Deirdre Tynan
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Sun, 02.03.2003
pte20030302002 Politics/Law, Science/Technology
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Irish chemist part of cat and mouse game
IAEO built clean lab in Seibersdorf Research Centers

Vienna, Austria (pte002/02.03.2003/09:15) - SADDAM Hussein's hopes of avoiding war now rest in the hands of an unassuming Irish chemist who has unwittingly taken centre stage in the cat and mouse game between weapons inspectors and Iraqi authorities.

Dr David Donohue, a former weapons inspector in Iraq in 1991, has first hand experience of Saddam's hidden arsenal. But now he oversees the painstaking task of examining suspect traces of dust atom by atom in an environment so sterile even the air he breathes is filtered.

His results could swing the decision between war and peace. Any mistake in the highly complicated series of tests he overseas could provide proof that the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear bomb, is in the hands of a power crazed dictator or condemn thousands of innocent Iraqis to death by unleashing a ruthless US lead assault to topple their leader.

But while the diplomatic row over the exact wording of the next UN resolution heats up, the Irishman says he is focused on making sure when a decision is made, it is based on reliable and accurate evidence from his team. And he says the tests will not stop until the last minute, adding: "If its there, we'll find it."

In Seibersdorf Research Facility 45 miles south of Vienna, Austria, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has built a "clean lab" containing equipment worth millions of pounds capable of isolating and identifying individual sub-atomic particles.

Only these sub-atomic particles can conclusively reveal if Iraq poses a terrifying nuclear threat.

Dr Donohue, 52, said: "The lab consists of an outer and inner area. We have to limit the amount of people who work inside to just eight. When the enter the lab, they have to change their clothes, and when they enter the inner part they have to change again.

"This is a clean lab, we have to avoid cross contamination at all costs. Cross contamination and inaccurate results would mean the end of the IAEA as an impartial authority.

"And if we do find traces of nuclear material in the sample kits when they are returned, Iraq will blame us first and say we messed the tests up. So we have to work extremely carefully and document everything we do.

"The samples we test here are mostly cotton swipes which the inspectors have wiped over areas, maybe a wall or a table, they believe there may have been activity near. We don't know exactly where the samples are from but if there has been uranium or plutonium in the vicinity, even up to 20-years-ago we can detect it.

"The cotton swipes are put into a kit containing a sterile pen, paper and pair of lab gloves. Each kit contain six cotton swipes that are packed in plastic zip bags that are then put in larger plastic bags to make sure they are not contaminated. Every kit that leaves Seibersdorf has to be completely clean and clearly tamper proof .

"When the swipes come back to us, we have variety of methods for testing them. Sometimes the swipe is put into the x-ray fluorescence machine which can produce a map of uranium particles, or we dissolve the swipe and put it in the mass spectrometer to get a complete analysis. We aim to complete each sample within two weeks but some times it can take longer.

"We look for uranium and plutonium, but it is important to remember that uranium is a naturally occurring element. If you tested anything, say the average tin can, you would find traces of uranium, so we a looking for a specific type of uranium.

"The uranium needed for weapons or an advanced nuclear programme, U2-35, has a special signature that we can easily identify, but if and only if that was found could the IAEA say there was something suspicious going on.

"The same signature allows us to tell the difference between uranium that may be being used by the Iraqis and uranium there as a result of the last conflict. We also have an extensive archive gathered since 1991 which allows us to pin-point new developments.

"Even if we do occasionally find traces of U2-35 that in itself is not a problem. Someone at the IAEA's headquarters will know if it has been declared. For example, the Iraqi's could say 'we did some testing in a certain area 10-years-ago', and because they have declared it there is no breach of international regulations.

"But I think the US is more interested in finding a breach of international regulations than they are in what exactly has happened or the weapons themselves. As Hans Blix has said, there's no evidence right now of a smoking gun." he added.

The team at the Seibersdorf lab work round the clock to examine the samples from Iraq to test Saddam Hussein's claims that his country does not have a secret nuclear weapons programme.

Dr Donohue, whose family hail from County Kerry, and who lives with his Irish wife Mary originally from Limerick and two teenage sons in a small village near Vienna, admits he knows the importance of his work. He said: "It's a lot of responsibility, but we do not look at these samples as any different from all of the other work we do because we check everything to the very highest standards.

"The inspectors choose the site where they are taking samples from of course. But we analyse them, and guarantee whatever the samples contain, we can find it. "If its there we will find it. No matter how small the amounts of uranium or plutonium are in the samples, we have the resources here to track it down.

"I believe that the inspection process and the analysis of the samples are really very powerful. Nuclear material can't deteriorate with time, it can't evaporate, it just stays there. So it is really the question of whether inspectors take a sample where it exists - because if they do, we will find it.

But he added: "You know when I was at university doing my first chemistry degree I had know idea that I would end up working on something so important or such a news story. This is the most interesting job I have ever had."

Every sample is also examined by IAEA subsidiary research centres in different countries which report back to Dr Donahue and the results have to match.

Dr Donohue said: "Inspectors took six swipes at each site which were sent to various labs. We expect results to be a double checked. We don't take the information on our samples seriously until they are confirmed by another lab. "Even then we are leaving it to other people to decide what it means."

More information:
(newsfox-special iraq)

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