AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – A recycling company found uranium oxide — a radioactive material also known as yellowcake — in a shipment of scrap steel it believes originally came from Iraq, the company said Thursday.
Paul de Bruin, spokesman for Rotterdam-based Jewometaal, said that the shipment was passed on last month from a Jordan metal dealer who was unaware it contained any forbidden materials.
“I’ve dealt with this man for 15 years and he says he’s sure it came from Iraq,” De Bruin said. He said Jewometaal had been asked not to reveal the name of the Jordanian exporter while the find was being investigated.
Nuclear experts say that although not highly radioactive, uranium oxide can be processed into enriched uranium usable in a nuclear weapon — but highly advanced technology is needed.
The Dutch Environment Ministry confirmed Thursday that Jewometaal reported the unusual find on Dec. 16. After a preliminary investigation by a company that specializes in removing radioactive waste, the Dutch government decided to call in the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate further.
A spokesman for the IAEA confirmed the agency had visited Rotterdam on Wednesday but had no further comment.
Environment ministry spokesman Wim van der Weegen said scrap metal companies in the Rotterdam port, which is Europe’s largest, report around 200 findings of radioactive material per year, often from old hospital equipment or normal industrial uses.
But the finding of an estimated two pounds of uranium oxide is odd, Van der Weegen said.
Experts said that around 2 pounds of yellowcake, the amount found, would not be useful for either a bomb or fuel.
Dr. Alan Ketering, a researcher at the nuclear research plant at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said yellowcake contains less than 1 percent of U-235 used in nuclear weapons. He said it would need to be refined many times with sophisticated technology before it was dangerous — and the amount found in Rotterdam would not be nearly enough.
“Anybody can dig it up and purify it to make the yellow stuff,” he said. “It’s the separation of U-235 that people are concerned about.”
However, he said there was no obvious non-nuclear industrial use for yellowcake and it would be strange to find it in random scrap metal.
The material was found in a small steel industrial container apparently used to connect pipes or electrical wires, Environment Ministry spokesman Van der Weegen said.
He said it wasn’t yet known where the yellowcake originated.
“It could be from anywhere in the world,” Van der Weegen said. After testing, the material was shipped to a nuclear waste plant in the Netherlands.
Jordan does not have any known nuclear power plants or weapons and is a signatory to the nuclear test ban treaty.
President Bush came under heavy criticism last year when he asserted in his State of the Union address that Iraq was shopping in Africa for uranium yellowcake — intelligence that turned out to be based on forged documents.
The original suspicions apparently came from a British dossier and Britain’s Foreign Office continued to maintain Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Niger, although no evidence was offered.
Last year, the United States agreed to pay $3.4 million to install radioactivity detectors in Rotterdam to scan a fraction of the 6 million containers that pass through it annually for hidden radioactive material.
However, scrap metal companies are already outfitted with detectors, and Jewometaal found the radioactive material with its own equipment.