
Iraq approached the U.N. with this information in hopes of obtaining international assistance and support, as officials believe they will need outside help to "stave off the threat of [the compound's] use by terrorists in Iraq or abroad."
Unfortunately for Iraq, their cries for aid have largely gone unheeded — not only in the most recent crisis, but also regarding ISIS in general. When the terrorist group first began to gain international notoriety in June by capturing a series of Iraqi villages, including Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, it was revealed that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had previously asked the United States for airstrikes "against extremist staging areas." But unwilling to relive the horrors of the nearly nine-year war and further entrench the U.S. in Iraqi affairs, the Obama administration declined to comply with al-Maliki's requests.
Obama has continued to refuse to carry out airstrikes in Iraq, and in mid-June, the Washington Post reported that rather than exercising military action in Iraq, Obama hoped to provide assistance by "bolster[ing] assistance for Iraq’s beleaguered security forces."
But in the case of the uranium compounds, the general apathy with which the news has been met by experts in the international community does not necessarily stem from an unwillingness to become involved with the situation in Iraq, but rather from the low quality of the uranium in question. So what exactly is the difference between this uranium and the Iranian uranium that always has the U.S. so hot and bothered?
ISIS's seized uranium is unenriched
This is the primary difference between the insurgents' compounds and those that are used in nuclear devices. According to Reuters, American officials have said "the materials were not believed to be enriched uranium and therefore would be difficult to use to manufacture into a weapon."
The New York Times reports that U.S. claims are supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose spokeswoman Gill Tudor noted that the uranium was "low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk."
What's the difference between unenriched and enriched uranium?
As Smithsonianmag.com explains, there are different types of uranium, with over 99 percent of the uranium found on earth being U-238, the kind that can neither start nor sustain a nuclear reaction. 0.7 percent of uranium, however, of the U-235 variety, is able to start and sustain a nuclear reaction, but there isn't enough naturally occurring U-235 to pose an atomic threat. In fact, 3 to 4 percent U-235 is needed just to run a nuclear power plant, and a nuclear bomb requires uranium with 90 percent U-235.
In order to obtain these levels of U-235, uranium must be "enriched," a process that is both expensive and difficult. As such, Iraq's fears that ISIS's uranium could be used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction are, for the most part, unfounded, as it appears that ISIS would be hard-pressed to find the significant time and resources needed to turn their low-grade uranium into nuclear threats. Even so, however, Tudor warned that "any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern."
Can the uranium be used for any dangerous purposes?
While Iraqi security analysts seem to believe that even low-grade uranium could be used to power "dirty bombs," or explosives laced with radioactivity, Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a British former officer and weapons of mass destruction expert told Breitbart, "A dirty bomb is not terribly effective anyway except for the psychological impact... You are more likely to die from shrapnel."
Bob Kelly, a former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq, sent a similar message to NBC News, and called putting uranium in a dirty bomb a "silly idea." Kelly explained, "If you spread uranium over a large area, it is just going to disappear," and added that Iraq was well-equipped to deal with dirty bombs, considering the appropriate response would simply be "getting the fire department to wash down the pavements."
Despite the generally blasé attitude adopted by experts at large, ISIS's continued attacks are certainly cause for concern, even if their latest seizure is not.
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