Al Qaim processing Uranium since 1982
Mednews - Middle East Defense News
SECTION: GULF CRISIS; Vol. 4, No. 7
January 7, 1991
Iraq's huge phosphates complex at Al Qaim, along the border with Syria, has been processing uranium into uranium hexofluoride gas since 1982, Mednews has learned. Sources who worked at the plant, which was built by the now-defunct Belgian consortium, Sybetra, said they had "heard rumors of uranium processing as early as 1980." But Iraqi security at the complex was so tight that technicians working on one segment were kept from contacting fellow workers elsewhere at the huge project site. The uranium came by rail from Iraq's huge phosphates mine at Akashat, 50 km away, on a special rail link built by the Brazilian construction firm Mendes Junior Constructora in 1981. Construction of Al Qaim was completed in May 1981, and fitting out with industrial equipment began soon afterwards. The prime contractor, Sybetra, engaged the services of fifty subcontractors, to complete a total of twelve project lots. Sybetra has since gone bankrupt, partially because of unpaid Iraqi debts, and now has only three full-time personnel left in Brussels who follow Al Qaim, one for spare parts requests, one to process Customs disputes, and a third for administration.
One of the principle subcontractors was the Belgian engineering firm, Mechime, which supplied plans and engineering for the phosphoric acid fertilizer plant, and a sulfuric acid production line.
Other main suppliers were identified by former project engineers as follows:
* ALESA, of Switzerland, built a processing unit to extract fluoride salts from liquid phosphoric acid. This probably included a capability to extract uranium salts from raw phosphates compounds.
* Copee Rust (Groupe Lafarge): a phosphoric acid unit
* F.R. Schmidt, of Denmark, supplied large ovens to enrich fertilizer compounds
* Davie Power Gas (DPG), of Great Britain, which supplied technology for processing chemicals, including production lines for ammonium and potassium at Al Qaim's Unit 400. Equipment supplied included ovens, calcinators, and grinders.
* A U.S. firm supplied a production line to make an ammonium compound, believed to be ammonium perchlorate rocket fuel, from nitrogen.
In addition, major Austrian, German, and Swedish companies supplied equipment for ammonium storage and for phosphates processing at Unit 100.
But as one former engineer noted, "it would be easy to turn this type of equipment to another use besides fertilizer production." Already at the time, he noted, foreign workers at the Al Qaim project were hearing about a "second plant," perhaps contained within the complex, or just outside, that was devoted to a "uranium project."
Western intelligence analysts say the uranium project was a hydrogen fluoride plant, a key link in Iraq's nuclear weapons program. At Al Qaim, Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission experts transformed abundant supplies of uranium yellowcake into uranium hexofluoride gas, for further enrichment in gas centrifuge cascades, to obtain weapons-grade fuel.
Several other sites have been identified as housing centrifuge-related projects:
* the Nasser Establishment for Mechanical Industries at Taji, just north of Baghdad, where Matrix Churchill and a variety of West German contractors have provided machine-tools for manufacturing centrifuge assembles;
* Tuwaitha, Iraq's nuclear research center. According to an Insight report in the Dec 16 issue of the Sunday Times of London, Iraq has set up an experimental centrifuge in a secret laboratory here.
* Makhour, in the Qarachoq mountains south of Mosul, where Iraq may have set up a production centrifuge cascade and a uranium processing mill (see our last issue).